Does Perfectionism Get a Bad Rap? The Right (and Wrong) Way to Be a Perfectionist.

Perfectionism has traditionally been seen as a bad thing. A character defect. A “fast track” to unhappiness, depression, and anxiety. The enemy of creativity, innovation, productivity, rainbows, bunny rabbits, grape soda, and all that is good in the world.

So as an alternative, we are encouraged to ease up on those unreasonable standards, let the mistakes go, and accept that coloring outside the lines is not the end of the world.

But anything that sniffs of lowering one’s standards triggers a whole set of alarms in any good overachiever’s head.

What?! Be ok with making mistakes? Pshaw.

Well, the good news is that we may not have to throw out all of perfectionism quite yet. Perfectionism is not as black and white as we may have thought.

Many aspects are indeed associated with the scary not-so-good things we usually hear about. But other aspects of perfectionism are actually linked to positive things and higher levels of performance and achievement.

So…is it possible to make perfectionism work for us?

Two dimensions of perfectionism

In recent years, researchers have begun to take a closer look at the complexity of perfectionism.

There are two main dimensions of perfectionism, each of which appears to have a different effect on not just our mental and emotional health, but our performance too.

One dimension involves having high standards of performance, and striving to meet these standards (“perfectionistic strivings”).

The other dimension is all the worrying we do about mistakes, the disappointment and frustrations of falling short, and fears about what others will think of us (“perfectionistic concerns”).

The problem is that while perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive characteristics like greater intrinsic motivation, effort, and satisfaction with life, perfectionistic concerns are associated with greater anxiety, distress, depression, disordered eating, and more.

If you feel like you can relate to both parts, that’s because they often go hand in hand. The danger with perfectionism is that most folks who are high in perfectionistic strivings are also high in perfectionistic concerns.

Perfectionism and performance anxiety

To parse this out further, a group of Swedish researchers categorized their elite athlete participants into one of the following four groups, to see what kind of impact the various combination of perfectionistic dimensions would have on their pre-performance anxiety.

Group 1: High perfectionistic strivings + low perfectionistic concerns (“healthy” perfectionists)
Group 2: High perfectionistic strivings + high perfectionistic concerns (“unhealthy” perfectionists)
Group 3: Low perfectionistic strivings + high perfectionistic concerns (“pure evaluative concerns perfectionists”)
Group 4: Low perfectionistic strivings + low perfectionistic concerns (“non-perfectionists”)

As you can probably guess, the high/low “healthy” perfectionists in Group 1 had the highest levels of self-confidence, and the lowest levels of anxiety.

Next in line were the non-perfectionist athletes in Group 4, followed by the “unhealthy” perfectionists in Group 2.

The athletes in Group 3, who were low in perfectionistic strivings but highly concerned with avoiding mistakes and the consequence of failure, were most prone to experiencing performance anxiety.

So if you have ever wondered why you’ve done pretty well in auditions where you went in with low expectations, not really caring how things worked out, this might provide some clues.

The holy grail, of course, is to go in with exacting standards and a strong commitment to achieving them, but without being overwhelmed by concerns about what the panel will think or the possible outcomes at stake.

Because all else being equal, the so-called healthy perfectionist is probably going to outperform the non-perfectionist (and good luck getting into a non-perfectionist mindset on command anyway).

Perfectionism and performance

Though what we’re probably most curious about is how these dimensions of perfectionism are related to our level of performance, there actually aren’t many studies which have looked at this.

However, the few that are out there suggest that athletes high in perfectionistic strivings do outperform athletes who are low in perfectionist strivings – both in practice and in competition.

So ultimately, the idea of lowering our standards or perfectionistic strivings is probably not going to help us play at a higher level under pressure. The key lies in finding a way to lower our perfectionistic concerns, while keeping our standards of excellence intact.

Take action

How can we lessen our worries, fears about being judged, and doubts about our ability to meet our standards?

1. Change our language

I’m not sure if the word perfectionist is particularly helpful. Even when we’re talking about the “good” kind. With so much baggage associated with the word, I think the difference between striving for excellence vs. demanding absolute flawlessness can easily get lost.

Tal Ben-Shahar‘s word “optimalism” might be a more helpful term. The idea is that while perfectionism is about an all-out effort to avoid failure, optimalism is about relentlessly trending toward the realization of excellence, and rolling with the punches that we will inevitably experience along the way.

2. Target the precursors of perfectionism

Rather than lowering our standards, a more effective course of action might be to question why we feel the need to establish such high standards in the first place. What we are trying to prove, or gain, by beating ourselves up for the slightest perceived “failure?”

Is it a need for acceptance? To be seen and heard and valued?

How can we shift to a place of wanting high standards because we care about and extract great meaning and intrinsic value from the act of honing our craft, as opposed to needing to set and meet these über-high standards so we might one day feel like a valuable and worthwhile musician, colleague, teacher, or human being?

3. Reevaluate our values and definitions of success

What if we defined success in terms that wouldn’t leave room for perfectionistic concerns? Meaning, what if our standards of excellence were so high, that “failure” or falling short of the target was a built-in necessity?

Basketball great Clyde Drexler once argued that turnovers aren’t as bad as people often make them out to be, saying “Show me a guy who’s not turning the ball over, and I’ll show you a guy who’s not doing anything.”

Along those lines, Brené Brown cites the following Theodore Roosevelt quote as having transformed her life .

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

Indeed. What if success were defined not in terms of critical acclaim or achieving perfection, but in “daring greatly?”

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14 Responses

  1. Thank you again for writing – this is very useful in clarifying that it’s okay to be ambitious in striving for excellence, but advisable to not fret (so much) about making and having made mistakes.
    Sometimes it seems the pressure is the other way around – to not strive so much (and be a show-off) and stress more about failing and making mistakes, because that is what so many people do and heaven forbid, you should be better. Even perfectionists of group 1 get a lot of bad press as being difficult to work with and demanding of others (I remember comments on Barbra Streisand, for example, although I don’t know if she’s a 1 or a 2, of course).
    That said, the opinion of others is less important than those you have of yourself, but a deeper insight is the key to freedom, again.

  2. First, I really like the picture – perfect illustration of your point.

    Also I realize that one of the core parts of this blog is your outstanding ability to take a wide range of sports performance research and apply it to music performance.

    But another benefit that comes from reading your blog is that we learn how to apply that research to a wide range of things in our life – like work, diet and marriage.

    So thanks for that, Noa. Your blog helps me so much, and I don’t even play an instrument.


  3. i too love the photo, it sure says a lot. As always you give us deep and helpful thoughts which encourage me to keep at it!! Thanks Noa.

  4. I enjoy your high-quality blogs each week! Thank you! This week, in reading your blog about the difference between perfectionistic striving versus perfectionistic concern, what struck me most was perfectionistic concern being connected to our value as a human being. Perhaps the most fundamental way to keep high standards for performance while not being dragged down by worry and concern is to release the association between performance and one’s value as a human being. To me that is a very powerful distinction and an empowering shift in attitude. Perhaps future blog articles could delve further into how to do that. Thank you!

  5. This has to be one of the best articles I’ve read yet. It was extremely helpful! I will be sharing it with students and colleagues. Thank you so very much for posting it.

  6. I really like the distinction between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. I think the latter resonates with a lot of people who derive their self-worth from how they perceive others feel about their performance.
    What’s also interesting is when you take into account how society has allowed for no winners in sports events for children and as a result, they don’t learn how to deal with not winning. You have to wonder if these children will have any sense of perfectionistic strivings, or if they do, how will that affect their perfectionistic concerns, and the realism of those concerns.
    Great article -it makes people think.

  7. Excellent article! It’s true–you can let mistakes slide and still consider yourself a perfectionist. Dwelling on a mistake only draws attention to it, offering to the audience a sense that you are prioritizing your image over your ability.

    You hit the nail on the head with your suggestion that we reevaluate why we want to achieve at such a high level. If performing is about gratifying an authority figure or judge, then we’ve already lost the battle against perfectionistic concerns.

    The shift away from thinking about satisfying a demanding overseer is made more difficult because of the fact that the systems of musical training that most of us grew up with are based on working and tweaking until our teachers are satisfied. We need to throw off the shackles of appeasing an authority.

    Don’t get me wrong–many great performers still refine their playing based on the suggestions of a teacher or trusted advisor. But their perfectionistic strivings don’t end there, and they don’t see their audience as a judge of their competence.


  8. This is a wonderfully thorough article that clearly elucidates a complex and little explored subject. It would be quite interesting and useful, if not necessary, to query accomplished musician as to their understanding and thought processes regarding perfectionistic striving, (having high standards of performance), and perfectionistic concerns, (worrying about mistakes); in order to expand our comprehension of this theme, and to complement the studies cited. I believe the four categories, (groups), that characterize the perfectionistic “mindsets’ in the Swedish study, are reasonable and establish a workable utility, or tool, that is useful for evaluating and thus correcting, or adjusting relevant performance issues. Your article constitutes the essences of insight, and provides unique and practical advice.

    Your advice, under the heading of “Take Action,” is consistent with the idea of keeping a ‘practice journal.’ Exploring through journalizing, with the information and insight you provide, in a strategic and purposeful manner, can lead to personal insight as to how we think and react to our own practice and performance; in this case the varied dimensions of perfectionistic categories.

    The question that must be considered is whether or not a practice journal can induce productive change in our practice and performance, and specifically within the present area of concern. The answer depends upon ones commitment and understanding of the process of self-reflection through writing. As with any discipline, sincerity, effort, and continuous application are absolutely necessary to elicit the desirable results. It is beyond any question possible to derive productive change through the utility of a practice journal without reference to an established system, or a published document. There are, of course, useful books that provide valuable guidelines for pursuing this goal. At present I do not use any, though I am persuaded they can be critical for many musicians seeking personal understanding, and tracking particular issues not otherwise acknowledged. In short, to derive practical insight, through journalizing, (practice journal), requires the same level of commitment as that applied to our musical practice and performance. I offer this for your consideration. Thank you.

  9. Another excellent article! It strikes me that perfectionistic striving is like playfulness – just as we might really enjoy honing our movement in sports, like finessing control of a soccer ball, there is a joy and flow of playfulness that aspires to excellence – to perfection! I read recently that complaining affects the brain.negatively. Perfectionistic concerns feel similar to complaining and they seem to also have a “weighting us down” effect. So this has me thinking that it is a good idea to reframe my thinking about all things and never use language that is “glass half empty” but always use language that frames things as the “glass half full”, and to dwell in the place of joyful playfulness, always reaching for the heights of excellence, perfection, and just enjoy the stretch! Thanks for this great blog – it is the only one I read religiously each week and it always inspires.

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