David Liu is a technology entrepreneur in San Francisco. He has helped found several start-ups to market products he has developed, including those stylus pens the UPS driver hands you to sign for your packages. But even as he dreams up new inventions, an ongoing patter in his head objects that they are stupidly obvious. And despite his accomplishments, Liu teeters on a mental precipice: “It feels shameful, like, hey, I’m in my early 30s, I should have had a Yahoo by now—or I should at least have had a company I sold for tons of money.”

Liu is a perfectionist, someone who demands utmost excellence from himself, an expectation that can lead to fear of failure and reflexive self-criticism. Even when he is doing well, Liu has trouble feeling good about himself. “It’s so habitual, the beating-myself-up part,” he says.

Perfectionists, research shows, can become easily discouraged by failing to meet impossibly high standards, making them reluctant to take on new challenges or even complete agreed-upon tasks. The insistence on dotting all the i’s can also breed inefficiency, causing delays, work overload and even poor results. Perfectionism can hurt health and relationships, too. It is associated with anorexia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, social anxiety, writer’s block, alcoholism and depression. Such problems may be prevalent: a 2007 study that evaluated more than 1,500 college students revealed that nearly one quarter of them suffered from an unhealthy form of perfectionism.

And yet in recent years, some psychologists have amassed evidence suggesting that perfectionism encompasses positive qualities, including a drive to succeed, an inclination to plan and organize, and a focus on excellence. Why else would people brag about the trait in job interviews? Healthy perfectionists embrace the trait’s sunnier side while minimizing its darker features. Hilary Bowen, a straight-A senior at Northwestern University who made the U.S. World Cup lacrosse training team, considers herself a perfectionist. She sets the bar at the highest notch when it comes to athletics and academics. But Bowen’s goals, though ambitious, are realistic, and she does not let mistakes get her down. “If I get a good grade, maybe it wasn’t 100, but it was a good grade, then I see it as, ‘That’s awesome, that’s what I wanted to do,’ ” she says. “But at the same time, I still push myself. I’m like, okay, I still want to get even better.”

In recent years researchers have developed tools to parse and measure the beneficial, along with the detrimental, aspects of perfectionism. In addition, they are developing treatment programs that push perfectionistic tendencies in a more positive direction. Perfectionism is not an official psychiatric illness. Nevertheless, therapy not only may make the afflicted happier and more successful but may even help ameliorate associated mental illnesses, from anorexia to anxiety disorders.

Enemy of the Good
Psychologists have long been aware of the problems of perfectionism. In a 1980 article entitled “The Perfectionist’s Script for Self-Defeat,” psychiatrist and author David D. Burns wrote that perfectionism backfires when people measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and achievement. Vulnerable to a loss of self-esteem and painful mood swings after any setback, such people apply themselves inconsistently and ultimately accomplish less because of their perfectionism.

More recent work points to the psychological perils of unreasonable aspirations, which set people up to fail. In a 2003 study a team led by psychologist Peter J. Bieling of McMaster University in Ontario evaluated 198 students for perfectionism and then asked them what grade they wanted to get on an upcoming midterm. The perfectionists aimed for higher grades than nonperfectionists did, but on average, the two types of students performed the same on the test; the perfectionists were thus more likely to fall short of their ambitions. And rather than adjusting their expectations to reality, perfectionists who did not get the grades they wanted insisted on keeping or even raising the bar for the next exam. These high standards, rigidly upheld, can lead increasingly to feelings of failure.

Perfectionists may also adopt inefficient work habits that hurt their actual performance. They may labor slowly, agonizing over every detail, spending much more time on a project than it warrants—and often without much additional benefit. They may procrastinate, because projects that must be perfect often seem daunting [see “I’ll Do It Tomorrow,” by Trisha Gura; Scientific American Mind, December 2008/January 2009]. Robert Abatecola, 42, spent five years researching Victorian plastering techniques before he got around to repairing the cracked walls in his San Jose, Calif., home because he wanted to be sure to preserve the 1896 Queen Anne–style house’s historical authenticity.

No one is a perfectionist in every situation or area of life. Some people are persnickety about the neatness of their home, others about their work, still others about their physical appearance or about relationships—for example, wanting to pen the ideal personalized note inside dozens of holiday cards every year.

Regardless, such tendencies can be especially evident when the stakes are high. In a 1990 study psychologist Randy O. Frost of Smith College and his then student Patricia A. Marten (now Marten DiBartolo and a psychologist at Smith) asked 51 female college students—some of whom scored high on a perfectionism scale—to rewrite a paragraph from a textbook, measuring their emotional state before and after the task. Highly perfectionistic students did fine when the pressure was low. But when told that their work would be evaluated and compared with that of other people, they rated the task as more important and felt worse about it than nonperfectionists did. What is more, the perfectionists’ writing turned out to be inferior in general—probably because perfectionists, fearing criticism, avoid opportunities to get editing feedback and consequently do not develop their skills, the authors speculated.

As the gap between their expectations and their results widens, perfectionists may lose even more confidence, causing them to shrink from new challenges. Ironically, the more emphasis perfectionists place on excellence—the more they care—the more they may undermine their own chances of success. Psychologists Paul L. Hewitt of the University of British Columbia and Gordon L. Flett of York University in Toronto have called this phenomenon the “perfectionism paradox.” As Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good.”

Perfectionism may spring from parents who explicitly demand that kids live up to high standards. Alternatively, children of neglectful parents may imagine that doing everything right will help them get noticed. In some cases, children living in a chaotic household may aim for perfection as a way of establishing some control over an unpredictable environment. In addition, perfectionist parents may instill the behavior by example.

Initially children may find that perfectionism works for them, says Roz Shafran, a psychologist at the University of Reading in England. “Maybe they’re not getting too much attention, so they work hard in school and get rewarded for it. The harder they work, the more careful they are, the better they do,” she says. “But then the situation changes. They go from school to university, where if you try to read the entire reading list you find you can’t do it and you get behind, and then you can’t hand the paper in, because it’s not good enough, and you’re staying up all night and getting stressed.”

Another way perfectionism can turn on people is if they apply it to an inappropriate area of their life, such as when a serious student decides to devote that same focus to dieting. Such devotion can lead to anorexia. [For more on the causes of anorexia, see “Addicted to Starvation,” by Trisha Gura; Scientific American Mind, June/July 2008.] The trait may also alienate others. Helen Russo, 60, of West New York, N.J., still regrets times when she remade beds or refolded laundry in front of friends who had been trying to help her. Some types of perfectionism may be particularly problematic in relationships. Hewitt and Flett have developed a scale that identifies “socially prescribed” perfectionists—such individuals feel harried by the high expectations of people they care about and worry about disappointing them—and “other-oriented” perfectionists, who scrutinize those around them and bully them to do better.

Healthy Habits
Nevertheless, perfectionism has its pluses, some psychologists say. Indeed, one of the most widely used measures of the trait developed in the early 1990s by a team led by Frost assesses such arguably positive qualities as the tendencies to set high standards and to be organized, along with more problematic ones such being afraid of making mistakes and giving in to self-doubt.

The notion that perfectionism may be a blend of positive and negative dimensions, though not endorsed by Frost, stems in part from a 1993 study of his. He and his colleagues evaluated 553 people, using both his scale and Hewitt and Flett’s, and found that certain characteristics clustered together. Attributes such as being haunted by mistakes and feeling oppressed by other people’s expectations were strongly correlated with one another and with depression; Frost called these “maladaptive evaluation concerns.” Other tendencies, including setting high standards and striving to meet self-imposed goals, were strongly correlated with one another and with a positive outlook; Frost called this grouping “positive striving.” Each individual seems to have a particular balance of these maladaptive and positive traits.

Psychologists are increasingly convinced that some strains of perfectionism can positively affect a person’s well-being and success. After all, the willingness to work at something until it is just right can pay off. A person may write a better novel, have a more attractive home or build a more successful business. “A lot of good craftsmen, mechanics, surgeons probably would be considered perfectionistic,” says Joachim Stoeber, a psychologist at the University of Kent in England who has published widely in the field. “If you’re happy and functional, there’s no reason to worry about it.”

The winning formula for a perfectionist, psychologists say, is the ability to strive for excellence without being overly self-critical. Those who adopt this strategy, so-called healthy perfectionists, are relaxed and careful in their quest for success; they focus on their strengths and find great satisfaction in their achievements. Bowen, the lacrosse champ, may be one of these. So may 28-year-old Jennifer Perrone of Atlanta. In addition to her career as a wildlife biologist, Perrone sells Mary Kay cosmetics. She alphabetizes her file cabinets and labels her tool drawers; she finished planning her May 2009 wedding, literally writing the last check, the previous October. Perrone believes that she is highly effective. She does not push herself beyond what she knows she can do, and other than annoying her fianc when she bugs him to take off his shoes in the house, she says, “It’s difficult to think of a time when it didn’t work to my benefit.”

In fact, research conducted over the past 15 years has associated positive perfectionism with greater achievement, such as higher grade point averages and better performance in triathlons. Positive-striving perfectionism leads to better health and mood, more sociability and higher levels of life satisfaction. When Bieling and his colleagues separated positive perfectionists from unhealthy ones in their 2003 midterm-exam study, they found that the positive perfectionists felt better prepared for the exam and got higher grades than either unhealthy perfectionists or nonperfectionists. Olympic athletes also turned out to be positive perfectionists when assessed by Frost’s test in a small survey published in 2002.

In a 2007 study Stoeber and his colleagues showed that in real-world situations, healthy perfectionism buffers people from being crushed by failure and enables them to derive more satisfaction from success. The researchers first evaluated 121 college students to determine whether they were positive perfectionists, negative perfectionists or nonperfectionists. Investigators then gave the students a test that supposedly measured emotional and social intelligence—qualities, they told the students, that are important for success in life. The investigators randomly told half the participants that they had done well on the test and the others that they had received low scores. After receiving the bogus news, test takers filled out a questionnaire that measured their emotional state. Healthy perfectionists experienced more pride when informed of a high test score and fewer negative emotions when notified that they had done poorly than either the unhealthy perfectionists or the nonperfectionists.

Still, the notion that perfectionism can be positive remains controversial. Many experts argue that most people who strive for perfection have some of the attendant self-defeating concerns. “Perfectionists are more ego-involved in everything they do,” Stoeber explains. A couple of studies have shown that healthy perfectionists are more depressed and neurotic than nonperfectionists are. And despite having invented the tools that inspired the term “positive perfectionism,” Frost and Hewitt do not believe in it. They use other words to describe highly effective people, calling them high in conscientiousness or achievement striving.

Practicing Imperfection
Perfectionism is not a diagnosis, and few therapists treat it as a stand-alone affliction. Perfectionists are similarly unlikely to seek help, in part because the uncompromising thoughts and habits are so ingrained that individuals do not recognize their downside. Even when perfectionists do see a problem, they may be loath to change. “Who of us would want to go into treatment and come out happy with being average?” asks Tracey Wade, a psychologist at Flinders University in Australia.

But being average is not the goal; where perfectionism counseling exists, its aim is taming the trait’s destructive side. At first therapists help patients recognize how the problem affects their life. Do they have difficulty making decisions because they are afraid of catastrophic repercussions if they make the wrong choice? Do they have trouble delegating at work or sharing chores at home because they do not trust that the job will get done right? Patients might keep a diary of incidents that elicit such feelings. 

After identifying the situations that prompt a patient’s perfectionism, along with the distorted thinking patterns involved, the therapist can design a treatment plan. Counselors challenge thought processes such as the belief that dwelling on mistakes is important. “You’re meant to learn from your mistakes, but self-flagellation is different,” Shafran says. Perfectionists may be convinced that ruminating excessively over errors is necessary to learn from them. But in fact, she says, exaggerated self-criticism keeps people stuck, preventing them from changing.

In the behavioral component of the therapy, patients practice being imperfect: they must defy one of their standards to find out whether the result is really as bad as they imagine. Shafran encourages patients to deliberately make small mistakes, such as “forgetting” to buy something on their shopping list, to learn to take blunders in stride. She also asks academically driven patients to write two essays, working as hard as they usually would on one and forcing themselves to put less effort into the other. Shafran gives the papers to a college instructor for informal grading. Typically her clients learn that the slacker paper is as good as the one they slaved over.

Preliminary data suggest such methods can ameliorate perfectionism’s attendant ills. In four recent small studies by Wade, Shafran and others, as little as four to eight weeks of therapy for perfectionism reduced symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression and bulimia—and, in 10th-grade girls, helped to diminish negative body image. Meanwhile treatment does not blunt the desire for excellence. “We seem to be able to touch the bad without also reducing the good sort of perfectionism,” Wade says.

Short of serious illness, perfectionists may need informal ways to limit their fervent desire to be faultless. A first step, suggested in the 2009 book When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, by Martin M. Antony and his co-author Richard P. Swinson, may be to reevaluate your standards. Ask yourself, What would be the costs of relaxing these? Set specific goals for change: “Be willing to gain five pounds without getting upset” is more helpful than “Become less perfectionistic about physical appearance.” Identify perfectionistic thoughts such as “I should always be entertaining and funny” and list alternatives such as “People will not judge me on the basis of one uncomfortable interaction.”

Evaluate the evidence for your beliefs—say, that something tragic will happen if you perform a task imperfectly. Try to see your situation from another person’s perspective; it is likely that this person would be easier on you than you are on yourself.