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Is Perfectionism Getting In the Way of Your Success?

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If you’re always worried that what you do is never good enough or you’re constantly disappointed in the people you live and work with, you may be a perfectionist.

Perfectionists can be either inwardly focused or outwardly focused. If your perfectionism is inwardly focused, you are probably hard on yourself and find your errors unacceptable. You may have trouble letting go and forgiving yourself. In your mind, it is ok for others to make mistakes, but it is not ok for you to make mistakes. If your perfectionism is outwardly focused, you may often be disappointed in or frustrated with others. It may feel like everybody lets you down. This causes problems in your relationships and sometimes leads to conflict.

There are two main types of perfectionists – adaptive and maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionists take pleasure in their successes. They are often characterized by high personal standards that relate positively to variables such as active coping, high self-esteem, achievement, and conscientiousness. Maladaptive perfectionists often set themselves up for failure by setting impossible standards for themselves, thus lowering their self esteem when they never seem to reach their goals. They are typified by excessive concerns about making mistakes, self-doubt, and perception of failure to attain personal standards. High personal standards appear to be associated with both adaptive and maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism. High standards combined with excessive concerns about mistakes seem to be maladaptive. High standards but low concerns about mistakes seem to be adaptive. Maladaptive perfectionism has been associated with a variety of psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders, dysfunctional attitudes, and substance abuse.

The National Mental Health Association reported that 10% of college students and 13% of college women have been diagnosed with depression. More than 30% of college freshmen report feeling overwhelmed a great deal of the time. 38% of college women report feeling frequently overwhelmed. While there are many contributing factors to depression among college students, perfectionism and a focus on unrealistic and unattainable goals plays a large role. The perfectionist constantly strives for the unattainable. This often results in feelings of failure and despair.

Success is very personal – there is no single definition for it. Unfortunately, in our culture there is a focus on being the best, rather than the best you can be. This does not allow for acceptance of personal limitations. We cling to the notion that if we try hard enough, we can achieve anything. Perfectionists then blame themselves if they perform less than expected.

Perfectionism sometimes appears as procrastination. Many college students feel they must meet impossibly high standards. They have difficulty breaking projects down into easy steps. If a task seems too hard, many perfectionists dread the possibility of failure. They in turn procrastinate to try to avoid this failure.

The reach for perfection can be painful because it is often driven by a desire to do well and a fear of the consequences of not doing well. This is the double-edged sword. It is always a good idea to give your best effort, but when you feel bad despite your efforts, there’s a problem. This problem is not in having high standards, it is the emotional wear and tear that occurs.

There is considerable scientific evidence that many personality traits are genetically inherited. It is possible that some people are born more perfectionistic than others. Parental influences can affect the direction or shape that perfectionism takes. Many inwardly focused perfectionists grew up with parents who either directly or indirectly communicated that they were not good enough. They often heard confusing messages where praise and criticism were given simultaneously. Some psychological theories suggest over time the child’s need to please their parents becomes internalized – They no longer need to please their parents, they now demand perfection from themselves.

Perfectionists can have trouble making decisions. They are so worried about making the wrong decision that they fail to make one at all. The decision is often made by default or by someone else. Along with indecision, perfectionists are sometimes plagued by great difficulty in taking risks. This is particularly true when their personal reputations are on the line. This can result in low self-confidence, fear of humiliation and rejection, and an inability to attribute success to their own efforts.

America is an end-product society and perfectionism is often seen as a good thing in our culture. It is important to note that it is not inherently bad. If you find yourself displaying signs of perfectionism, try to focus on the process – Am I learning vs. Will I get an ‘A’. While good grades are important, so is the process of learning.


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