Skip to main content
Select Source:

Perfectionism

Perfectionism

The tendency to set unrealistically high standards for performance of oneself and others, along with the inability to accept mistakes or imperfections in matters of personal appearance, care of the home, or work; may be accompanied by an obsession with completeness, purity, or goodness.

Perfectionism is a psychological orientation which, depending on the severity, may have biological and/or environmental causes. To an educated observer, a perfectionist orientation is usually evident by the preschool years, though it may not cause problems until the college years. The perfectionist orientation has two components: impossibly high standards, and the behaviors intended to help achieve the standards and avoid mistakes. The high standards interfere with performance, and perfectionist behavior becomes an obstacle instead of a means to achieving the goal. For example, when a five-year-old who is learning to write repeatedly erases his lines because they are not exactly straight, he is exhibiting a perfectionistic tendency.

Due to obsessive effort and high standards of performance combined with natural gifts, perfectionists may be athletic, musical, academic, or social achievers, but they may equally as often be underachievers. Perfectionists engage in dichotomous thinking, believing that there is only one right outcome and one way to achieve that outcome. Dichotomous thinking causes indecisiveness, since according to the individual's perception a decision, once made, will be either entirely right or entirely wrong. Due to their exacting precision, they take an excessive amount of time to perform tasks. Even small tasks become over-whelming, which leads to frustration, procrastination, and further anxiety caused by time constraints.

Perfectionists also pay selective attention to their own achievements, criticizing themselves for mistakes or failures, and downplaying their successes. Overwhelmed by anxiety about their future performance, they are unable to enjoy successes.

Perfectionist anxiety can cause headaches, digestive problems, muscle tension, and heart and vascular problems. Anxiety can also cause "blanking" or temporary memory losses before events such as musical performances or academic exams. Perfectionists also hesitate to try new activities for fear of being a beginner at an activity, even for a short period of time. Negative effects of perfectionism are felt especially when an individual is a perfectionist in all areas of life, rather than in one realm, such as an artistic or scientific pursuit, which might allow room for mistakes in other areas of life.

In extreme forms perfectionism may contribute to depression or be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (which should be distinguished from the more serious obsessive-compulsive disorder ). The more common syndromes of anorexia nervosa and bulimia can be considered an extreme form of perfectionism directed towards the body and its appearance. The irrational distortions of perception that can arise from abnormally high standards of "performance" (i.e., thinness) are evident in the anorexic's perception of her or himself as fat.

Perfectionist behavior functions essentially to control events. Conditions that place the person in a position of vulnerability and/or that require the person to take extra responsibility for events can contribute to perfectionism. First-born children, children with excessively critical parents, and children who have lost a parent or sibling all may be predisposed towards perfectionism.

Further Reading

Adderholdt-Elliott, M.R. Perfectionism: What's Bad About Being Too Good. Minneapolis: Free Spirit, 1987.

Mallinger, A.E. and J. DeWyze. Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control. NY: Random House, 1993.

Manes, S. Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days. New York: Bantam/Skylark Books, 1987.

Zadra, D. Mistakes Are Great. Mankato, MN: Creative Education, 1986.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Perfectionism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. 8 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Perfectionism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 8, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/perfectionism

"Perfectionism." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved November 08, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/medicine/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/perfectionism

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.

perfectionism

per·fec·tion·ism / pərˈfekshəˌnizəm/ • n. refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. ∎  Philos. a doctrine holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable, esp. the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained. DERIVATIVES: per·fec·tion·ist n. & adj. per·fec·tion·is·tic / -ˌfekshənˈistik/ adj.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"perfectionism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. 8 Nov. 2018 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"perfectionism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Encyclopedia.com. (November 8, 2018). https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/perfectionism

"perfectionism." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . Retrieved November 08, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/perfectionism

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.