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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Minding Your Mind Minding Your Mind

When Striving for Perfection Is a Problem

May 04, 2012

By Michael Craig Miller M.D.

Harvard Medical School

Some people can't live with the slightest imperfection. Their need to appear or be perfect — perfectionism — is so intense that it's exhausting if not painful.

But striving for perfection, while accepting that perfection rarely can be achieved, can lead to growth and development and a feeling of satisfaction. It can be a powerful motivator as long as it is based on reasonable standards and expectation. For example, the desire to have a perfect golf swing or tennis stroke can enhance the pleasure you take in these pursuits, whether you are an amateur or professional.

Perfectionism is unproductive, however, when it is linked to excessively high standards and is driven by a fear of failure.

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Types of Perfectionism

Perfectionism comes in many forms:

  • Obsessive concern over mistakes
  • Setting excessively high personal standards
  • Perceiving parents as overly critical
  • Unreasonable doubts about ability to perform tasks
  • An over-emphasis on organization
  • Trying to live up to high expectations you're convinced other people, such as parents, have of you
  • Having high expectations of other people

But whatever form it takes, perfectionism can rob you of life's pleasures.

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The Roots of Perfectionism

It may not be so easy to figure out where perfectionism comes from. For some, it is a part of their inborn temperament — like perfect skin and teeth. Researchers have linked perfectionism to anxiety, depression and eating disorders. The trait of perfectionism is common among people with obsessive-compulsive disorders. Or it could be a response to having parents who expected too much from you. Maybe they never let you off the hook, even if you got 98 out of 100 on an exam.

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The Role of Indirect Aggression

What goes on outside the home is also a big factor in the development of perfectionism. For some women, perfectionism is a way to cope with indirect aggression, a term for the socially manipulative behaviors of the stereotypical "mean girls" that they may have experienced.

A recent study published in the journal Aggressive Behavior supports the idea that perfectionism may develop in a social group and suggests that indirect aggression triggers it. The "aggressor" talks behind a person's back, gives someone the "silent treatment," tells secrets, or is nice in private but rejecting in public to hide her hostility toward another.

Girls and women tend to resort to this kind of social bullying because they are not encouraged or taught how to express aggressive or competitive feelings directly. They become aggressive in ways that can be easily concealed or denied.

For the study, researchers at McMaster University asked two groups of college-age women to fill out surveys about what types of verbal abuse, physical abuse and indirect aggression they had experienced in grades 3 through 12. They also asked the women to answer questions to gauge whether they were perfectionists.

The women who recalled experiencing indirect aggression in childhood were more likely to become perfectionists by the time they reached college. Verbal and physical abuse apparently was not linked to perfectionism.

The authors acknowledge that the study asked subjects to report on old experiences and that women who are perfectionistic might be more likely to recall past events in a negative way, no matter how they were treated in reality.

Even so, the authors say that a victim of indirect aggression may — without knowing it — come to feel that being "perfect" is the only way to assert herself in social situations or maintain control. Thus, perfectionism becomes a way to cope with a threatening environment.

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Making Perfectionism Work for You

There is a fine line between the positive aspects of striving to be perfect and perfectionism that can be detrimental. Striving to be perfect can be very positive as long as it:

  • Is realistic
  • Moves you forward
  • Helps you feel stronger
  • Gives you the satisfaction you deserve after all that hard work.

Perfectionism becomes a problem when it makes you feel worse instead of better, or when your inability to be satisfied unless you are perfect — realizing that it will always be out of reach — causes suffering.

You can make perfectionism work for you. Here's how:

  • Look at and change unrealistic and self-destructive thought patterns with cognitive behavior therapy.
  • Understand how you became perfectionistic and ease up on unwarranted self-criticism. Psychodynamic therapy can help you do this.
  • If you do have one of the underlying disorders linked to perfectionism (obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety or depression), then a medication or psychotherapy may help by targeting the pressure coming from that source.

Consult a mental health professional as a first step. The goal is to let go of the excessively high standards and find ways to cope with fears of failure. At the same time, you want to hold on to the positive force of striving for perfection.

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Howard LeWine, M.D. is chief editor of Internet Publishing, Harvard Health Publications. He is a clinical instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital. Dr. LeWine has been a primary care internist and teacher of internal medicine since 1978.


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