The Challenge of Being a Perfectionist

Are you a perfectionist? Maybe you are if you have overly high standards of performance that are accompanied by harsh critical self-evaluations? Or maybe you coach people who are perfectionists, what do you do?

Following my blog “Failure is Part of the Process”  there was an interesting discussion on the LinkedIn group that led into the subject of perfectionism. A few days ago I received my copy of the International Coaching Psychological Review with a very interesting paper by Sarah Corrie and Stephen Palmer on coaching individuals with perfectionistic tendencies.

perfectionist-image

 

Sarah and Stephen discuss perfectionism in some detail quoting previous research into the subject. Perfectionism is described as a personality trait and a pattern of thinking in which there is unrealistic exacting self-standards, accompanied with doubting actions, being unduly preoccupied with making mistakes and excessively critical self evaluation.

I remember many years ago, my psychology lecturer giving a ‘health warning’ at the start of our clinical psychology classes. He said that as the symptoms of psychological disorders are described, it is common for students to recognise the symptoms in themselves. However, this does not mean that they have the condition! Well I’m back in that lecture room with my psychology lecturer, because as I read Sarah’s and Stephen’s paper I felt a strong connection with the symptoms described!

However, I got some comfort, as the paper went on to explain there are positive  aspects to being a perfectionist, for example:

  • A positive correlation with creativity.
  • Higher academic achievement.
  • Higher levels of motivation to achieve.
  • An increased sense of personal efficacy and high self-esteem.

One researcher stated that when striving for excellence is accompanied by sufficient flexibility to allow for human frailties and personal limitations, perfectionism could be a positive attribute.

However, perfectionism also has a negative influence on well being when associated with rigid, unrelenting excessively high standards in which minor infringements cannot be tolerated, including:

  • Reduced personal productivity and life satisfaction.
  • Impaired interpersonal relationships.
  • Being difficult to line manage.
  • Being problematic for subordinates to work for.
  • Increased stress.
  • Procrastination and avoidance.

So it seems that there is an optimal level of perfectionism that aids performance and goal achievement. There is also an excessively high level that has a detrimental impact. This reminded me of the Yerkes Dodson performance-tension curve described in Chapter 7 of Challenging Coaching. Too little and too much of an attribute is problematic, but a middle amount aids performance.

challenging coaching tension graph

Sarah Corrie and Stephen Palmer say that when working with a coachee who displays signs of perfectionism it is important to raise awareness of the difference between positive and negative aspects of the trait. Then modify unhelpful aspects, and develop new standards of performance to aim for a ‘good enough’ outcome and the healthy pursuit of excellence.

I often hear people in business say “Oh, it’s just me, I’m a bit of a perfectionist” and in the many years of coaching, I have come across a number of perfectionists. However, all could be described as having a positive and optimal level of the tendency. The excessively harsh and rigid negative perfectionists may be less common, but certainly would require an expert psychological intervention.

Post your thoughts on the Challenging Coaching LinkedIn Group.

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