In everyday life we often encounter the word perfectionism or hear “they are such a perfectionist” … even when describing children or young people. Most commonly, the term is associated with one’s bad qualities, something unrealistic, excessively pedantic, and so on.
This article aims to bring clarity to the topic, explain who perfectionists are and how they come to be like this.
Perfectionism is often described as ambition for flawlessness, and perfectionists are those who wish to be perfect in some or all areas of life. It is very difficult for these people to admit to a mistake or show insecurity as the things that are normal for others seem to them as huge human flaws. Perfectionists don’t really want to be perfect, when insecure, they have a need to appear perfect to others because they believe this is the only way they can be appreciated and accepted. Their constant attempts to appear perfect deprive them of a tremendous amount of vital energy and produce a lot of personal dissatisfaction.
Perfectionism should not be confused with a healthy desire to do things well and be good at what we do. The desire to be excellent means we try to do our best in a particular situation. This desire includes establishing high, but realistic, goals, pursuing success and expecting the possibility of error.
Perfectionism, unlike the above, is a desire to achieve what is not at all achievable. Perfectionists set high and unrealistic goals accompanied by fear of failure, they are highly self-critical and have low self-esteem, with the idea that errors are unacceptable.
Perfectionists are people satisfied only with the highest standards. In special cases, perfectionism is like an obsession. For example, this type of person has to put all things in their place and constantly goes after other household members putting even the smallest things “to the right, always identical, place”, or they have a need to excessively wash and clean certain body parts or the whole body.
|Perfectionist||A person with a healthy desire for success|
|Sets unrealistic goals||Sets real and achievable goalss|
|Has strict standards||Adapts their standards to the situation|
|Focused on avoiding mistakes||Focused on the solution of the task|
|Disparity between objective/goals and their achievement||Balance between objectives and achievement|
|Never satisfied||Satisfied, acknowledges their own achievement|
|Constant comparison to others||Respects and recognises their own uniqueness|
|Feels useless if not successful||Believes in themselves and recognises weaknesses|
|Not able to admit to a mistake without shame||Is able recognize the error and correct it|
|Because of failure feels disappointed and depressed||Accepts failure as part of life and work|
|Overly defensive when criticized||Accepts constructive criticism|
|Postpones and delays tasks||Performs tasks on time|
|Lives by the rule “all or nothing”||Accepts compromises when necessary|
The myths about perfectionism
1. MYTH – A person can’t be successful if they are not a perfectionist.
REALITY – There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than non-perfectionists.
2. MYTH – Perfectionists can do everything and do it well.
REALITY – They have problems with low productivity, delay work and deadlines, can be poorly organized.
3. MYTH – Perfectionists are determined in overcoming obstacles to success.
REALITY – They are determined, but also more vulnerable to depression, creative blocks, social anxiety (public appearances) for fear of failure.
4. MYTH – Perfectionists have a strong desire to please others.
REALITY – Perfectionists are constantly looking to gain 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 perfect 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 (a need to be in good relations with everyone, accepted by everyone)
- moral perfectionist (high standards of personal behaviour, strict rules of conduct for themselves and others)
- perfectionist of identity (others will accept me only if I am “something special”)
- emotional perfectionist (I must always be happy, I have to be able to control my emotions, I cannot 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 acts and activity must always be perfect)
- perfectionists in all areas of life (they want to have everything under control, in particular they value success, appearance and morality, setting high goals for people around them, and what they do is never enough, they tend to criticize…).
How does one become a perfectionist?
In the area of perfectionism development there are various theoretical assumptions that describe the development of perfectionism. This article will briefly outline various influences of its development with a stronger emphasis on parental and family influence, because it is important for people to become aware of what is it they might do as parents that directly encourages the development of perfectionism in their children.
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 strong emotions, a marked persistence and strong anxiety,
- characteristics adopted by the child through family learning,
- parents’ educational style,
- environmental influences (school system that promotes competitiveness/competition, the personality of teachers, extracurricular activities such as dance, gymnastics… that encourage perfect looks, the cultural influences with which the child grows and lives).
It is widely known that biological and psychological factors influence the development of personality traits. The ratio of both is different in each individual and with each personality trait, 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 be highly influential in the formation of our children’s personalities, including the development of perfectionism.
How do we become perfectionists?
Model of social expectations
Describes parents who influence their 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 they do (school, sport, appearance, tidiness…). These parents have a controlling educational style. The child develops a conditioned sense of self-esteem where they are “worth something only if the parents’ expectations are met”. Of course, these expectations are rarely met because parents set them very high. Over time, children themselves set high goals, because they believe that if these goals achieved, only then do they deserve the attention of their parents and their environment.
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”.
Social learning model
It is assumed that learning by imitation is very present in families and that parents are the most important models for their children. Therefore, according to this model, children imitate parents who are perfectionists and learn their ways of behaving. Learning through imitation of parents occurs as a developmental effort of children to idealize their parents and their desire to be ‘perfect’ like their parents.
Model of heightened parental anxiety
This model talks about how some perfectionists, constantly worried about their mistakes, become so due to the influence of their anxious parents with whom they grew up. Because of anxiety, fear and worry, parents were constantly focused on their children’s mistakes and stressed their negative consequences, so that children started to fear mistakes.
Key periods for the development of perfectionism
The periods in which perfectionism develops with dominant influences of various factors are:
EARLY 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 other than personality are dominant (within which is personal conscience), from colleagues, school teachers to 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, parenting styles and family system, every child will not be the same and won’t develop perfectionism as their characteristic. So, we could say that perfectionism is a characteristic that develops when the specific biological predispositions of the child come in correlation with various environmental, cultural and family 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 as a way to prove personal worth and avoid humiliation,
- North America, Europe – perfectionism is based on increasing the feeling of guilt.
What can we do?
1. Become aware of your overly critical thoughts!
When you notice that you are criticizing your own or others’ imperfect work, stop for a moment, consider about what was in this case or situation done well.
Help your children feel good when they give it their best, not only when they are the best and most successful!
2. Try to set realistic expectations and plans!
It is good to set high expectations that encourage us to achieve the maximum in a given situation/circumstances. Think for a moment, do you expect too much from yourself and others?
It is reasonable to set goals that push our capabilities forward, but it is not reasonable to set unattainable goals that can break us or our children!
3. Stop being a know-it-all!
We are incapable of knowing everything about everything, even if we devote ourselves to the study of a single thing, situation, phenomenon or behaviour.
We all make mistakes, even teachers and parents…!
Listen the others, let them know more than you sometimes!
4. Confront the fear of failure!
Learn to distinguish the important from the unimportant because you do not have an unlimited amount of energy or time in life.
Not everything has to be done equally well, just do well in what is really important!
After all, consider what is the worst thing that could happen if you do not do everything perfectly?
Mistakes are a normal and integral part of every human existence!
5. Find the time for yourself!
Because of the desire to do everything perfectly and to be seen and valued by 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, your interests, hobbies, have a coffee with friends, make full use of your holidays… feel free to tell people NO or SORRY, I CAN’T, and be sure that you will survive it, many people will even appreciate you more!
Coordinator of the” Healthy City” of Poreč project
Nataša Basanić Čuš
Psychologist – psychotherapist