The Psychology of Perfectionism

Posted by: Asa Don Brown on October 11, 2013 3:14 pm

“I’m a perfectionist, so I can drive myself mad – and other people, too.  At the same time, I think that’s one of the reasons I’m successful.  Because I really care about what I do.”       ~ Michelle Pfeiffer

Why is it that perfectionism is considered a negative?  Are there not benefits from having a perfectionistic attitude?  According to New Oxford American Dictionary, perfectionism is “the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.”  In reality, there a variety of influences that create perfectionism.  Perfectionism may be influenced or imposed by another.  Many times we adopt these habits, traits, characteristics, features, customs, standards, and ideological viewpoints during our youth.  In some cases, the perfectionistic way is unbeknownst to us. 

There are many different types of perfectionism:  A person may desire to prove perfectionistic if he/she has an aspiration to prove flawless in one’s pursuits, endeavors, and through his/her life ambitions.  In some cases, perfectionistic individuals have a strong urge to have even the  appearance of control.  The control maybe over one’s own personal emotional, psychological, or physical being; or it may be over another, an event, a place or an object.  The control may stem from a life that feels out of control, vulnerable, or susceptible to others.  It may have been inspired by physical, emotional, psychological or sexual abuse.  Unfortunately, negative perfectionism commonly stems from our childhood.  


“Sometimes, I’m an ogre.  I can be short.  I’ll walk into the office some days and I’ve gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, and everybody knows it.  I’m a perfectionist.  I like to be organized, and I like to get everything done today.”                           ~ Jack Nickalaus

While the attitudes, perceptions, and behaviors of a perfectionist may be reflective in the lives of those who are perfectionistic; not all perfectionists are woven from the same fabric.  “Perfectionism is the most misunderstood aspect of the personality of the gifted.  The psychological field characterizes it in extremely negative ways, which may be counterproductive to the development of the gifted individual.  There are positive as well as negative aspects of perfectionism, depending on how it is channeled.  As one gains higher consciousness, perfectionism becomes a catalyst for self-actualization and humanitarian ideals.” (Silverman, 1999, p. 1)

Perfectionists are not all negative, miserable, unhappy and over controlling individuals.  In many cases, perfectionists lead productive, happy, peaceful, and enlightened lives.  There are two sides to perfectionism.  There are those who are controlled by their perfectionism and there are those who are not.  Furthermore, those who are controlled by their perfectionism may only be controlled by their perfectionism when life appears or feels overwhelming or out-of-control.    Whereas, when life is going well, the perfectionism may be a subtle mannerism or a controlled force for this individual.  Nevertheless, there are those who have also learned to harness the good from perfectionism, while nipping off the negative clutches of perfectionism. 

“The pursuit of excellence is a personal journey into higher realms of existence, a journey that enriches the self and the world through its bounty.”  (Silverman, 1999, p. 1)   Consider for a moment, what if we were to eliminate perfectionism?  How would the elimination of perfectionism affect our world?  Would the sciences advance without perfectionism?  Are there benefits to perfectionism?  It has been said that perfectionism is not adaptive.  “Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., does not have much patience with researchers who argue that perfectionism-the need to be or appear perfect-can sometimes serve as a healthy motivation for reaching ambitious goals.  ‘I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive,’ he says.” (Benson, 2003, p. 18)  Why is it that perfectionism cannot be adaptive?  If a person where to loose a limb, does he not adapt to his loss?  If they were to loose their sight, the human body itself intrinsically and naturally knows to adapt to this sudden loss of one’s senses.  Arguably, the loss of sight and the loss of a limb have little to do with perfectionism, but what about the loss of control?  Perhaps, perfectionism is the human bodies way of reinstating control into the framework of the human condition.  Likewise, it is the individual who has to adapt to life as a perfectionist, learning to sway it into a positive direction rather than a negative.  


“I don’t believe in perfection.  I don’t think there is such a thing.  But the energy of wanting things to be great is a perfectionist energy.”          ~ Reese Witherspoon

As a doctoral student, I was taught that one mistake on a psychological test would be one mistake too many.  In fact, it was reinforced that “if,” I were to make a mistake while examining a patient / client, then I should consider the psychological examination as null or invalid.  Consider the ramifications of making an error on a psychological test?  If the error was grave enough, it could alter the score in such a way that could have an egregious impact upon the lives that it may be serving.  What if you went to see a medical physician and he overlooked the signs of cancer?  Perfectionism can serve as an instrument of good. 

Perfectionism does not have to be about being perfect, rather having an innate desire to prove your best.  As a young man, my own perfectionism began to have a negative impact upon my life.  As a student, I would continuously beat myself up if I made a mark lower than I had expected; which would have been an A+.  As a person, if I perceived that I had failed at a relationship, my mind would be in the gutter for days dragging my person through the mud.  As an adult, I began examining my need for perfectionism.  Through my examination of my need to prove “perfect,” I recognized my desire and need to be in control.  My recognition of my need for perfectionism, released me from the need to be perfect,  and allowed me to be me.  As I began recognizing my behavioral complexities, I soon discovered that “I,” Asa Don Brown, could pursue something with the same vigor, but must allow myself to fail and that failure can prove beneficial.  Once I began to recognize that failure can prove a personal benefit, then I began to slowly and gradually release myself from the chains that had bound me for years. 

Through my personal insights and enlightenment, I began to recognize that perfectionism can be adapted for my wellbeing and the wellbeing of others.  

Perfectionism is adaptive if you are mindful of your humanhood.  According to New Oxford American Dictionary, mindfulness is “conscious or aware of something:  we can be more mindful of the energy we use to heat.”  It is the ability to consider the good and the bad of an event, person, place or thing as simply features of life.  It is the acceptance that I do not have control over my being or over anything else in life. 

As an individual I was not only lacking in mindfulness, but I was lacking in the unconditional acceptance, approval, and love of my person.  If I ever desire to convey these unto another, then I recognized that I must employ them into my own life.  Therefore, through my need to prove a perfectionist, I recognized that I was lacking in my own person.  Mindfulness helped me to recognize that I needed to embrace both the good and bad of my person, but that I should not identify with them.  Through my mindful state I recognized that I am neither; the good or bad in my life.  Of equal importance, it helped me to recognize that I am not my successes or failures, rather I am a person of worth, value, acceptance, approval, and love.  Once I recognized these features of life, then I began to see the value of my perfectionism.   Perfectionism is capable of instilling good, as long as we know that if “I fail or succeed,” that I am not the outcome.   Mindfulness taught me that failure is nothing more than a life challenge; I have control over whether or not I accept or reject this challenge.   “I am neither the good or the bad that occurs in  my life.  For who I am, has nothing to do with my successes or failures; weaknesses or strengths;  for I am spirit and not my human condition.” (Brown, 2010, p. 14)


“What appears in a minority of human individuals as an untiring impulsion towards further perfection can easily be understood as a result of the instinctual repression upon which is based all that is most precious in human civilization.”                 ~ Sigmund Freud

The concept of perfectionism has had a negative wrap.  “It is popular today to separate the pursuit of excellence from perfectionism.” (Silverman, 1999, p. 3) Is it really possible to separate the pursuit of excellence from perfectionism?  Are those who are trying to segregate excellence from perfectionism as driven to achieve high standards?  “Greenspon (1999) suggests that striving for excellence reflects good self-esteem and involves ‘strong desires to do well, to master a task, to challenge oneself, to know as much as possible, or to be the best.’ (p. 1).” (Silverman, 1999, p. 3- 4)  There is a movement today to extinguish the very nature of perfectionism.   Arguably, even if the body of words are removed from the human vernacular; the internal language of striving for excellence will not be extinguished.  

What is wrong with striving for excellence?  What if, a person is capable of learning to control his/her perfectionistic characteristics rather than the perfectionism controlling him/her?  If capable, would not the perfectionistic person have the bull by the horns? 

Are we not arguing semantics when we distinguish excellence, adaptivity, or healthy striver (California State University Bakersfield, 2013; University of Texas, 2013) as more positive outlooks on the perfectionistic persona?   Whether you call the individual an alternate name or not, perfectionism is at the heart of the matter. Therefore, let’s call a spade a spade; those who have a yearning for perfectionism desire to prove excellent, have an ability to adapt, thus becoming a healthy striver. 

Again, it is important to recognize that “if-and-only-if” a perfectionist has a good self-esteem, “then-and-only-then,” will perfectionism work for the individual.  In order to reach such a healthy level of self-esteem, the individual must be capable of unconditionally accepting, approving, and loving his/her person.  Furthermore, if anyone desires to convey an unconditional spirit unto another, he/she must first-and-foremost be capable of having an unconditional spirit within his/her own person.  


“I think every chef, not just in America, but across the world, has a double-edged sword – two jackets, one that’s driven, a self-confessed perfectionist, thoroughbred, hate incompetence and switch off the stove, take off the jacket and become a family man.”               ~ Gordon Ramsey

If you have a child who is perfectionistic, do not punish them for drawing outside the lines, because they are inherently learning to adapt their perfectionistic characteristics in a healthy perspective.  The mistake is, parents and teachers often punish children for coloring outside the lines.  While it is important to be adaptive in an educational environment, it is equally important for parents and teachers to allow the child to gain appreciation for his or her perfectionistic characteristics.  The best approach to teaching is not a dictatorship rather a mentorship. 

Perfectionists take everything to heart.  If a person has not been taught the benefits of failure, he/she will see it as a negative.   Our educational institutions are unfavorable of failure.  As children we are taught that failure is a negative thing, rather than seeing the benefits of failure.  We are taught that we are lacking, underserving and inept.   Our institutions do not reward attempts, only those who have successfully accomplished the task being assigned.  Regrettably, those who have perfectionistic characteristics and have not been taught the positives of failure, and harbor any failure as a reflection upon their identity. 

Perfectionists who have not been taught to unconditionally accept, approve and love oneself, will certainly identify with every word uttered.  Therefore, it is vitally important that any person who is incapable of unconditionally accepting him/herself should be taught to do so.  Unconditional acceptance should not be an excuse to make failure allowable or permissible, rather teaches the individual how he/she may improve through a positive perspective.  Likewise, it teaches the individual not to identify with the failure or success that occurs within his/her life. 


“When a person is a perfectionist, she takes pride in her work. She pays close attention to detail, works hard until the job is done right and stands behind the work that she completes. Being a perfectionist can come with many advantages, as perfectionists are often highly regarded for the impeccable work that they produce.”      ~ Laura Jerpi

Perfectionists are high achievers.  Perfectionists are capable of positively influencing others.  Perfectionistic attitudes do not have to be intolerable, unacceptable, and unendurable; rather if the person who is gifted with the perfectionistic makeup is capable of adapting these skills into a positive behavioral perspective, then they are capable of proving an asset to any team.

The Starbucks Corporation has a made undeniable mark upon the corporate and consumer world.    The corporation being founded by Howard Schultz has been described as a healthy perfectionist.  His corporation and his personal motto is reflected in his attitudes.  In his book, “Onward:  How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul,” Schultz instructs through a positively perfectionistic view:   “Grow with discipline. Balance intuition with rigor. Innovate around the core. Don’t embrace the status quo. Find new ways to see. Never expect a silver bullet. Get your hands dirty. Listen with empathy and over-communicate with transparency. Tell your story, refusing to let others define you. Use authentic experiences to inspire. Stick to your values, they are your foundation. Hold people accountable, but give them the tools to succeed. Make the tough choices; it’s how you execute that counts. Be decisive in times of crisis. Be nimble. Find truth in trials and lessons in mistakes. Be responsible for what you see, hear, and do. Believe.”   It is essential that if you want to live a healthy perfectionistic life; that you learn to unconditionally accept, approve, and love your being. Through an unconditional state you will be invincible capable of believing in yourself and your dream. 

Authors:  Asa Don Brown, Ph.D., C.C.C., N.C.C.M. and Tracy Lynn Brown, O.D.


Photograph/Artwork:  Leah Brown, L.B. Creations.



Benson, E. (2003) The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor, 34 (10) 18

Brown, A. D. (2010) Waiting to live, Bloomington, IN:  IUniverse

Burns, D. D. (1980) The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat. Psychology Today, 36-52

Centre for Clinical Interventions, CCI (2013) Perfectionism in perspective.  Retrieved October 7, 2013, from

California State University Bakersfield, CSUB (2013) Perfectionism:  A double-edged sword. Retrieved October 6, 2013 from

Klicka, C. J. (2000) Home schooled students excel in college. Retrieved October 6, 2013 from

Neville, A. (2013) Perfectionism is the enemy of everything. Retrieved October 6, 2013 from

Silverman, L. K. (1999) Perfectionism:  The crucible of giftedness.  Advanced Development, 8, 47-61

Silverman, L. K. (2002). Upside-down brilliance:  The visual-spatial learner. Denver, CO: DeLeon.

The University of Texas, UT (2013) Perfectionism verses healthy striving. Retrieved October 6, 2013 from


*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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