Perfectionism: Dangerous Or Desirable?

Perfectionism: Dangerous or Desirable?

In all my recollections, perfectionism is routinely spoken of disparagingly by the public. Today, when I did an Internet search for “what’s wrong with perfectionism?”, what came back were countless pages of results including “9 reasons perfectionism is a bad thing”, “Pitfalls of perfectionism”, “The dangers of perfectionism”, “Perfectionism: symptoms, treatment, and prevention”, and so on.  

Then I searched for “what’s right about perfectionism?”. In those results were a few pages of favorable content but also some of the same website references as above about how hazardous perfectionism is thought to be.  

Perfectionism is defined in one dictionary as “a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.” ( 

While there probably are some individuals whose lifestyle meets that description, I think the word perfectionism is misused by many to refer to people who simply have high standards and are prudent. Why might the term be misused? This often happens when people do not learn what a word accurately means before adding it to their lexicon. They then start using it wrongly in reference to behavior that has only some similarity to an official definition.  

Is all perfectionism the same? Published in the academic journal Eating Disorders is an article titled “Positive perfectionism, negative perfectionism, and emotional eating: The mediating role of stress”. Therein, authors Hanwei Wang and Jie Li assert that “…positive perfectionism is described as perfectionistic behavior driven by the desire to achieve favorable outcomes, whereas negative perfectionism is defined as perfectionistic behavior driven by the goal to prevent failures.” (; published 2017-01-27). 

Negative perfectionism can interfere with good health if it dissuades you from taking any risk, causes you to worry endlessly, results in a constant flow of negative thoughts, and leads to taking inordinate amounts of time to accomplish things. In contrast, positive perfectionism is a healthy approach to the pursuit of excellence. Of course, none of us is perfect, but that is not a tenable excuse for unwillingness to do one’s best and make corrections and improvements as a normal part of life.  

If you tend to attack someone else’s high expectations of him/herself and others (which maybe you automatically label as “perfectionism”), could it be that you are diverting attention from your lack of commitment to doing your best in life?  

If you are satisfied with mediocre achievement in your domain and you resist calls for improvement, ask yourself these questions: Would you be content if the people who designed and manufactured your phone, car, computer, etc. did anything less than strove for perfection in their work? Would you hire a sloppy auto mechanic or accountant? Would you be fine knowing that the restaurant staff who prepared your meal gave less than the highest attention to food safety?  

Would it bother you if the dry-cleaning personnel who you entrusted with cleaning a valued garment was careless? Would it bother you if the architects, structural engineers, and construction personnel who designed and erected the buildings that you live in and work in were only moderately attentive to safety practices and standards? How would you feel about a friend borrowing something of value and not taking ideal care of it so that the item is returned in the same condition as it was loaned? 

There are businesses run by people who are apathetic about receiving feedback. They have employees in “customer service” who do little to correct problems and may make them worse. (Large businesses often fall into this category.) I have never understood this, because I imagine that those same people want high quality in the goods and services that they buy. 

Consistently striving to be your best does not necessarily have to equate to perfectionism though it could be positive perfectionism. Should creating and delivering the best quality work that each of us is capable of not be the norm? Can it not be argued that approaching new business opportunities with a healthy dose of caution (rather than diving into the unknown on a whim) is pragmatic?  

Should it not also be common practice in business to check the quality of your work for errors and explore ways to improve? If you are unwilling to do these things, why are you in business or trying to start one, and what kind of reputation do you have or seek? 

If you realize that your achievement is not what it could be, learn how to do better. Read advice from smart people. Seek and be receptive to constructive criticism. Doing your best does not remove the reality that mistakes will occur. When that happens, listen, learn, thoughtfully consider how to correct the situation, then do so. Others will appreciate it.  

If you are accustomed to settling for averageness, you are missing out on the joy of discovering what you are capable of. In my many years of teaching post-secondary mathematics, I met numerous students who had been used to producing minimum quality work. They quickly saw that I expected more of them. I felt a moral duty to push them to do better, and most students who were not already in the habit of doing their best realized this over time and came to respect it. 

What was remarkable to me in those years was how many students who previously thought nothing of unnecessarily arriving late to class, or producing sloppy work, or quickly abandoning assignments that required much thinking gradually changed their attitudes on these things and discerned that they were capable of more. Even better was when I learned that their heightened standards lasted beyond my class.  

Within the first year that The Simpsons premiered (on Fox), child character Bart Simpson was seen in T-shirt designs proclaiming himself as “Underachiever (and proud of it, man!)” The design was banned by some school principals. (; The Associated Press, 1990-05-22). To what extent that slogan influenced American views toward personal excellence or was merely a reflection of what already existed is debatable. Nonetheless, I have not sensed a focus on personal excellence as generally increasing in society in the 3+ decades since then. On the contrary, a proliferation of cheap products, terrible customer service, and comfort with mindlessly scrolling through social media pages without learning anything of real value seem to be characteristic of the country. 

Again, I am not encouraging extremism. It is possible to take a standard of excellence to such an extent that it becomes an impediment to advancement.  

(Image credit: i pinimg com) 

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    1. Thanks, Mike!

      There’s a tendency in American society to view nearly everything (people, ideas, and other things) as either all good or all bad. Life is more complicated than that. I think perfectionism is a concept that has value if not taken to an extreme.