2 minute read


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.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie