Motivation and emotion/Book/2022/Perfectionism

What motivates perfectionism? Is perfectionism good or bad? How can it be managed?


Figure 1. A perfectly maintained garden

Have you ever experienced an inner drive to push yourself just a little bit further to beat your opponents? To spend just that little bit longer studying for an exam? To work a little bit harder to get that perfect result (see Figure 1)? For many people, this form of striving to improve performance is an asset. However, when do these behaviours cross the line into territories of debilitating concern for mistakes, self-doubt and fear of failure? How do you know when this seemingly positive self-drive becomes an all-consuming exercise in self-criticism of the results you "should" be getting? These are the questions surrounding perfectionism; a double edged sword of good and bad. 

We live in a world that strives for perfection, whether it be what we look like, how we perform or what we do. Perfectionism has risen since the 1990s which has concerning implications for mental health and psychopathology (Curran & Hill, 2019).

Therefore, it is important to investigate the intricacies of perfectionism, the models and theories underlying the perfectionism construct, whether perfectionism is good or bad, and ways of managing its impacts in the effort to emphasise to our world that there is beauty in imperfection.

Focus questions:

  • Do you think you are a perfectionist?
  • Why do you think perfectionism has increased?
  • Do you think perfectionism is concerning? Why?

What is perfectionism?Edit

Perfectionism is a multidimensional concept with no consensus upon a definition. However, it is broadly described as an individual having high expectations of themselves, manifesting in having both constructive and/or damaging outcomes (Lo & Abbott, 2019).

Case study

Wilson loved learning. He enjoyed the process of finding new information, delegating his time and producing quality work. His brother, George, was known for being a high achiever and Wilson sometimes felt like he needed to live up to his brother's standards in order to make his parents happy. As time went on, Wilson noticed that he became stressed when approaching new tasks. Although he was interested, he felt like something was holding him back, especially when he went to start his assignment. He felt overwhelmed with emotions. He wasn't sure whether he was doing it right but also wanted to get a really good mark. These thoughts constantly floated in Wilson's mind. Is it possible that Wilson has some traits of a perfectionist?

What motivates perfectionism?Edit

The motivating factors of perfectionism can be identified and understood through both perfectionism models and motivation theories. The early 1990's[grammar?] saw two independent research groups demonstrate that perfectionism is multidimensional and far more complex than research initially suggested[factual?]. This saw the development of two scales which can spur on an understanding of perfectionism.

Figure 2. A 1904 sketch of a parent with her children. Parental expectations and criticisms have long been present in children's lives

Six dimensional modelEdit

Frost et al. (1990) proposed that perfectionism could be divided into six different dimensions:

  1. Concern over mistakes
  2. High personal standards
  3. Perception of high parental expectations
  4. Perception of high parental criticism
  5. Doubt regarding one's actions
  6. Preference for order and organisation

Although used extensively within personality and clinical psychology, this model began to show inconsistencies in different contexts. With its increased popularity, an inspection of the model's factorial structure was necessary[factual?]. A factor analysis reassessment concluded that a four factor solution improved the model's robustness and parsimony (Stoeber, 1998). The factors identified in this analysis were concern over making mistakes and doubts, parental expectations and criticism (see Figure 2), personal standards, and organisation.

Three factor modelEdit

Hewitt and Flett's (1991) three factor model reaffirms perfectionism's multidimensional nature and encompasses both personal and social components when assessing perfectionism in personality styles.

Table 1

The three factor model

Type of perfectionist (TOP) Description
Self-oriented perfectionists (SOP) Perfectionists who are motivated to hold high expectations or standards of performance for oneself, with the intrinsic need to be perfect. This is characterised by compulsive strivings for self improvement and critical self-evaluations if the individual fails to meet these expectations.
Socially prescribed perfectionists (SPP) Perfectionists who are motivated by the idea that others expect them to be perfect. These perfectionists obsess over whether they are, or their performance, is 'good enough' to meet society's expectations.
Other-oriented perfectionists (OOP) Perfectionists who hold others to high and unrealistic standards, being judgemental and critical of other's performance. It is not connected to the components of motivation for the self (intrapersonal), but rather is interpersonally focused.

Hewitt and Flett's multidimensional perfectionism scale (HMPS) has been shown to have desirable internal consistency which measures how closely related a set of items are as a group (Hewitt & Flett, 1991):

Table 2

Internal consistency of scales within HMPS

TOP Cronbach's alpha Interpretation
SOP 0.86 - 0.88 Very good
SPP 0.81 - 0.87 Very good
OOP 0.81 - 0.87 Very good
Are you a perfectionist?

Use The Multidimensional Perfectionism Test to test your level of perfectionism!

Two factor model of perfectionismEdit

It is generally agreed that two higher order factors can be comprised in order to simplify perfectionism. Popularly known as perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns, these factors encompass the theoretical underpinnings of both the three and six factor models based on the facet's origin and cognitive manifestation. Perfectionistic strivings relates to personal standards, organisation, self and other-oriented perfectionism whereas perfectionistic concerns consists of concern over mistakes, parental criticism and expectations, doubt regarding one's actions, and socially prescribed perfectionism (Spagnoli et al., 2021).

Self-determination theoryEdit

Figure 3. The link between SDT and perfectionism

Ryan and Deci’s (1991) self-determination theory (SDT) proposes that individuals' behaviour is motivated through three innate and universal psychological needs. They suggest that humans have the underlying need to feel autonomous (self-directed and control over one's behaviour), competent (effective engagement in one's environment), and maintain relationships and connectedness with others. They propose a continuum, ranging from non-self determined to self-determined, moving from a state of amotivation to intrinsic motivation.

Linking perfectionistic concerns and strivings into this model (see Figure 3) demonstrates how perfectionistic concerns are associated with a less self-determined self where the individual is motivated by extrinsic rewards and obligations. Conversely, perfectionistic strivings are linked to an individual being more self-determined where the individual is driven by intrinsic rewards, enjoyment, and personal satisfaction. This model simplifies the research findings indicating that perfectionistic concerns are positively correlated to amotivation (Barcza-Renner et al., 2016), meaning perfectionism in terms of concern for making mistakes, self doubt, and parental expectations/criticism can lead to reduced motivation, where initiating and persisting with goal directed behaviour is diminished.[for example?]

Three needs theoryEdit

McClelland (1985) proposed three driving motivators innate to each individual; the need for achievement, affiliation, and power. The need for achievement is most relevant to perfectionism and is characterised by striving for excellence, mastery of skills, and improving performance. Research generally differentiates between two motives within the need for achievement being hope for success and fear of failure. Hope for success is where cognitions and behaviours focused on achieving goals lead to positive outcomes whereas fear of failure is concentrated on achieving goals to avoid negative outcomes (Slade & Owens, 1998).

Gucciardi et al. (2012) demonstrated the prolificness of the fear of failure as it is a shame-based avoidance motive. Combining this concept with the need for achievement, individuals who do not 'live up' to their own expectations of achievements will avoid responsibility, threatening the perfectionists[grammar?] self-worth and value. In contrast, Stoeber and Becker (2008) found that the need for achievement was related to hope for success amongst female soccer players emphasising that those who strive for success during a competition show low levels of fear of failure. Thus, these individuals are motivated by the desire to performance and reach success, as opposed to the desire to avoid failure.

1 Winnie feels like she needs to portray a perfect life on Instagram to be liked by others. What kind of perfectionist does Winnie best represent?


2 Penny fails her maths exam and feels worthless. Penny is motivated by:

intrinsic rewards
the need for achievement

Is perfectionism good or bad?Edit

For individuals approaching perfectionism, it is easy to think that it is all good or all bad, having no balance in between. Research generally classes ‘good’ perfectionism as being adaptive and ‘bad’ perfectionism as maladaptive which can also be seen as perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Slaney et al. (2002) proposed that perfectionism begins to become unhealthy when one has a discrepancy between their thoughts, actions, and “the perception that one consistently fails to meet the high standards one has set of oneself,” (p. 69).

Concept check

Inferiority complex - the intense feeling of inadequacy and self doubt with low self-esteem

Reflection questions

Do you think inferiority complex can come from using social media? How?


Figure 4. Perfectionism can cause intense amounts of psychological distress that is overwhelming for the individual and can result in a decline in life satisfaction

Bieling et al. (2004) conducted a study examining the divide between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. 194 undergraduate students completed both the Frost and Hewitt MPS along with two psychological distress measures. The results found that maladaptive perfectionism was more strongly associated with the depression, emotional distress, anxiety, fear of failure, and avoidant coping. These findings align with the principles of perfectionism and demonstrate the potential difference between perfectionistic strivings and concerns. As this study was cross-sectional, it could be strengthened by taking a longitudinal approach to reveal if these maladaptive perfectionistic components continued within each individual. These findings also may not be generalisable as students are notorious for being stressed with university pressures.

Flett and Hewitt (2014) stress the importance of having perfectionism included as a risk factor of suicide. They urge the need for a person-centred approach to promote resilience and coping mechanisms which recognise that individuals who experience perfectionism in conjunction with hopelessness, psychache, and daily negative self-schemas are at greater risk of suicide and suicide ideation (see Figure 4).

Maladaptive perfectionism has also been strongly associated with social anxiety, fears, and phobias. Gautreau et al. (2015) revealed that social anxiety predicted a rise in self-critical perfectionism whilst Dobos et al. (2020) found through correlational analysis that women who have greater levels of anxiety, social fears, perfectionistic concerns, and lower levels of self-esteem and efficacy were significantly less satisfied in life.

Figure 5. There is joy within adaptive perfectionism. This is where individuals are intrinsically motivated to pursue their goals


Conversely, adaptive perfectionism has been correlated to fostering a positive self-concept, where there is flexibility in the high standards set for oneself. This enables the individual to change their outlook in varying contexts and situations, adopting a problem-solving focused attitude as opposed to doubt, fear and self-judgement (Lo & Abbott, 2019).

Gaudreau and Thompson (2010) exemplified that individuals with high perfectionistic strivings demonstrated significantly higher levels of positive affect as compared to those with perfectionistic concerns. Park and Jeong (2015) found that this positive affect morphed into adaptive perfectionists scoring higher on purpose in life and a mindset of personal growth. These positive outcomes meant that these individuals were more satisfied in life and had greater levels of subjective happiness, meaning, and self-esteem. The research on positive perfectionism is limited as there is an evident, underlying perception that perfectionism is generally maladaptive. However, this neglects the findings of adaptive perfectionism benefitting people’s lives. This introduces the potential notion that a maladaptive perfectionist may be able to move into encouraging the positive features within the perfectionism construct. Future research should investigate the impact of perfectionism on mental health and well-being from a positive psychological outlook with the effect of adaptive perfectionism clinical methodologies/coping strategies on maladaptive perfectionists (see Figure 5).

Perfectionism in different contextsEdit

Table 3

Perfectionism in different contexts

Workplace Perfectionists in the workplace often have difficulty prioritising tasks, believing that each component needs to be completed equally, even when this is impossible. They may have trouble managing workloads, delegating responsibilities, and are resistant to change, limiting the opportunity for growth and improvement. Harari's et al. (2018) meta-analysis of 95 studies that met all inclusion criteria found that perfectionism was not constructive in the workplace, negatively impacting job performance. However, perfectionist's meticulous nature may also be effective in the workplace, given their attention to detail, adherence to rules and fastidious tendencies; the secret to finding a balance between these two extremes.
University/School It is well-known that student performance is important within university and school. Those who 'get higher grades' inevitably will have better physical health and earn more money (OCED, 2019), but at what cost? Interestingly, Madigan's (2019) meta-analysis of 10,000 students aged 12-21 years old found that perfectionism predicted academic success. This may sound positive however perfectionists may pay a high price for these high grades. If a perfectionist, for example, falls short of their personal (or parental) expectations, fails an exam, or is disappointed with a mark they received, they experience significant psychological distress, anxiety, and burnout. Future studies may benefit from taking a longitudinal approach to provide insight as to perfectionism tendencies across time and in different cultures in the effort to predict achievement motivation in different perfectionists.
Procrastination It may sound strange that there is a link between perfectionism and procrastination. Doesn't a perfectionist want to do the best job they can? Well, yes, however, this question may become debilitating to a perfectionist. Although the perfectionist may aspire to do the best job possible, the task may become so overwhelming that avoidance is the easiest (coping) strategy (Sederlund et al., 2020).
Eating Disorders Research has shown that people with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge eating disorders have high levels of maladaptive perfectionism, particularly socially prescribed perfectionists. They tend to have negative self-evaluations, esteem, and body dissatisfaction in the drive for thinness and perception of acceptance within social groups (Boone et al., 2014).
Sporting fields Athletes who are also perfectionists demand a lot from themselves. A better result. A faster time. Greater team cohesion. Having (exceedingly) high expectations for their performance can lead to a lack of confidence, self doubt, burnout, (both physically and mentally) and dwelling on mistakes when training and competing. Much of the literature links sporting and SDT when studying perfectionism, suggesting that coaching methods of motivating athletes can enhance or hinder performance. Aligned with SDT, Barcza-Renner et al. (2016) demonstrated that controlling coaching behaviours predicted athlete perfectionism, especially those who were socially prescribed perfectionists. This study emphasises the need for athletes to reassess self-beliefs and coaches to foster a positive motivating style that enhances an athletes well-being and performance.
Case study

Wilson began his assignment three days before it was due. His computer had many tabs open with different journal articles as he tried to work through what the literature was saying. Wilson began writing his essay (without planning) and ran into more trouble when he found there was no flow of argument and too many words. He wishes he started two weeks ago (when he had planned to). Wilson began to get even more stressed as he did not know how he was going to finish in time. What perfectionistic traits are now evident in Wilson? Can you connect Wilson's scenario to elements in Table 3?

Managing perfectionismEdit

Figure 6. Managing perfectionism infographic

Perfectionists are masters of rumination. This refers to a preservative negative cognition, which focuses on past, present and future situations, resulting in emotional distress (Sansone & Sansone, 2012); defining features of perfectionist concerns factor. Whether it be a disappointing race result or mark, focusing on the ‘failure’ element reinforces an unhealthy view of self to a perfectionist. In order to manage rumination within perfectionism, it is important to consider several elements (see Figure 6).

Greenspon (2014) emphasises the importance of “building an environment of acceptance” for perfectionists through empathy, encouragement, self reflection, and dialogue. He urges the terminology of ‘perfectionistic people’ as opposed to ‘perfectionists’ highlighting that perfectionism is not a fixed psychological state, rather a dynamic, interconnected, and personal system. Therefore the antidote to perfectionism is understanding that mistakes can be fixed and do not reflect one's identity, which can only occur in an environment of acceptance.

Perfectionism can also be managed through trained counsellors and psychologists, with cognitive and acceptance based behavioural therapy shown to be highly effective. Additionally, seeking a mentor who understands perfectionism, the perfectionist and has a balance between compassion and acceptance may serve as a powerful influence and model in breaking patterned perfectionistic behaviour (Kelly, 2015). They can assist the perfectionist in developing and maintaining a non-judgemental approach where realistic goals/standards can be set through SMART goals, a cost/benefit analysis or having an open discussion as to the perfectionists[grammar?] thoughts with those that are irrational being challenged through positive cognitive reframing (Overholser & Dimaggio, 2020).


Perfectionism is clearly not just about ‘being perfect’. It is a multidimensional construct, embracing both adaptive and maladaptive elements and stemming from a plethora of catalysts and motivators.

Wilson is a perfect example of a perfectionist with great potential but one who is weighed down with concern over his mistakes and what his parents think, self-doubt, procrastination, and the need for achievement. All defining components of the perfectionism construct[grammar?].

This small taste into the world of perfectionism may encourage personal reflection on our own self-perception and whether we can manage the effects of perfectionism personally (see Figure 6) or with professional help.

Perfectionism is not categorically ‘bad’; it’s what we personally do with it that determines its impact on our lives.

See alsoEdit


Barcza-Renner, K., Eklund, R. C., Morin, A. J., & Habeeb, C. M. (2016). Controlling coaching behaviors and athlete burnout: Investigating the mediating roles of perfectionism and motivation. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 38(1), 30–44.

Bieling, P. J., Israeli, A. L., & Antony, M. M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(6), 1373–1385.

Boone, L., Soenens, B., & Luyten, P. (2014). When or why does perfectionism translate into eating disorder pathology? A longitudinal examination of the moderating and mediating role of body dissatisfaction. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 123(2), 412–418.

Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1991). A motivational approach to self: Integration in personality. In R. A. Dienstbier (Ed.), Nebraska symposium on motivation, 1990: Perspectives on motivation (pp. 237–288). University of Nebraska Press.

Dobos, B., Urban, R., Kenny, D., & Piko, B. F. (2021). The mediating role of social phobia between perfectionism and low life satisfaction among young women. The European Journal of Counselling Psychology, 9(1), 1–6.

Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156–172.

Frost, R.O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449–468.

Gaudreau, P., & Thompson, A. (2010). Testing a 2×2 model of dispositional perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(5), 532–537.

Gautreau, C. M., Sherry, S. B., Mushquash, A. R., & Stewart, S. H. (2015). Is self-critical perfectionism an antecedent of or a consequence of social anxiety, or both? A 12-month, three-wave longitudinal study. Personality and Individual Differences, 82, 125-130.

Greenspon, T. S. (2014). Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Psychology in the Schools, 51(9), 986-999.

Gucciardi, D. F., Mahoney, J., Jalleh, G., Donovan, R. J., & Parkes, J. (2012). Perfectionist profiles among elite athletes and differences in their motivational orientations. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 34(2), 159–183.

Harari, D., Swider, B. W., Steed, L. B., & Breidenthal, A. P. (2018). Is perfect good? A meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology, 103(10), 1121–1144.

Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 456–470.

Hilt, L. M., & Pollak, S. D. (2012). Getting out of rumination: comparison of three brief interventions in a sample of youth. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 40(7), 1157–1165.

Kelly J. D. (2015). Your best life: Perfectionism- the bane of happiness. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, 473(10), 3108–3111.

Lo, A., & Abbott, M. J. (2019). Self-concept certainty in adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists. Journal of Experimental Psychopathology, 10(2),

Madigan, D. J. (2019). A meta-analysis of perfectionism and academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 31(4), 967–989.

McClelland, D. C. (1985). How motives, skills, and values determine what people do. American Psychologist, 40(7), 812–825.

Overholser, J., & Dimaggio, G. (2020). Struggling with perfectionism: When good enough is not good enough. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 76(11), 2019– 2027.

Park, H. J., & Jeong, D. Y. (2015). Psychological well-being, life satisfaction, and self-esteem among adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists, and nonperfectionists. Personality and Individual Differences, 72, 165-170.

Perestelo-Perez, L., Barraca, J., Peñate, W., Rivero-Santana, A., & Alvarez-Perez, Y. (2017). Mindfulness-based interventions for the treatment of depressive rumination: Systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology, 17(3), 282–295.

Sansone, R. A., & Sansone, L. A. (2012). Rumination: relationships with physical health. Innovations in Clinical Neuroscience, 9(2), 29–34.

Sederlund, A., R Burns, L., & Rogers, W. (2020). Multidimensional models of perfectionism and procrastination: Seeking determinants of both. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(14), 5099.

Slade, P. D., & Owens, R. G. (1998). A dual process model of perfectionism based on reinforcement theory. Behavior Modification, 22(3), 372–390.

Slaney, R. B., Rice, K. G., & Ashby, J. S. (2002). A programmatic approach to measuring perfectionism: The almost perfect scales. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 63–88). American Psychological Association.

Spagnoli, P., Buono, C., Kovalchuk, L. S., Cordasco, G., & Esposito, A. (2021). Perfectionism and burnout during the COVID-19 crisis: A two-wave cross-lagged study. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 631994.

Stoeber, J. (1998). The Frost multidimensional perfectionism scale revisited: More perfect with four (instead of six) dimensions. Personality and Individual Differences, 24"(4), 481–491.

Stoeber, J., & Becker, C. (2008). Perfectionism, achievement motives, and attribution of success and failure in female soccer players. International Journal of Psychology, 43"(6), 980–987.

Walter, N., Nikoleizig, L., & Alfermann, D. (2019). Effects of self-talk training on competitive anxiety, self-efficacy, volitional skills, and performance: An intervention study with junior sub-elite athletes. Sports (Basel, Switzerland), 7(6), 148.

Woodfin, V., Hjeltnes, A., & Binder, P. E. (2021). Perfectionistic individuals' understanding of how painful experiences have shaped their relationship to others. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 619018.

External linksEdit