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What’s a healthy level of perfectionism?

Dr Veronica Azua, organisational psychologist, specialised in self-criticism and performance, tells her views on the healthy level of perfectionism and how to know if your perfectionism is negative or positive.

Am I good enough? Do I bring value to my clients? Am I a good parent? Will I be able to meet expectations? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves when we are flooded with self-criticism and negative perfectionism. You are not alone. Most of us are affected by it at some point in our life or career. Self-criticism and perfectionism are key patterns I have noticed while working with leaders. That and a deep personal interest led me to research the topic academically. We tend to speak negatively about perfectionism, but it usually surprises people when I say it’s not always detrimental. There is negative perfectionism, but also something called ‘positive perfectionism’. And if you’re suffering from perfectionism, it may be possible to make it positive rather than eliminate it altogether. Let’s unpack how.

Where does self-criticism come from?

Self-critical voices are pervasive, judging, attacking, and monitoring us, often creating a draining sense of persecutory anxiety. Equally, they are part of human nature and many times, believe it or not, exist for a good reason.

Inner critical voices develop in our earlier years and emerge partly from relationships between a child and early authority figures (parents, main caregivers, teachers, older siblings etc). The quality of the inner critical voices might depend on how the parents responded to the child’s needs. When the child lacks sufficient warmth, attention, or sensitivity from the parents or main care givers, the child may grow up feeling not-good-enough to be loved or to deserve parental attention. Later in adulthood they may seek the attention, approval and love that they felt they lacked in earlier years. This may manifest as a drive for perfectionism and seeking prestigious, powerful, and well-remunerated jobs (more on this here).

Perfectionism as a consequence of self-criticism

Some of the consequences of dominant inner-critical voices can be: low self-worth, a distorted (usually negative) view of ourselves and the world around us, unbalanced relationships where we feel less than others, and seeking external approval. The consequences leave us feeling depleted, losing touch with our personal resources, and losing a sense of perspective. Perfectionism, in turn, is the process of setting high standards, it has been studied alongside self-criticism, and is often a manifestation of self-critical voices.

The double-edged sword of perfectionism

While it appears difficult to find positives in inner critical voices, it’s important to recognise the double-edged sword of self-criticism and perfectionism. Inner critical voices can be cruel and attacking, however, they also represent ideals we aspire to and can encourage us to achieve them, get better, and improve ourselves.

The concept of negative and positive perfectionism can be helpful here. Compare the lists below and try to mentally tick off what you usually experience.

Negative perfectionism often includes:

  • No enjoyment in the process of striving to perfection
  • Unrealistic goals - setting high, rigid, and narrow standards
  • Compulsive perfectionism – exhibiting an unremitting need for perfection, leading to distress, anxiety, and procrastination
  • Attempts to perform perfectly to avoid negative feedback
  • Being caught up in a never-good-enough mindset

Positive perfectionism, on the other hand, often includes:

  • Enjoying the process of striving towards perfection
  • Setting high standards BUT remaining flexible to changing circumstances
  • Setting and assessing goals in a realistic way
  • Knowing when to stop – the ability to pause and let go
  • Aiming for ‘progress rather than perfection’

So, as you can see, the cruel and demanding aspects of self-criticism can be linked to negative perfectionism. At the same time, positive perfectionism can be linked to the aspiring and encouraging aspect of the inner critic: possibly linked to our deep drive to develop, achieve, and move forward. Those aspects have helped individuals and humanity tackle and achieve grand challenges. For you personally, recognising your tipping point from negative to positive perfectionism is key.

How to overcome negative perfectionism and unhelpful self-critical voices

While self-criticism is part of being human and won’t disappear, the good news is that there are strategies to work with your negative perfectionistic inner critic.

Step 1: Recognising the difference between positive and negative perfectionism

Are you enjoying the process of striving to perfection?

Perfectionism is considered positive when we gain satisfaction from whatever task we are perfecting, and negative when the mindset and behaviour becomes compulsive and unrelenting. In other words when we get caught up in a ‘never-good-enough’ mindset. This leads to anxiety and distress. The mantra of positive perfectionism is: ‘Aim for progress rather than perfection’.

Are your standards flexible enough or unrealistic?

Setting high standard for oneself and others is the essence of perfectionism. Recognising when or if those standards or goals are unrealistic or rigid can help us spot negative perfectionism. Allowing for enough flexibility and a sense of perspective are crucial. The mantra here can be: ‘Set an intention but go with the flow’.

Step 2: Self-compassion to lower negative perfectionism

Self-compassion is the ability to be understanding and caring towards yourself when facing difficulties. Several studies suggest that self-compassion can lower self-criticism and is associated with coping better with negative emotions. Self-compassion also helps mobilise our ability to self-sooth, calming the anxiety that self-criticism generates.

How can you demonstrate kindness and care towards yourself?

When confronted with personal inadequacies or failures, first, acknowledge the difficult emotions and situations. Then, instead of judging yourself harshly, try being kind, warm, and understanding. Perhaps you can ask yourself: ‘How would I talk to a friend in the same situation?’

Are you able to recognise that imperfections and mistakes are part of life?

An aspect of self-compassion is recognising that we are imperfect, that life is imperfect, and mistakes are part of life. This makes us feel less isolated. Self-compassion is about taking a balanced view of the painful situation, not avoiding the difficulties, but not exaggerating them either. Perhaps you can ask yourself: who or what can be the anchor that help me bring a sense of perspective?

Overall, at the core of these strategies is self-awareness: the ability to notice your own patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Self-awareness can initiate change and lead us to make a conscious choice: continue listening to our unhelpful critical voices or purposefully taking a more positive approach.

Sources:

Azua, (2020). Impact of Self-doubts on Leaders at a Point of Transition, Professional Doctoral Thesis, Essex University.

Leonard and Harvey, (2008). Negative Perfectionism: Examining Negative Excessive Behaviour in the Workplace. Neff, (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself.

Veronica Azua

Dr Veronica Azua is an Executive Coach and Organisational Psychologist who began her career as a Psychoanalytical Psychotherapist. Her leadership development and coaching career started at the London Business School working with EMBAs and MBAs. She has worked for KPMG leading the design and delivery of leadership programmes for Partners and Directors for more than 6 years.

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