In everyday life we often encounter the term perfectionism or hear “it is a perfectionist”… even when children or young people are described. The most common term that we associate as the bad qualities of man, something unrealistic, excessively pedantic,..
So I will try to clarify what is perfectionism, who are the perfectionists and how a person become a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is often described as an ambition for infallibility, and the perfectionists are those who wish to be perfect in some or all areas of life. It is very difficult for these people to admit a mistake or to show a sense of insecurity as the things that are normal for others seem to him as huge human defects. Perfectionists do not really want to be perfect, those who are close to them, because of insecurity, need to look perfect to others because they believe they will be appreciated and accepted only by others. Their constant attempts to appear perfect deprive them tremendously of so much vital energy and produce much personal dissatisfaction.

Perfectionism should not be confused with a healthy desire to do what we do well. The desire to be excellent motivate us to make use more energy to achieve what is right now or in this situation that must be the best we can get. This desire implies establishing high and realistic goals, pursuing success and expecting errors to be possible.

Perfectionism, unlike the above, is the desire to achieve what is not at all achievable. Perfectionists define high and unrealistic goals, accompanied by an unconditional fear of failure, have a high level of self-criticism with the idea that errors are unacceptable and are accompanied by low self-esteem.

Perfectionists are people who are satisfied only with the highest standards. In special cases, perfectionism can grow as an obsession. For example, this type of person has to put all things in their place and constantly walks behind the other roommates and puts even the smallest things “to the right, always the same, place”, even people can opt for the cleaning in a way that constantly needs to exaggerate in washing the individual parts or the whole body.

Perfectionist A person with a healthy need for success
Set unrealistic goals Set real and achievable goals
It has strict standards The standards adapt to the situation
Focused on avoiding mistakes Focused on the solution of the task
Understanding the objectives and their achievement Objectives and corresponding results
He is never satisfied He is satisfied, he knows how to reward himself, he believes in himself
It constantly confronts others Recognizes and respects its uniqueness
It feels useless if it is not successful He believes in himself even when he recognizes his weaknesses
It is impossible for him to recognize the error without shame He can recognize the error and correct it
Because of failure he feels disappointed and depressed Accept failure as part of life and work
It defends itself in an exaggerated way when it is criticized Accept constructive criticism
Postpones and delays the tasks Performs the tasks on time
He use the rule “all or nothing” Accept compromise solutions when necessary

The myths about perfectionism

1. MYTH – A man would not succeed if he was not a perfectionist.
REALITY – There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than non-perfectionists.

2. MYTH – Perfectionists can do everything right.
REALITY – They have problems with low productivity, delay work and deadlines, they know they are poorly organized.

3. MYTH – Perfectionists are determined to overcome obstacles to success.
REALITY – They are on the way but they are more vulnerable to depression, to creative blockades, to social anxiety (public appearances) for fear of failure.

4. MYTH – Perfectionists have a strong desire to satisfy others.
REALITY – Perfectionists are constantly search to achieve the love, admiration and acceptance of other people.

Hundred faces of perfectionism!

There are people who are perfectionists in all areas of life and those who try to be in one or a couple of areas.

So we can talk about:

  • perfectionism of results (person oriented towards high results)
  • perfectionism of appearance (attention to refinement and perfect appearance)
  • perfectionism in interpersonal relationships (everyone should be in good relations, everyone should accept it)
  • moral perfectionist (high standards of personal behavior, has strict rules of conduct for himself and others)
  • perfectionist of identity (others will accept me only if they are “something special”)
  • emotional perfectionist (I must always be happy, I have to be able to control my emotions, I do not have to be worried and depressed)
  • romantic perfectionist (in the romantic relationship of two people everything must be ideal, there should be no quarrels and misunderstandings)
  • sexual perfectionist (sexual act and activity must always be perfect)
  • perfectionists in all walks of life (they tend to have everything under control, and in particular their important outcome, appearance and morality, setting high goals for people around them, and what they do is never enough good, they tend to criticize…).

How do we become perfectionists?

In the area of the development of perfectionism there are various theoretical hypotheses that describe the pathways of the development of perfectionism. I will briefly outline the various influences on its development with the strongest emphasis on the influence of parents and family because it seems extraordinarily important to reassure parents as much as possible and to directly stimulate unhealthy perfectionism on the children that are struggle with it for a long time in their lives.

According to the integrative model of development, perfectionism is influenced by various personal and environmental factors in its development, including:

  • hereditary characteristics (personality of the child), perfectionists are usually temperamental children with a strong emotion, a marked persistence and a strong anxiety,
  • characteristics adopted by the child through family learning,
  • the educational style of parents,
  • environmental influences (school system that promotes competitiveness/competition, the personality of teachers, extracurricular activities such as dance, gymnastics… that encourage the perfect look, the cultural influences within which the child grows and lives).

It is commonly known that biological and psychological factors influence the development of each personality trait. The relationship between of the both in different personality traits is different, but on average it is:

40% biological : 60% psychological.

Therefore, there is no doubt that the practices of raising the child, parenting styles and family influences can intensely direct towards the formation of our children’s personalities, including the development of perfectionism.

How do we become perfectionists?

Model of social expectations

Describes the parents who influence the child with their expectation that the child has to be perfect. The children of these parents learn that parental approval can only be obtained if one is perfect in what he does (school, sport, appearance, order…). These parents have an educational style of control. The child develops a conditioned self-esteem ”is valid only if the parents’ expectations are met”. Of course, these expectations rarely meet because parents set them very high. Over time, children set themselves high goals alone because they believe that only if these goals are met deserve the attention of the parents and of the environment.

I asked a mother at the counseling center, who was not satisfied with her son’s success, to remember at least one of his good qualities or successful behavior. She thought about it for a long time and said: “I don’t know, he doesn’t do nothing well enough”.

The model of social reaction

This model describes how perfectionism can also occur as a reaction to unfavorable conditions in which a child lives. For example, physical or psychological abuse or life in a family where parents don’t show love or constant encouragement and accentuation of children’s guilt and shame for behaviors that the parent doesn’t approve, the reaction can stimulate the development of perfectionism. The child then develops perfectionism as a defensive mechanism to avoid further exposure to unpleasant experiences with the idea “if I’m perfect no one will hurt me”.

I asked an abused girl what for her means the perfect appearance. She told me “I like to see myself with admiration, because when they admire me there is no possibility that someone will insult me”.

Social learning model

It is assumed that learning with imitation is very present in family learning and that parents are the most important models for their children. Therefore, in this model, children imitate parents who are perfectionists and acquire ways of behaving from them. Learning through the imitation of the parents imposes itself as an effort of the children to idealize their parents and the desire to be ‘perfect’ like the parents.

A mother complained about her daughter’s very pedantic behavior in kindergarten that everyone was impressed with. The girl didn’t often go out in the yard to not get her shoes dirty. Speaking with his mother, I discovered that the mother always cleans her shoes so that they always look like new every time she goes out.

Model of expressed anxiety of the parents

It talks about perfectionists, constantly worried about their mistakes, which become such due to the influence of the anxious parents with whom they grew up. Because of anxiety, fear and anxiety, parents were constantly focused on their children’s mistakes and stressed the negative consequences of mistakes, so that children “fear” to make mistakes.

A girl who is constantly afraid of not making a mistake, however beautiful and moderately successful says: “My mother always guided me to the worst side of things, hardly in life has endured her fears.” Today I try to do everything perfectly so that some of the terrible consequences of which she has always talked about do not happen”.

Key periods for the development of perfectionism

The periods in which perfectionism develops with dominant influences of various factors are:

FIRST CHILDHOOD – where the most important influence comes from the temperament of the child (personality), the parenting style and the influence of the whole family system.

ADOLESCENCE – when influences are dominant alongside of the personality (within which the personal conscience) that pass from colleagues, school teachers and cultural influences.

It is important to note that the child’s personality always plays an important role in the development of perfectionism due to the fact that in the same or similar cultural conditions, in the style of the parents and in the family system, every child will be the same and perfectionism will not develop as its characteristic and behavior. So, we could say that perfectionism is a characteristic that develops when the specific biological predispositions of the child is connected with various environmental, cultural and family influences.

Cultural influences

It is interesting to note which cultures have a stronger influence on the development of perfectionism:

  • Germany, Japan, Switzerland – encourage perfectionism based on success and high results;
  • Asia, Africa, India – perfectionism is based on a shame, a lower value that promotes higher goals to show personal value and avoid humiliation,
  • North America, Europe – perfectionism is based on the empowerment.

What can we do?

1. Be aware of your overly critical thoughts!

When you notice that you are criticizing your own or other imperfect work, stop for a moment, think about what is happening in this case or in the situation.
Help your children feel good when they give the best, not only when they are the best and most successful!

2. Try to set realistic expectations and plans!

It is good to set great expectations that encourage us to achieve the maximum in a given situation / circumstance. Think for a moment if you expect too much from yourself and others!
It is reasonable to set goals that push our capabilities forward, it is not reasonable to set unattainable goals that can break us or our children!

3. Stop being a know-it-all!

We would never know everything, even if we devote ourselves to the study of a single thing, situation, phenomenon or behavior.
We all make mistakes and even teachers and parents…!
Listen the others, sometimes let them know more than you!

4. Confront the fear of failure!

Learn to distinguish the important from the non-imported because you do not have an unlimited amount of energy in life.
Not everyone has to do the all things, just do what is really important!
After all, consider what is the worst thing that can happen if you do not do everything perfectly?
Errors are a normal and integral part of every human being!

5. Find the time for yourself!

Because of the desire to make everything perfect and to see and value others, you never have time for yourself. That’s why you must know that the perfect human being does not exist!
So, take some time for yourself, for your interests, hobbies, have a coffee with friends, make full use of your holidays… Say liberally to people NO or SORRY, I CAN’T, be sure you will survive all this, and many people will appreciate you more!

Director of the Healthy City of Poreč
Nataša Basanić Čuš
Psychologist – psychotherapist