Dr. Komaroff, 5-01-12: Perfectionist is an often misused label

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Q: I'm a bit of a perfectionist -- both at work and in my private life -- and my friends make fun of me for needing things to be "just so." Their teasing is good-natured, but I do sometimes wonder if my need for everything to be perfect at all times can be a bad thing. Is there a down side to my perfectionism?

A: You are far from alone. In fact, a surprisingly large number of people are told: "You're such a perfectionist." Most don't know if they should feel insulted or flattered when someone says this. And what do people mean when they say that, anyway?

We often consider something to be "perfect" when we can no longer find any errors, mistakes or flaws. Sometimes when you've done something "perfectly," it simply means that you achieved a particular standard you set for yourself. Striving to achieve a personal standard like this can lead to increased effort, accomplishment and feelings of satisfaction.

However, when taken to an extreme, these standards can do a number on your self-esteem. They can create the feeling that "nothing is ever good enough." Perfectionism can also lead to a rigid adherence to following a routine: You feel that things always have to be done a particular way, and your approach can't ever be altered.

Perfectionists who vary their routines may find themselves constantly doubting their own actions. If you're never sure you've made the right decision, you can end up always second-guessing yourself, even when you do act.

Perfectionism can bring on many different emotions. They can range from low self-esteem to strong confidence. It may make you feel anxious and tense on the one hand, or determined and persistent on the other. While being a perfectionist can give you a great sense of accomplishment, it can also lead to long-term dissatisfaction.

Think about how you usually feel when you are working on or completing an important task. The project could be a big project at work or a home renovation project. Do you feel like your self-worth rides on everything you produce? Can you recognize that it's OK to not be at your best for everything all of the time?

As with many things in life, whether your need for perfection is healthy or unhealthy comes down to a matter of degree. The question is: Does your perfectionism provide more benefit than negative aspects, or does the pressure of high standards make you unhappy?

Perfectionism can be especially detrimental when it becomes extreme -- when it interferes with your basic daily functioning, work, relationships and caring for yourself. In this case, it becomes increasingly associated with psychological disorders such as depression, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

The bottom line is that there is a difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism. When it works for you, perfectionism encourages you to achieve high but reasonable standards that lead to feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem.

Unhealthy perfectionism, on the other hand, compels you to hold yourself to unrealistically high expectations -- and can be driven by a fear of failing and disappointing others.

If you feel that your need for perfection is interfering with how you live your life and your happiness, it might be worth speaking with a professional.

One tool that may be of help is a new book from Wiley Publishers in collaboration with Harvard Health Publications, the consumer publishing division of Harvard Medical School. The Perfectionist's Handbook: Take Risks, Invite Criticism, and Make the Most of Your Mistakes, written by Harvard psychologist and executive director of the International OCD Foundation Jeff Szymanski, Ph.D., can help you identify whether your tendencies are healthy or unhealthy and give you advice on how to use them to your benefit, both at work and in the rest of your life.

(Submit questions for Dr. Komaroff to harvard_adviser@hms.harvard.edu.)

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