Are you a perfectionist? The dark side of perfectionistic behaviour

We learn the different sides to perfectionism and if it really pays off or hinders your quest for excellence.
(Getty Images/iStockphoto)

​Dr. Dre is one, so is Gwyneth Paltrow. Steve Jobs was one too.

For these perfectionists, the high standards and brutal demands they put on themselves — and others — no doubt played a major role in helping them achieve the success they're famous for today. 

But perfectionism doesn't pay off for everyone. 

"It's one of those things that's helpful to a degree … because it is helpful in motivating people to accomplish their goals and in setting high goals," said Hanna McCabe-Bennett, a PhD candidate with Ryerson University's clinical psychology department, who researches perfectionism. "But if it's getting to the point where it's interfering in your life, like taking way too much time preparing for something, or if it's causing you a lot of anxiety or distress, that's when it becomes problematic."

Researcher Hanna McCabe-Bennett (Photo by Chris Anderson )

To understand the roots of perfectionism, how to treat unhealthy behaviour and what to do if you think your child is a perfectionist, we asked McCabe-Bennett to give us a primer on perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?

It's a collection of beliefs and behaviours — beliefs about what the right way of doing things is, and then the behaviours that go along with that. 

There are different orientations of perfectionism. One, being self-oriented perfectionism, meaning I have very high standards for myself and I want to reach those standards so I can feel good about my accomplishments. Two, there's other-oriented perfectionism, which means I hold high standards for other people, so I expect my friends, family and my partner to achieve their best. The third orientation is socially-prescribed, which is the feeling that I believe other people expect me to perform really highly. It could be specific other people or society in general placing high standards on me. 

Within those three orientations, there are two types of perfectionism that correlate with more negative and more positive outcomes. One being perfectionistic striving, which is basically trying your hardest to reach your goals. And then then there's perfectionistic concern, which is being afraid of what might happen if I don't reach my standards, or if I don't reach other people's standards. That's more strongly associated with anxiety and depression. 

So perfectionistic striving is typically correlated with the positive side of things?

Yes, that's how it's typically understood. That's what helps people to feel motivated and to set high, but reasonable, standards. Perfectionistic concern is setting that unattainable standard you'll never be able to reach. 

What are some examples of perfectionistic behaviour?

There isn't a ton of research looking at perfectionistic behaviour. But one commonly discussed one is procrastination, the idea being that people will put off doing tasks that they're afraid they might not be able to do perfectly. If you procrastinate, then you have a rationale if you don't meet your high standard — it's because you didn't give yourself time, not because you're not capable of doing it. Other behaviours commonly associated with perfectionism are things like double checking, re-reading and re-doing behaviours over and over again. Sort of like what we see in obsessive compulsive disorder.

When is it unhealthy?

When people find it's getting in the way of them actually accomplishing their goals, because of the amount of time it's taking or the stress it's triggered. Or if you're finding that even when you accomplish your goals, you don't really feel good about it. 

It also comes up a lot in eating disorders. If people have perfectionistic ideals about how they want their body to look, that can become very destructive. You can never actually achieve that ideal.

Are certain people more prone to developing perfectionism?

Most of the theories look at parental behaviour and how that influences the development of perfectionism in children. For instance, social learning: if you have a parent who's perfectionistic, you pick that up from them. Another theory is social expectations theory. For example, if you have a parent who is high in other-oriented perfectionism, so they expect great things from other people, then the child tends to be more likely to develop socially prescribed perfectionism, so the belief that other people have high standards for them — because that was likely true in the home growing up. There's also a theory that anxious parents tend to have more perfectionistic kids. It's probably a combination of many different things.

It's not genetic?

Not as far as we know.

Is there a certain age at which the behaviour presents itself?

It seems as though it's something that develops throughout childhood and adolescence. It's fairly rare that you see people developing perfectionism in adulthood. Similar to anxiety — people who are anxious tend to have been anxious kinds. 

If a parent sees their child exhibiting unhealthy perfectionistic behaviour, what should they do?

Just remind the kid that they don't have to be perfect in order to be loved by the parent. Really reinforce that their love and acceptance is not conditional on the child's performance. 

Does it ever go away?

For sure. Cognitive behavioural therapy — a psychological intervention that looks at the relationship between thoughts and behaviours and feelings — seems to be the most effective treatment. It targets beliefs that are maintaining perfectionism, such as beliefs about the importance of being perfect, and offers behavioural interventions to practice not being perfect and tolerating the feelings that come with that.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto-based journalist who writes about relationships, health, technology and social trends. You can find her on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.