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The Difference between Perfectionism and 'Healthy Striving'

Jan 23, 2014

So, you're at a job interview and the manager asks: “Name one of your negative traits” and in your mind, you're like: “Oh yeah, I got this.” And you launch into the classic: “I'm a total perfectionist. Everything has to be just right.”

Short-term, this is probably a better answer than: “I obsessively send WhatsApp chats to all my friends...who also have part-time jobs they hate.”

But what if being a perfectionist isn't a great thing?

Perfectionists are high-achievers, they get things done!” Sure. But research shows that even though perfectionists are high-achievers, they are also at higher risk of depression and anxiety. And not only that: a lot of the time, they just aren't able to enjoy what they've achieved. Psychology Today, in its article Pitfalls of Perfectionism, provided a shocking example from the world of dance: “Karen Kain, Canada's prima ballerina...gave over 10,000 performances... In her biography, she wrote that she received satisfaction from about 12 of them. Her primary feeling about her abilities was disappointment.”

In sports, perfectionism is routinely praised – almost a given if you want to be successful, right? But sports psychologists warn of clear downsides: perfectionists get too focused on technique, they play cautiously in order to avoid mistakes and they obsessively overanalyze their performance. Being a perfectionist can negatively affect your play. Recent case in point: the 49ers' Colin Kaepernick's grim performance in the NFC Championship Game and his subsequent post-game assessment: “I cost us this game.”

So all this isn't to say you shouldn't try hard or work to achieve success. But there's a healthy way to achieve your goals: Aim to be, what Brené Brown, TED talks presenter and author of The Gifts of Imperfection, calls a 'Healthy Striver' instead of a perfectionist. Be kind to yourself, really savour your successes and understand that things may not always work out exactly how you planned.

So, are you a perfectionist or a 'healthy striver'?

Perfectionists

  • Motivated by fear of failure, obligation or duty
  • Driven to be the best, but unable to enjoy accomplishments
  • Feels that their sense of self worth and acceptance is based on accomplishments

Healthy Strivers

  • Motivated by enjoyment of the process, enthusiasm, enjoyment of what they do
  • Their efforts (not just results) give them satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment
  • Their self-esteem isn't based on accomplishments, they don't feel the need to impress people to earn acceptance or love

You can find more ways to distinguish between perfectionism and healthy striving on Centennial College's Career and Counselling Centre page. Here you can also find their Student Tips Sheets on subjects like Procrastination, Improving Concentration and Life Balance.