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As with most things in life, there is a good and a bad way to approach being a perfectionist. There are two sides to the perfectionist coin, so to speak. There is a way to harness all of the motivation for success that drives perfectionists without letting crippling self-doubt take over. In order to do so, we must first understand what separates positive perfectionists from negative perfectionists.

“Normal perfectionists set realistic standards for themselves, derive pleasure from their painstaking labors, and are capable of choosing to be less precise in certain situations,” wrote psychologist Don E. Hamachek on the differences between the two types of perfectionists in 1978. “Neurotic perfectionists, on the other hand, demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance, experience their efforts as unsatisfactory, and are unable to relax their standards.”

By understanding the psychology behind perfectionists, we can learn to harness the good, discard the bad and become the best, and most successful, perfectionists we can be. Let’s take a look at what separates a negative perfectionist from a positive perfectionist.

Negative Perfectionist

Good and bad perfectionism comes down to who’s watching. The “unhealthy” kind of perfectionist is motivated by external pressure and an overwhelming fear of failure. When perfectionists are concerned with not disappointing others, they can easily become paralyzed by fear. Without the resilience and work ethic that more positive perfectionists possess, a preoccupation with the opinions of others can lead to self-defeating behaviors including procrastination. Negative perfectionists have a tendency to be continually dissatisfied with the outcome of their efforts which, over time, leads to poor performance.

Negative perfectionists are also more likely to burn out at work. They set high, rigid and inflexible goals for themselves and are oftentimes unwilling to adapt to changing circumstances. By measuring their success based on the goals they have achieved rather than their personal growth, and by comparing themselves to others, unhealthy perfectionists are left feeling dissatisfied with their days and their career in general. This anxiety and uncertainty about their own capabilities causes mental resources to be surrendered, as their attention shifts towards people rather than work.

Positive Perfectionist

A “healthy” perfectionist’s drive for excellence is internally motivated. They don’t partake in the same self-defeating behaviors that can sabotage success. In general, perfectionists are better off when they are their own worst critics. Positive perfectionism means pursuing excellence for your own sake, without fearing potential failure.

In terms of their career, this positive outlook protects against the risk of burnout. Their cheery disposition and sense of independence enables healthy perfectionists to better cope with daily disappointments. An analysis of 43 studies on perfectionism conducted by Andrew P. Hill of York St John University and Thomas Curran of the University of Bath reveal the many sides of this personality trait.

“Our findings suggest that one element of perfectionism, the tendency to set exceedingly high goals and strive for them, is not in isolation a problem,” wrote Hill. “In fact, if you set high goals and achieve them, you will feel motivated and good about yourself.”

Even when perfectionists aren’t completely satisfied with their own achievements, their performance and well being are positively influenced when they are not plagued by stress and anxiety. Self-oriented perfectionists keep social anxieties and other distractions at bay so they can get down to work. Their drive for perfection allows them to focus on getting better and beating their own personal best. This kind of positive perfectionism can result in great innovation and success.

In life, too much or too little perfectionism can be a bad thing that ultimately leads to a lack of productivity. Finding the right balance is where the advantage lies. Negative perfectionists are overwhelmed by a fear of failure and pressure from the outside world, whereas positive perfectionists live for the thrill of success and are internally motivated. In life and work, it’s okay to strive for perfection, set high standards and challenge yourself, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. A light heart will go a long way towards becoming the perfect perfectionist.


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