Some topics in our work with clients seem to create hearty debate more so than others. One of these topics is perfectionism. As psychologists, we are wary of the negative impacts that holding overly high standards for oneself can have – unnecessary stress, depression, and even underperformance. However, for some people, we work with the idea that reducing perfectionism creates anxiety. Many people’s immediate worry is that if they address perfectionism, it will mean lowering their high standards, and subsequently their performance will drop intolerably. Perhaps what is driving this tension is the important distinction between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. So, what does this difference look like?

Adaptive perfectionism

All perfectionists consistently set high standards for themselves, and strive to avoid mistakes and failure. Where adaptive perfectionists differ to their maladaptive counterparts is that they are more flexible about these standards, having more realistic definitions of success, and showing themselves and others more understanding when they make mistakes. They tend to be focused on achieving positive outcomes, and see ways to improve in future rather than solely seeing where they haven’t lived up to their expectations. Importantly, adaptive perfectionists are also able to take credit for their success, feeling satisfaction and accomplishment when they achieve desired goals.

Maladaptive perfectionism

In contrast, maladaptive perfectionists tend to make overly negative and permanent assessments of themselves when they do not reach their own high standards, with thoughts such as, “I’m not good enough, I can’t do this job”. Even when they do achieve highly, they tend to focus on where they fell short of perfect, preventing any sense of accomplishment. Perhaps as a result, maladaptive perfectionists come to focus on achieving highly in order to avoid failure rather than to seek success. This may sound like a minor distinction, but psychological research consistently shows that approaching something desirable (e.g. future success) rather than avoiding something undesired (e.g. preventing failure) keeps people more motivated and leads to better performance. In maladaptive perfectionism, we also see a greater amount of avoidance driven by this fear of failure. One common way this avoidance shows up is as procrastination – when faced with doing a task and potentially failing to do it as well as expected, putting off doing the task is a short-term way to avoid facing those associated feelings of anxiety. However, this procrastination strategy has costs over the longer term, creating more stress and often poorer results.

It’s not hard to see why maladaptive perfectionism is problematic, leading to higher stress and burnout, anxiety, and depression. So, with this distinction in mind, how can we cultivate more adaptive than maladaptive perfectionism?

  • Recent research shows that self-compassion helps to mitigate against the negative impacts of maladaptive perfectionism (Ferrari et al., 2018). There are three important parts to self-compassion:
    1. Being kind rather than critical in our thinking and “self-talk” when facing difficulties such as failure, rejection, loss, humiliation, or awkwardness (e.g. “It’s hard feeling like I failed at that”).
    2. Recognising that part of being human is having these difficult experiences and emotions, and that everyone else feels this way at times (e.g. “A lot of other people struggle with this too”).
    3. Being aware of these difficult emotions, without judging, fighting, or avoiding them. In this way, we are able to experience our emotions without minimising or exaggerating them, thus making them easier to manage (e.g. “No-one likes feeling guilty for letting others down, and it won’t last forever”).
  • Reframing how we think about performance to be more adaptive is beneficial to our ability to cope and our future motivation. Identifying and giving oneself credit for success and identifying opportunities, even in failure, are important. To adjust your thinking, try asking yourself (or asking those you lead) questions like:
    • What could I learn from this experience?
    • How will the experience shape how I approach future situations?
    • Even if the outcome wasn’t what I wanted, what did I achieve in the process?

Perfectionism isn’t necessarily problematic, but if you find yourself identifying with the maladaptive side of perfectionism, it’s probably worth making a few changes. These changes don’t have to mean drastically lowering your standards, but instead changing how you think about your own performance. Give it a try, but remember it will take some practice!