In this article, we’ve decided to tackle the topic of good and bad perfectionism. People tend to have very black-and-white views when it comes to this. They think perfectionism is either a great thing that helps us become better, or that it’s a horrible habit which may lead us into depression and anxiety. But as with most things in life, it’s not that simple. There’s the good kind and the bad kind, and we’ll help you learn how to tell them apart and strive for the good one.
Perfectionism As We Know It
Let’s first start with a widely accepted definition of perfectionism. Perfectionism refers to the desire to achieve the highest standards of performance while being extremely critical about one’s performance.  Therefore, if you’re a perfectionist, you’ll be setting unrealistically high goals for yourself. Chances are, you’ll also be judging your performance more critically than anyone else, which will lead you to become easily dissatisfied with your actions and achievements.
So, in essence, you’re trying to reach something virtually impossible and getting angry at yourself when you make even the slightest mistake. What a paradox!
From this definition, it’s clear that what we usually think of as perfectionism is, in fact, bad for our health and our happiness. Not only are you dissatisfied when you make a mistake (even if you’re the only one who sees it), but even when you are performing well, you’re constantly feeling stressed out. “I can’t make a mistake!” “What if I look silly in front of my co-workers?” “What if I mess this up?”. It’s a lose-lose situation.
What Makes Perfectionism Bad?
So, the bad form of perfectionism stems from a striving that’s turned into a demand.  If you keep telling yourself, “I must do this perfectly!”, you’ll be causing yourself a lot of anxiety, maybe even insomnia and depression. Bad perfectionism has as a consequence low self-esteem, unhappiness, and a tendency to react more negatively to feedback. 
But if you are only striving for perfection and not demanding it, you’ll be able to work toward accepting yourself with all your flaws much more often. Moreover, you’ll stop seeing each mistake as a failure and accept it for what it is – a normal thing that can happen to anyone and is in no way the end of the world!
The Importance of Self-Acceptance
It may be clear now that the main difference between bad and good perfectionism lies in self-acceptance.  You can still have perfectionistic goals, but if you also want to be happier, have better relationships, and be far less stressed out, you’ll also need to develop the ability to accept yourself and your actions non-judgmentally. You can decide to work harder and do better next time, but you won’t be putting yourself down and feeling worthless, and that’s a huge difference.
If you often find yourself feeling like this and it’s bringing you down, there are ways to change this behavior. Reach out to one of our Coaches and schedule a free 30-minute consultation, which can help you see the possibilities of overcoming the tendency.
Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented, and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Another important thing to mention is that perfectionism toward oneself is not the only form of perfectionism. You can also be perfectionistic towards others, which is referred to as Other-Oriented Perfectionism.  This can happen to parents, romantic partners, bosses… Instead of placing huge demands on yourself, you may be putting them on others.
Sometimes, parents can, out of the best of intentions, place enormous pressure on their children. “You need to win this game!”, “You have to become valedictorian!”. It can even happen in everyday situations: “You must make a perfect dinner for your husband’s family this Thanksgiving!”
Other-Oriented Perfectionism can result in a child being overly concerned about making a mistake, and always be thinking they’re not good enough, no matter what they do.
Or maybe you were this child. Maybe you had parents or teachers who always expected perfect results, or maybe you have a boss who does the same! This would be the kind of perfectionism called Socially Prescribed Perfectionism.  You notice that others have set very high standards for you, and you’re doing your best to prove capable of reaching them, even if it is affecting your health and happiness.
Turning the Bad Into Good
The good news is, you can still strive for more, and encourage your kids to do the same. The formula remains the same: show acceptance, both for yourself and for your children. Give your children time to accept that they’re not perfect before you suggest some things they might think about changing next time. Give them the chance to accept the defeat on their own terms, and help them by hugging them and telling them you are proud of the effort they put into it. Start by letting them know that you accept them – and then maybe take them out for some ice cream. That tends to help as well!
The same thing goes for you. Set realistic goals for yourself and accept that, like every other human being on this planet, you’ll sometimes make mistakes and take more time to reach those goals than you were planning. It doesn’t make you any less good; if anything, it makes you more human.
… Accepting yourself and others is an essential part of becoming (and raising) healthy, happy, and successful people. Take care of your health and happiness first – and reaching your goals will turn out to be far easier.
- Antony, M., Purdon, C., Huta, V., & Swinson, R. (1998). Dimensions of Perfectionism Across the Anxiety Disorders. Behaviour Research and Therapy, Vol. 36, pp. 1143-1154
- Lundh, L. (2004). Perfectionism and Acceptance. Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, Vol. 22, 4, pp.255-267.
- Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp. 295–319