Adaptive Perfectionism: Strive for Excellence .

Do you find yourself constantly chasing perfection? Do you have an exceptionally high standards and unrealistic demands to yourself and others? If this sounds familiar, welcome to the club of perfectionists.

Perfectionism refers to self-defeating thoughts and behaviours associated with high and unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen as desirable or even necessary for success. However, recent studies have shown that perfectionist attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can deny you a sense of satisfaction and cause you to achieve far less than people with more realistic goals.

You can recognise perfectionists by the following common characteristics:

  • They feel like whatever they accomplish is never quite good enough
  • they put off handing in projects, waiting to get them just perfect polishing it over and over again
  • They feel like they must give more than 100 per cent on everything they do or else they will be mediocre or even a failure. And expect the same from other.

What is the cause of perfectionism?

Maladaptive perfectionism can be described as refusal to accept any standard short of perfection. Perfectionist people are those who have high standards beyond reach or reason to sustain and who strain compulsively and relentlessly towards impossible goals and measure their own self-worth based entirely on their accomplishments and capabilities.  Low self-esteem is also quite often accompanied by perfectionist tendencies which in turn can set up a cycle of avoidance, procrastination and low frustration tolerance.

Perfectionism is often associated with the following challenges:

  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure and total disaster. As a rule perfectionists miss opportunities to learn, grow and enjoy the process as they are focusing on avoiding mistakes too much.
  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • All-or-nothing thinking or black or white thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. It either has to be perfect or why bother at all?! Perfectionists struggle a lot to see situations in perspective. For example, a straight ‘A’ student who receives a ‘B’ might believe, “I am a total failure and it’s a total disaster”.
  • Over-emphasis on ‘should’, ‘must’ and ‘ought’. Perfectionists often live with an endless list of rigid rules for what they must accomplish. With the emphasis on how everything has to be done, perfectionists rarely listen to what they really feel like doing.
  • Never good enough. Never. Perfectionists tend to see others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, little emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

Sounds exhausting and stressful, isn’t it? What’s the solution then? Turn it into an adaptive perfectionism and strive for excellence instead of chasing perfection.


Adaptive perfectionism.

It is better to celebrate your realistic goals than fail to attain perfection.

Striving for excellence is a form of adaptive perfectionism which is a more helpful and rational way. Adaptive perfectionists strive for goals that are attainable. Adaptive or normal perfectionists set high standards for themselves yet feel free to be less precise as the situation permits so they show more flexibility. Adaptive perfectionists as a rule feel good about their accomplishments but allow themselves the flexibility to make and accept minor mistakes.

Some of the characteristics of adaptive perfectionism can be as follows:

  • Able to experience satisfaction or pleasure
  • Focus on doing things right rather than perfect
  • Timely completion of tasks
  • Standards modified in accordance with the situation
  • Relaxed but careful attitude
  • Motivation to achieve positive feedback and/or rewards
  • Desire to excel rather than be perfect
  • Achievable standards
  • Reasonable match between attainable performance and standards
  • Failure associated with disappointment and renewed efforts
  • Reasonable certainty about actions
  • High standards are match too the person’s limitations and strengths
  • Sense of self-worth independent of performance
  • Balanced thinking: good enough

There is an antidote to perfectionism that a coach can outline to a coachee in order to shift unhelpful patterns onto more helpful and adaptive ones such as:

  • Do not tie up your personal worth to accomplishment.
  • Strive to do your best instead of obsessing yourself with being the best.
  • Aim to become a better performer rather than try to prove yourself a better person.
  • No matter how successful you are, you remain a fallible and imperfect human being – develop greater self-acceptance.
  • See failures and setbacks as opportunities for learning, not self-condemnation.

To conclude, adaptive perfectionism is characterised as a normal, healthy type of perfectionism as it leads to satisfaction from achievements made from intense effort but tolerating the imperfections without resorting to the harsh self-criticism that characterises maladaptive perfectionism. A much better and productive way forward, don’t you agree?



Melissa Jackson 2004 Why perfect is not always best

Rice, KG. and Preusser, KJ., (2002), The adaptive/maladaptive perfectionism scale, Measurement and Evaluation in Counselling and Development, Vol 34.4:210, [Online], Available:
Palmer, S. and Williams, H., (2012), Struggles with low self-esteem: Teaching self-acceptance in Neenan, M. and Palmer, S., (2012), Cognitive Behavioural Coaching in Practice. An Evidence Based Approach, East Sussex: Routledge

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