Perfectionism - Enabling or Disabling?

Perfectionism - Enabling or Disabling?
In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville, a French historian, visited the United States and observed that Americans has a strong belief in the perfectability of man. Today, a vast majority of Americans still hold this belief as an ideal reinforced by competition in sports, academia, business, industry, the arts, and the media – society in general. Striving for excellence is a normal, innate aspect of human development. Problems arise when the pursuit of excellence transforms into stalking perfection. When unattainable goals are set, and the adolescent imposes unrealistic standards of superiority on his or her process of achieving such goals, then perfectionism becomes unhealthy.

Adolescents who exhibit an unhealthy form of perfectionism are those whose standards are high beyond reach or reason, teens who strain compulsively toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment. Normal perfectionists are those who derive pleasure from striving for excellence yet recognize and accept their individual limitations. Neurotic perfectionists, however, possess unrealistic expectations and are never satisfied with their performance. These two types of perfectionists can be categorized as exhibiting either enabling perfectionism or disabling perfectionism. The enabled perfectionist is flexible in his or her application of perfectionistic standards and fells free to be more or less perfectionistic depending upon the situation. Researchers have shown the psychological need for disabled perfectionists to live up to unrealistic expectations whether self-imposed or imposed by others may reveal itself through specific maladaptive behaviors: eating disorders, depression, underachievement, substance abuse, obsessive compulsive personality disorders, psychosomatic disorders, and suicide.

There are several ways that perfectionism might manifest itself in the classroom: procrastination or delayed engagement in assignments to be evaluated; delay in assignment completion, repeatedly starting over on assignments, or refusal to turn in completed assignments; unwillingness to volunteer, share work, or participate unless certain of the correct response; dichotomous, “all-or-nothing” response to evaluation or inability to tolerate mistakes; unrealistically high performance standards; impatience with others’ imperfections; and overly emotional reactions to relatively minor errors. These negativist tendencies, if left unchecked, may seriously damage student self-concept and result in alienation, underachievement and/or a host of other maladaptive behaviors. Late childhood and early adolescence represent the prime period for acquisition of the perfectionistic mindset. Consequently, it is important to counsel perfectionistic adolescents as early as possible to avert negative or disabling results.


Hill, R., McIntire, K., & Bacharach, V. (1997). Perfectionism and the big five factors. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 12(1), 257-269.

Rice, K., Ashby, J., & Preusser, K. (1996). Perfectionism, relationships with parents, and self-esteem. Individual Psychology, 52(3), 246-260.

Adderholt-Elliot, M. (1987). Perfectionism: What’s bad about being too good? Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit.

Burns, D. (1980, November). The perfectionist’s script for self-defeat. Psychology Today, 14(6), 34-54.

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