Keys to detecting the usefulness of perfectionism in our lives

Many of you have no doubt had ambivalent attitudes towards this approach.

It would not be uncommon, moreover, for many of you, to the already famous question of a job interview, can you mention one of your flaws? You answered: perfectionism.

And it is that, at the beginning, this construction seems to be on the rise in our culture; those who achieve high standards are “the cracks”, who are admired and rewarded. What is happening is that in many cases the long term aversive consequences correlate with burnout, feelings of continued failure, isolation, and many other issues that we will see below.

To start this article, which is certainly very brief, I would like to clarify that we are starting from very theoretical, nomothetic (that is to say very general) information, and for practical purposes, although necessary, it is not not enough. In order for all of this information to be useful to us, we need to apply it on a case-by-case basis. Wait a minute, we’ll talk about that at the end.

    Functional perfectionism versus dysfunctional perfectionism

    We will agree that the desire to get it right coupled with a high commitment to responsibility, effort and expectations, in and of itself, is not at all harmful, let alone if mistakes are seen as learning.

    However, dysfunction or harm is when it is taken to the extreme, regardless of contingencies, despite the negative costs it can have in our lives, and where success functions as a scale of our worth and, of course, error is to be feared and taken almost as an unforgivable sin, which obviously goes hand in hand with avoidant conduct.

    To the latest pattern of perfectionist behavior under aversive control, Is often referred to as unhealthy, dysfunctional, or maladaptive perfectionism, and is a transdiagnostic factor for many important psychological problems.

    The main characteristics defining a dysfunctional perfectionist behavior pattern are as follows:

    • Need for control
    • Rigidity of thought and behavior
    • Hypersensitivity to the opinions of others
    • Hanging excessively on rumor and worry
    • excessive self-criticism
    • Avoidance of new situations
    • Fear of failure
    • All or nothing polarized thinking style
    • Procrastination

    In fact, many authors maintain a relative difference in the adaptability / maladjustability of perfectionist behavior. Stoeber, Harris and Moon (2007), for example, distinguish between variables: “perfectionist goals” and “perfectionist concerns”.

    The perfectionist (healthy) pattern of behavior is governed by high goals and low concerns. Among the unhealthy, the level is high in both variables. Some authors further argue that problems with dysfunctional or unhealthy perfectionism are much more associated with self-critical evaluation than with high personal standards (Dunkley, Berg & Zuroff, 2012., cit. In Amors Hernández, 2017).

    On harmful criticism and its maintenance

    Given the relevant role played here by pathological criticism, it is necessary to consider the approach of McKay (1991) to explain the maintenance of the same, we already know that it is through reinforcement, we see:

    Regarding the positive reinforcement of criticism, the author mentions two basic lines which are as follows: the need to do good and the need to feel good, On the other hand, he adds, it is the feeling controlling our feelings of pain such as guilt, fear of rejection and frustration, which works as a negative reinforcer (Amors Hernández, 2017). Again, on a case-by-case basis, we must consider whether it is these needs or others that would have this reinforcing function.

    Excessive excitement and worry

    Nolen-Hoeksema and colleagues (2008) defined rumor as “a repetitive reflection on the causes, consequences and symptoms of a person’s negative affect”.

    Ruminating has been associated with psychological distress, because by “ruminating” we avoid dealing with negative experiences and emotions. As such, rumination acts as an avoidant emotional regulation strategy that will make it difficult even to block the effective solution of our problems (Nolen-Hoeksema et al., Cit. In Senderey, 2017).

    The whisper maintains anxiety because the focus is on what went wrong rather than what can be done to make things better. We enter a vicious cycle that exacerbates anxiety, leading to biased thoughts and behaviors of evasion, blocking or avoidance.

    Concern is a problem-solving effort. However, because the problem is not current but hypothetical or beyond our control, it becomes unnecessary and counterproductive if it does not activate us.

    Concern is a verbal linguistic attempt to prevent future dreaded events. It offers us questions such as: “What would happen if …” (Harvey et al. 2009; cit. In Senderey, 2017).

    Some long-term consequences of dysfunctional perfectionist behaviors

    To take this a step further, Shafran, Cooper and Fairburn (2002) present some examples of the long-term consequences of the pattern of dysfunctional perfectionist behaviors: emotionally, exhaustion, bad mood, depression; at the social level, isolation; at the physiological level, insomnia; at the cognitive level, Impairments in attention, concentration and memory; at the behavioral level, repeated checks of work or tasks that signal a significant waste of time or procrastination.

    For this reason, it is not surprising to find studies that show this pattern as a factor of vulnerability to even more acute and lasting problems over time such as depression, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder. or mental disorders. its relationship with suicide (Kiamanesh, Dieserud, Dyregrov and Haavind, 2015., cit. in Amors Hernández, 2017).

    The importance of psychological flexibility

    In functional or adaptive perfectionist behavior, we are much more flexible in assessing whether we have achieved our goals and therefore experience less stress if we do not achieve them.

    On the contrary, one of the notorious characteristics of the harmful is precisely rigidity. Some studies have found that adaptive perfectionism is positively related to life satisfaction and negatively related to depression, hopelessness, and attachment styles in avoidant and anxious adults. (Gnilka, Ashby & Noble, 2013).

    The impact on our self-esteem and self-acceptance

    Low self-esteem is the result of a negative overall self-esteem that is constantly reinforced by the difficulty in achieving the desired level of aspiration, skill and ability.

    The basis of change is accepting and accepting limitations, this is how we can overcome them. Self-acceptance is seen as a protection of self-esteem and is independent of success (Burns, 1983., cit. I Senderey, 2017).

    Is perfectionism therefore unnecessary and harmful?

    As we mentioned at the start, all of this information doesn’t help much if we haven’t obtained it on a case-by-case basis, and it is from there that we can assess whether or not it is useful to you.

    From contextual behavioral therapies, the first thing we’ll do is what we call an idiographic functional analysis. That is to say that, in general, we will start by asking you what you mean by perfectionism, in order to find these behaviors or series of behaviors (response classes) in certain situations.

    In other words, operationalize all of this in relation to this context and your life story. For example, you might say to me, “I care a lot about the details”, “I am terribly afraid of failing”, “I constantly criticize myself”, “I usually postpone things”, etc. Well for now as you can see these descriptions are very general, but we are already starting to see things like intensity, frequency and duration, which we take into account.

    Now this probably doesn’t happen to you in all contexts, let’s find out in which situations or areas of your life. And from there, one of the most crucial questions is whether it hinders or makes it easier for you to achieve your goals and make your life richer.

    You see, worrying about the details, being afraid of failing, postponing things, etc. a coffee with the friends behind to prepare your thesis can be very useful to you, right?

    To go further, even the high or low intensity, frequency and duration of certain behaviors are quite functional in certain contexts. In other words, if you work as an engineer or administrative, it is a plus. The key, then, will be to establish what you want in your life, what makes it meaningful, and from there to assess whether those behaviors are leading you in the long run down that path, and if not, to work to find other ways to reach him.

    Bibliographical references:

    • Amors Hernández, A. (2017). Perfectionism, fear of failure and depressive symptoms. Deposit Pontifical University of Comillas. Retrieved from
    • Gnilka, PB, Ashby, JS and Noble, CM (2013). Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism as mediators of adult and depressive styles, hopelessness and life satisfaction Journal of Counseling & Development; 91 (1), 78-86.
    • Senderey, E. (2017). Mindfulness and Group Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to address problematic perfectionism. Athens Journal of Social Sciences; 4 (1), 49-66.
    • Shafran, R., Cooper, Z. and Fairburn, CG (2002). Clinical perfectionism: cognitive-behavioral analysis. Behavioral research and therapy; 40 (7), 773-791.

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