Perfectionism is one of those ambiguous terms that you are not sure whether you should be proud of or ashamed about. When my clients look at me with exasperation and tell me they are such perfectionists, I have a hard time telling whether they are complaining or bragging. Do they mean it as a flaw or as a compliment?
Let’s be honest. Claiming that you are a perfectionist is like telling someone at a job interview that your major weakness is that you can’t stop thinking about work and have to bring some home on weekends. Somehow, we assume that in order to be taken seriously we have to be the best in class. To set unreachable standards. To constantly raise the bar. Research shows that when students want to be perceived more positively by their peers and their professors, they describe themselves as perfectionists.
So, is perfectionism a quality to brag about or a block to success?
It can be both.
The literature on perfectionism distinguishes between two types of perfectionists: adaptive or positive perfectionists and maladaptive or negative perfectionists.
The two types are more similar than they are different. Both types of perfectionists set high standards and go after lofty goals. They both work equally hard to get what they want, and they both care a lot about doing a good job. Both develop strong skills as a result of their relentless efforts, and eventually both shine at what they do.
But there is one small difference. This small difference sets them apart in a big way.
Positive perfectionists are achievement oriented.
Negative perfectionists are failure oriented.
While winning is really important to positive and negative perfectionists alike, their reasons for wanting to win differ substantially. Positive perfectionists want to win the race. Negative perfectionists don’t want to lose the race. This difference in goal orientation affects how they set goals, how they feel about their work, and how they respond to setbacks.
What drives positive perfectionists is the desire for growth and the inherent pleasure of being challenged. Making things better gives them meaning and keeps them satisfied. While they like being good at something, they do not overreact when they are underperforming. Instead, they focus on how to improve. They rarely think of giving up because achieving is a way of life for them. When they run into obstacles, they turn to problem solving. They respond to failure by reviewing their work, analyzing the results, and planning what to do next.
For example, an employee who is a positive perfectionist works hard at a job in order to get a promotion, to get a commendation, or to get a raise. A college student who is a positive perfectionist spends more hours than necessary working on a paper in order to master the course material and advance his learning beyond what is required. A clinical psychologist who is a positive perfectionist spends thousands of dollars on continuing education courses to ensure her clients are getting the best care she can offer.
The negative perfectionist version of the employee from the previous example works hard at a job to avoid being fired, given a bad review, or passed for a promotion. The college student spends hours on a paper for fear of getting a B instead of an A and losing his 4.0 GPA. The clinical psychologist who keeps taking more courses is worried about losing clients and not meeting the requirements to keep her license. Can you already sense how differently these three people might feel as they try to keep up with their goals compared to their positive perfectionist counterparts?
This difference in goal orientation has long-term consequences as well. Research shows that positive perfectionists are well protected from emotional distress. They tend to be healthier psychologically and more emotionally stable. In contrast, negative perfectionism is linked to low self-esteem, more anxiety, and higher levels of depression.
The truth is we all have a little bit of a positive and a little bit of a negative perfectionist in us. Wanting to be perfect is a natural tendency. The desire to create a valuable product, to provide a good service, and to achieve high performance is not a flaw. It is healthy aspiration. But while our positive perfectionism can move us forward, our negative perfectionism can hold us back.
How can you tell whether you are operating as a positive or negative perfectionist in your own life? If I had to summarize it in one short sentence it would be this:
Be very clear about the difference between “it can be better” and “it’s not good enough.”
Start there. Which one do you use more often to describe your work?
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