Perfect to a fault

(NC) – Many of us long to be the best at something, such  as sports or music. But while striving for personal excellence is certainly commendable, striving for ultimate perfection can be dangerous. 

Paul Hewitt, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, is concerned about the growing drive to be perfect. His research, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), focuses on the different types of perfectionism and the effect such mindsets have on people. 

Different flavours of perfectionism
Perfectionism, according to Hewitt, comes in four varieties: imposing expectations of perfection on oneself, demanding perfection of others, feeling that others demand perfection of oneself, and feeling that one must appear perfect to others. 

While some may argue that perfectionism can be a good thing, Hewitt says there is an important distinction between a person who sets high goals and pushes himself to achieve them and an excessive perfectionist. 

“The excessively perfectionist student who viewan A+ in a course as his or her expected performance will view anything but the A+ as a total failure,” says Hewitt. This perceived failure can lead to anxiety disorders, depression, and even suicide. 

In fact, extreme perfectionists aren’t happy even if they achieve the desired outcome: they just know that the way they achieved their goal was somehow imperfect. 

Costs of perfectionism can be high
Hewitt adds, “We may all benefit from or appreciate the results of the perfectionist tendencies of great composers, artists, writers, and performers, but the personal and interpersonal costs to those with excessive levels of perfectionism – not to mention their loved ones – are both monumental and potentially lethal.” 

Self-esteem is a major contributing factor to perfectionism. People with low self-esteem often feel that if they can be perfect – or at least make others think they are – then they will find the acceptance they crave. 

“Individuals may be under the mistaken impression that if they are viewed as flawless and pristine, they will attract caring or respect and gain a sense of belonging,” says Hewitt. But presenting a perfect image usually backfires, and the individual is left feeling even more alienated than before. 

Not easy to get help
Seeking help – with everyday tasks or for their behaviour – is also difficult for perfectionists. Hewitt explains, “Perfectionists base their self-esteem on being or appearing to be perfect. Admitting to personal difficulties is viewed as an admission of imperfection and is therefore threatening to a perfectionist’s self-esteem.” 

Even if they do seek professional help, Hewitt says perfectionists often have a difficult time benefiting from therapy. While it is possible to overcome the negative aspects of perfectionism, perfectionists have a hard time developing an honest and trusting relationship with a therapist, which is crucial to successful treatment. 

“Perfectionism is a personality trait,” says Hewitt. ”It’s hard to change someone’s personality. There’s no quick fix. But through intense therapy, perfectionists can make real progress.” 

You can learn about other SSHRC-funded research on the Council’s Web site (

Source: News Canada