Does this definition of neurotic perfectionism sound familiar to you? “Persons whose efforts never seem ‘good enough’ to them and always feel that ‘they could and should do better.’”
If you work in a high performing organization, that may sound like just about everyone you know, including yours truly – your very own self.
This classic definition dates from 1978, and I sometimes wonder if what was considered ‘neurotic’ 36 years ago today represents a basic minimum standard. What leader is not expected to always strive for ‘better’? Imagine telling your boss – “I am completely satisfied with all of my work and I don’t see a need to push for higher standards, so I encouraging my team to maintain the status quo for the next year.” Hmmmm.
Although striving for ‘better’ is rightly a deeply rooted value in healthy work cultures, it can come with liabilities, and if high performance is the goal, it’s useful to know where perfectionism begins to work against excellent outcomes.
Danger Ahead – The Liability
Since the classic definition in 1978, researchers have identified ‘pathological self-criticism’ as the core of what is harmful about perfectionism. In this version, the high standards that have been set become an excuse to mete out a stream of verbal punishments towards ourselves, such as ‘you idiot,’ ‘you failed again,’ ‘I can’t believe how badly you messed that up,’ etc.
Although this type of self-punishment can lead to increased productivity for a period of time, it is counterproductive over the long term for three reasons:
- Damaged Self-Esteem – lowers the value and appreciation we have for ourselves
- Personal Ineligibility – limits our sense of being eligible for positive opportunities and relationships
- Negative Emotional States – associated with negative feelings and related loss of energy and motivation
Don’t Miss Out – The Asset
If pathological self-criticism is the liability in perfectionism, it turns out that the asset is the practice of holding high standards. A 2002 study found that “Holding high personal standards seems adaptive in its positive relationship to self esteem.”
The key to holding high standards without being overly self-critical is adopting a winning attitude:
- Set goals that are concrete and possible to achieve
- If you meet your goals, pause to acknowledge and celebrate wins
- If you fall short of your goals, celebrate what you did achieve
- Practice enjoying the work itself, independent of outcome
How Do I Stay Motivated?
If all this sounds nice, but you are wondering how to stay motivated without that internal lashing going on, you are not alone. The idea that self-punishment is necessary for achieving success is a tempting and powerful narrative, but more and more researchers are concluding that this is a faulty association.
For example, a 2011 study found a “consistent pattern of negative association between self-criticism and goal progress.”
At the same time, the “results showed a positive association between self-oriented perfectionism and goal progress when self-criticism was controlled.”
In other words, not only is self-criticism unpleasant, it also undermines goal progress.
Self-criticism is a Bad Habit
For those of us who have spent a lifetime trying to use self-criticism as a motivating force, it can take a considerable amount of awareness and effort to quit what turns out to be just another bad habit.
The upside is that life without it will be more easeful and joyful, and we are likely to experience more success than before.
So to upgrade to the 21st century version of perfectionism for high performance, ditch the self-criticism, keep the high standards, and adopt a winning attitude so that your goals are concrete and do-able and you can set yourself up for countless wins along the way, while pausing to celebrate each one.
 Hamachek, D. E. (1978). Psychodynamics of normal and neurotic perfectionism. Psychology, 15, 27-33.
 Bergner, R. M. (1995). Pathological self-criticism: Assessment and treatment. New York: Plenum Press.
 JS Ashby, KG Rice (2002). Perfectionism, dysfunctional attitudes, and self‐esteem: A structural equations analysis. Journal of Counseling & Development, 80(2), 202.
 Theodore A. Powers, Richard Koestner, David C. Zuroff, Marina Milyavskaya, and Amy A. Gorin (2011). The Effects of Self-Criticism and Self-Oriented Perfectionism on Goal Pursuit. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 37(7), 964–975