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The Pitfalls Of Perfectionism

First Posted: 07/08/2008 5:12 am Updated: 11/17/2011 8:02 am

You could say that perfectionism is a crime against humanity. Adaptability is the characteristic that enables the species to survive--and if there's one thing perfectionism does, it rigidifies behavior. It constricts people just when the fast-moving world requires more flexibility and comfort with ambiguity than ever. It turns people into success slaves.

Perfectionists, experts now know, are made and not born, commonly at an early age. They also know that perfectionism is increasing. One reason: Pressure on children to achieve is rampant, because parents now seek much of their status from the performance of their kids. And, by itself, pressure to achieve is perceived by kids as criticism for mistakes; criticism turns out to be implicit in it. Perfectionism, too, is a form of parental control, and parental control of offspring is greater than ever in the new economy and global marketplace, realities that are deeply unsettling to today's adults.

"I don't understand it," one bewildered student told me, speaking for the five others seated around the table during lunch at a small residential college in the Northeast. "My parents were perfectly happy to get Bs and Cs when they were in college. But they expect me to get As." The others nodded in agreement. Today's hothouse parents are not only over-involved in their children's lives, they demand perfection from them in school.

And if ever there was a blueprint for breeding psychological distress, that's it. Perfectionism seeps into the psyche and creates a pervasive personality style. It keeps people from engaging in challenging experiences; they don't get to discover what they truly like or to create their own identities. Perfectionism reduces playfulness and the assimilation of knowledge; if you're always focused on your own performance and on defending yourself, you can't focus on learning a task. Here's the cosmic thigh-slapper: Because it lowers the ability to take risks, perfectionism reduces creativity and innovation--exactly what's not adaptive in the global marketplace.

Yet, it does more. It is a steady source of negative emotions; rather than reaching toward something positive, those in its grip are focused on the very thing they most want to avoid--negative evaluation. Perfectionism, then, is an endless report card; it keeps people completely self-absorbed, engaged in perpetual self-evaluation--reaping relentless frustration and doomed to anxiety and depression.

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Filed by Anya Strzemien  |