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Maladaptive Perfectionism: Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Elisha Madison

Elisha is a writer, editor, and aspiring novelist. She has a Master's degree in Ancient Celtic History & Mythology and another Masters in Museum Studies.

Perfectionism can hinder people from performing at the top of their capability, and also challenge social and intimate relationships. This lesson discusses maladaptive perfectionism, its traits, and ways to start resolving this behavior.

Perfectionism

Have you ever known someone who has to be perfect? They make sure they don't have one hair out of place, their handwriting is always smooth and slick, and their behavior almost has a plastic quality. These could be signs of perfectionism. Perfectionism does not always have to have a negative connotation, since it can be the impetus needed to strive harder and be stronger. However, just like any behavior, if taken to the extreme, it can cause issues in day to day life, and disrupt relationships and work. There are two different types of perfectionism:

  • Adaptive Perfectionism - This type of perfectionism is someone who wants to do their best in everything, works hard, is hard on themselves, but still knows what they do well. They may have high standards, but they are happy when they meet them, instead of setting even more out of reach goals.
  • Maladaptive Perfectionism - This version of perfectionism focuses on trying to be perfect and seeing the imperfections of certain actions or situations as a personal blight. This strive to be perfect makes someone set completely unattainable goals, like 'I want to weigh 75 pounds, even though I am very tall'. Then, when those goals are not attained, the person is devastated. The devastation can lead to unhealthy choices, and putting one's mental and physical well being in danger to accomplish these unattainable goals. This type of perfectionism makes someone check their work dozens of times, erasing and changing it until they have no choice but to turn it in. This is the unhealthy extreme of trying to do well and be better than anyone else.

Symptoms of Maladaptive Perfectionism

Now that we see the different types of perfectionism, lets review the symptoms of a maladaptive perfectionist.

Need for control

Due to the ambition to be perfect, maladaptive perfectionism can make people feel the need to control each and every aspect of their life: relationships, work, school, and social interactions. This behavior can come off as aggressive, rude, and manipulative, because the person is determined to make their environment perfect.

People pleasers

People will try to do almost anything to get a positive response from the people that matter. For example, a man at work will start to do other people's work as well as their own so that management will notice his initiative, even if it means he spends too much time at work.

Mountains instead of molehills

Each mistake made seems to be the largest mistake ever made and makes the person feel like they are a personal failure. For example, accidentally burning the rolls that go with dinner makes the whole dinner bad, and they will throw it all away and start over.

Defensive

Receiving criticism is very hurtful for a maladaptive perfectionist. Where it bothers many people, it is a personal attack on someone who wants to be perfect. So instead of taking the criticism, they argue about the situation, defend their work, and blame everyone else for making it unacceptable.

Additional mental illnesses

Many people who are maladaptive perfectionists also have other contributory issues, such as depression, physical illnesses, eating disorders, and severe anxiety. These issues may have started before or after the perfectionism, but they will make this behavior worse.

Abandonment

People striving for perfectionism in an unhealthy manner can grow so frustrated with not accomplishing their goals that they walk away from them completely. For example, a student in college gets a C on a paper, but still has a B in the course. However, the C was too much, and the student drops out of school and does not go back.

These are extremes of perfectionism and the issues that it can cause if someone struggles with the maladaptive form. So how does one overcome this behavior?

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