Powers and Perils of Pursuing Perfection.

“It’s not that perfection cannot be achieved. It’s that it’s so difficult to stop there.”
~Robert Brault~

Perfectionism is a common personality trait of high achievers. Da Vinci, Beethoven, Copernicus, and Newton were all notorious perfectionists. More recent examples include Stanley Kubrick, Martha Stewart, Steve Jobs, Serena Williams, and Kanye West.

Under the guise of an obsessive commitment to excellence, perfectionism is worn as a badge of honor among world-class athletes and performers who frequently attribute their successes to a self-ascribed unwillingness to accept mediocrity.

But perfectionism is not without its pitfalls. The pursuit of excellence is a slippery slope that can easily mutate into a compulsive striving for unrealistic goals that leads to a vicious cycle of frustration, anxiety, and even diminished performance.

In this article, I examine both the adaptive and maladaptive aspects of perfectionism and summarize what the sport psychology research has to say about the overall impact of perfectionism on performance and psychological wellbeing.

The Good

“Looking for perfection is the only way to motivate yourself.”
~Ronnie O’Sullivan~

Let’s start by acknowledging that in any performance domain there are thousands of people vying for the right to be called “the best.” The closer you get to the top, the smaller the differences in ability. Those tiny differences, however imperceptible to the casual observer, are often the difference between the champions and the also-rans.

Given that excelling at the highest level often requires error-free performance, it is not surprising that perfectionistic tendencies are quite commonplace among elite performers. After all, you wouldn’t expect extraordinary accomplishments to emerge from an ordinary acceptance of mistakes and mediocrity, would you?

The power of perfectionism lies mainly in providing the motivational fuel to sustain a single-minded and unwavering commitment to excellence in a specialized domain.  Perpetually dissatisfied, perfectionists are constantly pushing at the boundary of their current capacities, identifying and working on their weaknesses, and investing intense effort over long periods of time – all sure-fire strategies for developing mastery.

Coaches also love working with perfectionists because they are extremely coachable. Because of their intrinsic motivation to improve, perfectionists seek out and take action on critical feedback without the need for stick and carrot motivational strategies.

The Bad

“The maxim ‘nothing but perfection’ may be spelled paralysis.”
~Winston Churchill~

Perfectionism becomes problematic when these motivational strengths are accompanied by hyper self-criticism in which anything short of perfect is viewed as failure. Perfectionists often fret about technique, overanalyze their performances, and play tentatively in an attempt to avoid mistakes. This emphasis on error prevention limits their ability to play freely and ultimately impairs performance by disrupting the automaticity of well-learned skills.

When performance errors inevitably do occur, perfectionists tend to dwell on their mistakes. Such rumination can have a snowball effect, causing distraction and loss of confidence, which then leads to more mistakes, more rumination, and further loss of confidence – creating a vicious cycle from which it is difficult to recover.  For some perfectionists a single mistake can be enough to derail an entire performance, prompting them to withdraw effort or engage in other forms of self-sabotage once the possibility of perfection has been eliminated.

A perfectionistic approach can also be quite inefficient during training or everyday work performance, causing an irrational focus on perfecting some small detail while neglecting the development of more substantial aspects of performance. Worse, yet, perfectionists often delay or even forgo the pursuit of goals out of fear of failure (i.e. not being perfect).  Indeed, procrastination is one of the biggest telltale signs of perfectionism at play.

The Ugly

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.”
~Anne Wilson Shaef~

Generally considered a form of psychopathology and maladjustment, perfectionism has been linked to a laundry list of psychological issues including depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, insomnia, and suicide. Even if these issues do not directly have a negative impact on performance, they still pose a serious risk to overall mental health and wellbeing.

Along with being a key source of drive and determination, perfectionism is often a chronic source of stress and strain that undermines an individual’s ability to enjoy accomplishments. Successes are barely acknowledged, if at all, before shifting attention to the next rung on the infinite ladder of perfection. For this reason, perfectionists often come to view themselves as “successful failures.”

The trouble is that, for perfectionists, performance is intertwined (or equated) with their sense of self worth. Many perfectionists are driven by the thought that if only they can achieve perfection in their chosen craft, then all of their relational and esteem needs will finally be met. When they do finally reach the summit, they are often devastated to find that problematic aspects of their lives remain unresolved.

As you can see, the question of whether perfectionism is good or bad for you is a complicated one. The chart below presents a summary of the pros and cons of perfectionism discussed thus far:

Good for Performance Bad for Performance Mental Health Risks

Intrinsic motivation

Single-minded focus

High personal standards

Ambitious goal setting

Strong work ethic

Excellent coachability

Tentative performance

Hyper self-criticism

Dwelling on mistakes

Reduced self-confidence

Training inefficiency

Procrastination/Burnout

Chronic stress

Lack of life satisfaction

Fragile self-esteem

Loneliness

Anxiety/OCD

Depression/Mania

The 2D Model

Mirroring the two-faced nature of perfectionism presented above, empirical research on the perfectionism-performance relationship makes an important distinction between the following 2 dimensions of perfectionism:

Perfectionistic strivings involve high personal standards and ambitious goals that reflect self-imposed expectations of flawlessness or continual upward progress.

Perfectionistic concerns involve negative reactions to perceived discrepancies between expectations and performance, rumination over mistakes, and fear of being negatively evaluated by others.

Perfectionistic strivings are generally associated with positive mental states (intrinsic motivation, engagement, and enhanced self-confidence) whereas perfectionistic concerns are associated with negative mental states (competitive anxiety, dwelling on mistakes, reduced self-confidence).

A Double-Edged Sword

But what does this all mean for performance? To date, there have been two major reviews of the research literature on the perfectionism-performance relationship:

In a 2012 review of the research, Stoeber found that perfectionistic strivings are consistently associated with higher performance across a variety of domains including academics, music, and sport.  However, the performance benefits are often masked by the negative effects of perfectionistic concerns, which often occur in tandem with perfectionistic strivings. Accordingly, Stoeber argued that perfectionistic strivings might be an essential ingredient in optimal performance, provided that perfectionistic concerns can be controlled.

A more recent review, conducted in November 2018, warns against prematurely jumping on the perfectionism bandwagon – suggesting that Stoeber’s review paints a rosier picture of perfectionistic striving than is warranted given the limited number of studies and mixed findings.  Pointing to new research results that have been either inconclusive or at odds with Stoeber’s generalized claims, the authors argue that the perfectionism-performance relationship is too complex and as yet poorly understood to make definitive statements regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages. 

Close Cousins

In addition to studying the direct impact of perfectionism of performance we can also gain insight by examining the relationship of perfectionism to other closely related psychological constructs that are relevant to performance.  For example, the 2D model of perfectionism shares considerable overlap with achievement orientation (or goal orientation). 

Perfectionistic strivings are correlated with mastery (task, learning) and approach orientations, which are generally associated with positive mental processes and performance outcomes.  Perfectionistic concerns coincide with performance (ego, competitive) and avoidance orientations, which are more associated with negative mental processes and outcomes.  

The broad research base concerning the differential impact of these achievement orientations on performance lends indirect empirical support to the idea that perfectionistic strivings are generally beneficial for performance while perfectionistic concerns are harmful.

Summary

Perfectionism is the ultimate double-edged sword – with one edge motivating the dedicated commitment that is a hallmark of elite performance while the other edge undermines self-confidence through excessive self-criticism and preoccupation with mistakes.

Hence the paradox: Are the potential performance benefits associated with enhanced drive and determination worth the long-term effects of chronic stress and strain?

Although researchers disagree regarding the extent to which the positives can outweigh the negatives, there is general agreement that perfectionistic strivings are largely beneficial for performance while perfectionistic concerns are mostly harmful for both performance and psychological well-being.

Accordingly, it is recommended that perfectionistic striving should be encouraged as long as perfectionistic concerns can be controlled. This is easier said than done, of course, as concerns often follow striving like the cart follows the ox.

In my next article, I will outline some strategies for cultivating a more adaptive form of perfectionism so that you can reap the benefits while protecting yourself from the hazards.

With you in the pursuit,

Dr. Dave

References:

Perfectionism and Performance, by Joachim Stoeber, 2012

Perfectionism and Performance in Sport, Education, and the Workplace, by Daniel J. Madigan, Andrew P. Hill, Sarah H. Mallinson-Howard, Thomas Curran, & Gareth E. Jowett, 2018

Perfectionism in Sport and Dance, a special issue of the International Journal of Sport Psychology, edited by Andrew P. Hill, Paul R. Appleton, and Howard K. Hall, 2014

The Perils of Perfectionism in Sport and Exercise, by Gordon L. Flett and Paul L. Hewitt, 2006