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23 July 2014
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You are here: BBC Science > Human Body & Mind > The Mind > Personality and individuality

Seeking perfection

Nobody's perfect

Perfectionists are people who strive to meet very high standards in everything they do, be it in the workplace, in sport, cooking or DIY. As with all personality traits, there are different degrees of perfectionism. Perfectionists can be lumped into two categories based on how flexible they are about their standards:

  • Normal perfectionists - set high standards for themselves but drop their standards if the situation requires it
  • Neurotic perfectionists - never feel that they have done their job well enough. They are very intolerant of mistakes and extremely self-critical
Man sitting at desk
Perfectionists often feel as if their work is never complete

Risk of illness

Normal perfectionists are often high achievers in life. Perfectionism is usually a good trait whether you are a banker, athlete, artist, actor or builder, because it makes you good at what you do. For example, many professional athletes score highly on perfectionism.

But neurotic perfectionists who criticise themselves excessively, put themselves at risk from psychological and physical disorders including:

  • Depression
  • Alcoholism
  • Social phobia
  • Coronary Heart Disease
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD)
  • Suicide
  • Anorexia nervosa
  • Writer's block

Six dimensions of perfectionism

Dr Randy Frost of Smith College, Massachusetts has developed a 35-item questionnaire, or scale, designed to measure perfectionism. The scale recognizes six different dimensions of perfectionism.

Bottles of whisky
Perfectionists are at risk from disorders such as alcoholism

Concern over mistakes

Perfectionists get more upset over mistakes than other people because they are scared that others will think badly of them. As a result, perfectionists are less likely to seek help in rectifying errors, and have a stronger urge to cover up mistakes. Excessive concerns over mistakes can put people at risk of phobias and mood disorders.

Personal standards

Setting high standards that you feel compelled to meet is a common trait of normal and neurotic perfectionists. The setting of high personal standards is thought to contribute to the eating disorder anorexia nervosa.

Parent expectations

Trying hard to live up to your parents' expectations of you is a common feature of perfectionism. This could be because they grow up in households where parents give their children love on condition that they meet their expectations. These children try to do everything perfectly to avoid being rejected by their parents.

Children running a race on sports day
Perfectionists might have parents who demand that they achieve

Parental criticism

Seeking to appease your parents is often accompanied by the worry that your mother and father will criticise your achievements. As children, these people may have punished for making mistakes. Consequently, they also develop the sense that they will never meet their parents' high standards.

Doubting of actions

Feeling uncertain when a job is finished is a common feature of perfectionism. As a result, these people are often reluctant to give up on tasks and sometimes need to be told to 'leave it alone now'. Doubting can also make perfectionists very indecisive.

Organisation

Perfectionists tend to be fussy and exacting about whatever they do. They also have a preoccupation with making everything neat and tidy. This is not a direct cause of perfectionism, but does affect how perfectionists try to achieve their high standards.


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