What women know about the science of perfectionism

Perfectionism thrives on uncertainty, scholars say — but women may also be held to different standards

By Gail Cornwall
Published April 30, 2021 8:00PM (UTC)
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Preparing pencils (Peter Dazeley/Getty Images)

In September 2020, a male perfectionism scholar had his assistant tell me he would "not be available for further interviews" after I got a time difference wrong. I had all five kids in my blended family at home, their Zoom breaks perfectly misaligned to produce a steady stream of "Mamaaaaaaas" and "Gaaaaaaails," on the day I missed his call. Taken aback, I wrote in my notes: perfectionism is a virtue/vice not allowed mothers at this moment in history. And then, naturally, I tweeted about it. Excluding the handful of folks who reminded me I'm the one who chose to have kids in the first place, a wave of support followed. In swam many women academics and clinicians. What do you need? they asked.

What I needed was to understand the science behind the term we all take for granted. What does it mean to be a perfectionist? Is it a good strategy? What makes perfectionism more intense? Are there ways to be less stressed out by it? Our conversations felt a bit like an episode of "MythBusters," as we picked apart what the idea of perfectionism really meant, and what its harms (or benefits) might be.

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Perfectionism isn't what you think

What a lot of us call perfectionism may actually be "functional pursuit of excellence" or "adaptive perfectionistic striving." Of true self-oriented perfectionism, Natalie Dattilo, Ph.D., the director of psychology and the department of psychiatry at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said: "It's debilitating. It's terrible. It's awful, despite its benign-sounding name." 

Both adaptive striving and perfectionism involve setting a high bar, making them hard to distinguish. Emily Bilek, Ph.D. told me the difference boils down to two factors: how explicitly defined your standards are, and how you react to not meeting them. Someone with functional pursuit of excellence might say, "I'd love to get a 94 or higher on this test, but I'll be pleased with anything over an 89," whereas many perfectionists won't be satisfied in a world in which extra credit exists. Dr. Bilek, a clinical assistant professor in the University of Michigan's department of psychiatry, tells her patients to think of a pole vault. If you're a perfectionist, the height of the bar often isn't really defined when you launch yourself into the air, and "your brain is really sneaky," she said. It'll raise the bar no matter how high you jump, always whispering, "Ah, that just wasn't good enough."

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The second piece of the puzzle is what happens when you get a 93 ... or an 88. If shame or another type of critical self-evaluation follows, that's a problem; if you can muster self-compassion amid your disappointment, it's the healthier variety. It's perfectionism if your sense of self is so tied to your performance that a mistake threatens it; it's more like adaptive striving if you can fail and still feel capable of tackling the next challenge. Perfectionists tend to overgeneralize from their mistakes and ruminate about them. Those who strive for excellence see shades of gray, but die-hard perfectionists often recognize only two options: complete success and abject failure.

Jennifer Petriglieri, who lives in France, studies leadership development, among other things, as an associate professor at INSEAD. "The biggest surprise is, you probably don't know who's a perfectionist," she told me. You may assume it's the person who has to have all the spines lined up on their bookshelf or the hard-driving CEO. "But really there is this layer of hidden perfectionism … people who are very hard on themselves, and they wouldn't necessarily come across as perfectionists."

Perfectionists can get ahead, to a point 

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Fear of making mistakes, researchers say, leads to hypervigilant performance monitoring that can make you less efficient. Proofreading your work? Fine. But reviewing an email for typos, five, six, seven times will impact productivity, said Marina Milyavskaya, Ph.D., an associate professor at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Procrastination and even avoiding taking on a project altogether are also common byproducts of perfectionism. Dr. Dattilo explained why: "If it has to be done a certain way, at a certain level of quality, it's sometimes safer just to not do it at all." After all, who really wants to invite a challenge to their self-worth? "In order to keep that intact," she said, perfectionists would rather ride the bench than get put in the game and come up short—or they might just skip tryouts.

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Perfectionism also causes considerable distress, or as the authors of a 2020 study out of Texas State University put it, "psychopathological burden." True perfectionism is accompanied by worry, intrusive thoughts, and obsessions. It manifests in setting up rigid rules and experiencing stress when they aren't followed, and is commonly associated with generalized anxiety disorder, OCD, and eating disorders, among other diagnoses. 

In a milder iteration, perfectionistic thinking can make you feel less fulfilled and inspired. Nicole Coomber, Ph.D., an assistant dean at the University of Maryland's Smith School of Business, replied to my tweet too. She pointed to the work of her colleague Trevor Foulk, Ph.D. on "maximizing" which he later explained, "basically means looking for the best, most optimal solution." On the other hand, "satisficing" entails establishing minimum criteria and being cool with anything that fits the bill. Foulk and a colleague found associations between a maximizing mindset and decreased motivation. As Coomber put it, "If you are always seeking the best, most optimal outcome then you actually enjoy work less." That helps explain why self-oriented perfectionism is a risk factor for burnout.

But there can be "real positive payoffs," Petriglieri told me, with society often rewarding perfectionistic behavior. "That makes it hard to stare a perfectionist down and say, 'This is damaging you.' Many people get where they get because they give 150 percent. The short-term gains keep accruing and the long-term impact can take months or years to really show."

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Once a perfectionist, always a perfectionist? Not so fast

Perfectionism can also be uneven in its impact on your life. "When we think of perfectionism, we tend to think it's all about the person," Professor Petriglieri told me: "Gail is a perfectionist and wherever she is, she will be a perfectionist. That is not what the research shows." We may be born with perfectionistic vulnerability, but our upbringing, experiences, and current situation can "turn the dial up or turn the dial down."

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Conscientiousness, one of the Big Five personality traits (the others are extraversion, agreeableness, openness, and neuroticism), has been tied to perfectionism, as has a predisposition to anxiety, but studies on twins suggest that genetics are far from the only factor. Indeed, firstborns are more likely to be perfectionists than younger siblings. Children of perfectionists, several studies show, tend to become perfectionists themselves. When people develop vulnerable narcissism, perfectionism often comes along for the ride. What's more, the interpersonal styles of some parents, co-workers, and romantic partners, Petriglieri said, can trigger a person's perfectionistic tendencies more than others. 

A life change, particularly one accompanied by an identity shift, can also, wrote Alexandra Sacks, M.D. and Catherine Birndorf, M.D. in "What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions from Pregnancy to Motherhood." Bilek explained why: "Perfectionism is going to thrive on uncertainty." That's partially because the height of the pole vault bar is even more undefined, but it's also because, "when I feel uncertain, here's the one coping skill I know: I'll just be perfect."

When musicians win awards, Petriglieri told me, "It can hugely activate that perfectionism." So too can a successful surgical practice. Dr. Dattilo, whose patients are doctors, said, "There's a lot of pressure to perform at a certain level, and that's what others have come to expect of them, and what they have come to expect of themselves."

Zoom out from workplace culture to larger cultural dynamics, like Americans' infamous work ethic. Noticing that all the women I connected with through Twitter are white, I contacted a couple more experts. Serena Chen chairs the psychology department at the University of California, Berkeley. She said, "Growing up in an Asian household, self-compassion sounds ludicrous. Sounds too luxurious." A "buck up," more perfectionist mindset was the norm, in her experience. Though it's not conclusive, there's some research to support this idea that different cultures breed different levels of perfectionism.  

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Then there's "stereotype threat." Chevon Mathews, MA, LCPC, LPC, NCC, BC-TMH, told me about research showing that being the only one—say, the only woman—in the room can make a person feel like they're under a microscope. Thinking you have to be twice as good as everyone else to disprove assumptions produces a similar cycle of self-doubt and performance anxiety. "Black people are constantly under scrutiny while existing in non-Black spaces," said Mathews, who is the Assistant Clinical Director at Onyx Therapy Group. "When stereotypes present themselves combined with perfectionistic tendencies, it creates a space where there's no room for error, which is an unrealistic and unhealthy space."

The myth that you're either a perfectionist or you're not is further dispelled by a concept called "domain-specific perfectionism." Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., a professor at the Ohio State University who focuses on psychology pertaining to families, told me, "Someone could be very perfectionistic when it comes to their work but, for example, might not be as perfectionistic when it comes to parenting."

When I interviewed these experts, I'd recently read about teens and how the "identity-relevance" of a situation impacts their level of conformity. So I asked: Is it possible we display perfectionistic tendencies in those domains that most directly impact our identity? They all said yes, and now I know how it's possible for me to shed tears over an errant semicolon yet grab a karaoke mic and glory in compliments like, "Bruno Mars would never have written that song if he'd known it'd come to this."

It also explains why, in a study of college students, females tended to be more perfectionistic about appearance and relationships, while physical activity tended to bring out perfectionism in males. 

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Professor Milyavskaya explained the mechanism to me: That second piece of perfectionism, the self-criticism that follows missing our mark, tends to stay constant between domains, but if something matters less to us, we don't set such lofty standards in the first place.

Mindset shift 

One of the tricks I've long used to tame my perfectionistic impulses involves redefining perfect. Take, for example, the goal of not yelling at my kids. If I fall short and raise my voice, I can avoid self-flagellation by telling myself that children need to observe anger in others to understand that humans have limits and that their own big emotions are valid. So actually, my self-talk goes, I'm doing the very best by my children when I occasionally lose my temper and model how to apologize.

Like a good therapist, Dr. Bilek first offered me affirmation. "I love that," she said. But, in her ideal world, "We want to not only redefine perfect, but perhaps let go of that expectation of ourselves entirely." It's not enough to run an honest cost-benefit analysis around where we set the "perfect" bar. (What are the real consequences of putting in less time and effort?) Rather, she wants us to question perfectionism itself: "Ask why do I subscribe to these beliefs? Where's it coming from?" she said, "You think, 'I would never achieve what I have if it weren't for my perfectionism,' and I just want you to start wondering whether you've been successful in spite of this."

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To build up a willingness for things to be "poorly done," Dr. Dattilo suggested shifting our focus from destination to journey. She told me about a patient who took up cooking in order to relax. The woman followed the recipe to a T, but it didn't come out as she'd hoped. Again and again she tried, becoming increasingly upset. "And what happens is, you are so caught up in needing to get it just right, that you are almost consumed by that, and the whole thing isn't enjoyable when the point was to have it be fun." Being more invested in the process than the outcome, she said, can make us less rigid and make disappointment less crushing.

Self-compassion

In their cognitive behavioral therapy, Drs. Sacks and Birndorf "encourage patients to look at patterns in the language they use when they narrate their own thoughts." The word "should" is a big red flag. They recommend writing down the "should" statements that pop into your brain.

What happens next, Dr. Chen is an expert in. She says taking these thoughts and practicing self-compassion can protect you from the distress associated with perfectionism. "It's not woo-woo or complicated like I thought it was," she assured me, listing three components. First, be kind to yourself. That can entail adopting a satisficing mantra before, during, and after a task. Try something like, "Good enough is good enough." Doing this can often feel a lot like pretending to be your own best friend: "I should make a cupcake for each element and lay them out as a giant periodic-table for my daughter's science fair" gets the response, "How much sleep did you already lose helping plan this thing? They're lucky you're showing up with pants on!"

You'd probably remind that buddy that social media images aren't realistic. (To repeat, social media images are not realistic.) And you'd probably tell them their so-called flaws are part of what make them loveable. If that sounds hard to believe, look up the Japanese word kintsugi. I first read about it in Maggie Smith's book "Keep Moving." The art of fixing broken ceramics with gold celebrates imperfection: "The brokenness is not only the most beautiful part but also the strongest part," Smith explained.

The second approach to self-compassion involves stepping back and taking a humanity-wide viewpoint. "Everybody makes mistakes," Dr. Chen said. "You are not the first to not get a promotion, and you won't be the last." It's about gaining distance.

"One regrettable choice doesn't need to define or condemn you," Drs. Sacks and Birndorf suggested telling yourself, along with "Rather than beating yourself up, you can simply make a different choice next time."

Acceptance is the big ask here. Accept that everybody makes mistakes. At the speaker series Dean Coomber runs, "almost every single leader that comes up has a story of a setback or something that helped them learn and grow." Buying into the idea that opportunity accompanies failure challenges the logic of "if I fail, then I'm a failure." And it allows you to bake imperfection into your goal setting. Step one: Put yourself out there. Step two: Fail. Step three: Put yourself out there again.

The final piece of self-compassion falls under the heading of equanimity: "Just try to maintain balance without getting overwhelmed with negative emotion," Dr. Chen said. You can do this by finding some small thing to be grateful for when all doesn't go as planned. Did I forget to ask the handyman to take a look at the garage door, and now I have to pay 10 times as much to the specialty repairman? Yes, but he was available at the last minute when I was locked out of my house, and I had it all sorted within an hour. That's something to celebrate.

Techniques like deep breathing and meditation also increase equanimity. You can practice mindfulness by noticing when your internal monologue veers into perfectionist territory and saying to yourself: "I see you, brain, fixating on 'perfection' as if there's only one right way." Mathews said, "Challenging those negative thoughts while being presently aware has been helpful in improving some of my clients' overall well-being and self-efficacy."

Chunking 

Researchers have found that receiving high-quality feedback makes a job more motivating. Perfectionism is like depriving yourself of that feedback, Dean Coomber said, because "you never take a step back and appreciate your accomplishments."

It doesn't help that we get used to being able to put a number on our striving's success: 94, 93, 88. Dr. Bilek said she commonly sees those with perfectionistic tendencies get to the point where it's not just criticism that stings, but an absence of constant praise. To feel better, she said, the sense of "good enough" has to come from within. That requires significant change, not tips easily dispensed on the internet.

That said, self-feedback mechanisms provide a discrete, doable place to start. Dr. Dattilo recommended taking big tasks and "tasks that are big in your mind," and breaking them down into smaller chunks. The benefit of "chunking" all of your goals into subgoals is that you can give yourself a pat on the back for each, which will make the next feel more manageable. For me, that looks like a running tasks list in my Gmail sidebar. Some days I'm so desperate for affirmation that I add momentous feats like "shower" and "brush teeth." I'll even pop something on after I've already done it and then immediately check it off.

Dr. Bilek said, "It's tempting to say, 'Well, I don't deserve that kudos or that little burst of dopamine until I get the big thing done.' But that's setting you up to fail again." 

Therapy

Remember cognitive behavioral therapy? One variation is called "exposure therapy" and involves encouraging people to meet their fears head on. In the case of Dr. Dattilo's patient, that could mean purposefully putting in the "wrong" amount of an ingredient so she has to wing it to get the flavors to balance. "The idea is, 'Can you do it poorly on purpose? Or can you do it with half the effort, and be okay with whatever happens?" When the dish comes out edible, even tasty, it gives the lie to perfectionist thinking: Imperfection will not kill you or ruin your career—or your dinner. The practice also raises a person's ability to tolerate discomfort, she said. "Because really, that's where it stems from, is that it is too uncomfortable for it to be imperfect. And what we teach people how to do is to just sit with that, to resist the urge to fix it."

This type of therapy is about exiting your comfort zone. Put yourself in situations where you think, "This will be hard and I won't be able to do it perfectly, but it's worth doing anyway."

But with true perfectionism, behavioral change alone may not cut it. Many therapists believe you have to get to the root of why it's uncomfortable to be imperfect or what need your perfectionism is serving. To wrap my head around this approach, I tried my luck with another male perfectionism scholar. Dr. Paul Hewitt runs the Perfectionism and Psychopathology Lab at the University of British Columbia. He said, "As perfectionism is deep-rooted and part of a person's identity, it usually takes time to make deeper changes."

Then he told me the story of a patient of his who was obsessed with getting an A+ in a difficult college course. After he eventually succeeded, "he quickly turned it into a failure by stating, 'If I was truly capable and smart and deserving of an A+, I would not have had to work as hard to get the A+.'" Intense fear of underperforming and unrelenting self-criticism like this requires unpacking in psychodynamic and interpersonal psychotherapy, he said, including discussion of early life experiences.

Get some autonomy

Sometimes though, it's not you that's the issue. Drs. Sacks and Birndorf explained, "With so much out of your control, it can be tempting to become extremely strict about what you can control." When perfectionistic flames are being fanned, going to therapy, shifting your mindset, and adopting coping strategies like self-compassion and chunking can do the trick, but sometimes a different kind of change is in order.

Professor Milyavskaya told me, "Some of my research finds that self-critical individuals generally feel more controlled; providing environments that counteract that may help." In other words, if your life suddenly feels like being stuck in a too tight dress with a broken zipper in a tiny dressing room, acceptance may be as maladaptive as perfectionistic micromanagement. True, increased autonomy won't help the full-blown perfectionist. But if you're a mostly adaptive striver who's begun to be plagued by rigidity, breaking free of something else—a lockstep job, a defined course of study, a controlling marriage, unrelenting childcare—may be key to breaking free of your perfectionistic tendencies.

Chang Chen, a graduate student at the University of British Columbia, provided consultation for this article.


Gail Cornwall

Gail Cornwall works as a mother and writer in San Francisco. Connect with Gail on Twitter, or read more at gailcornwall.com.

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