Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism

Instructor: Millicent Kelly

Millicent has been teaching at the university level since 2004. She holds a Bachelor's degree in Criminal Justice and a Master's degree in Human Resources.

This lesson centers on perfectionistic behavior. After defining perfectionism, both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism will be discussed. Finally, some ways to overcome perfectionism will be reviewed.

Grade Issues

Sally has always been an excellent student. Since her early years in elementary school, she's received numerous academic awards and top grades. Now, in her freshman year of college, Sally set the bar high for academic excellence and strives to graduate with a 4.0 grade point average. She is frustrated, however, with her progress in a statistics class. Determined to earn an A, she hires a tutor and takes her final exam with confidence. When final grades are posted, Sally realizes she earned a B for the course. She becomes extremely upset, running from campus in tears. Sally believes she is a failure and can never get back on track again.


To most of us, Sally's reaction seems extreme. An academic grade of B, after all, translates into very good, which most students would be quite happy with. But in Sally's case, perfectionism gets in the way of academic satisfaction. Simply put, perfectionism can be defined as the need to be near-flawless. It is a term used to describe people who set extremely high expectations and standards for themselves and then have difficulty coping when these standards are not met. Some researchers argue that all forms of perfectionism are maladaptive, or have negative impacts on the person. Most, however, categorize perfectionism into two categories: adaptive and maladaptive.

Adaptive Perfectionism

Adaptive perfectionism is defined in the literature as perfectionism that is healthy and normal and relates to an intense effort that is put forth to achieve a certain goal. Adaptively perfectionistic individuals set high, but realistic standards, and don't resort to harsh self-criticism when these standards are not reached. An example of adaptive perfectionism is the star track runner who continuously sets out to beat his best time, but accepts results when this doesn't happen.

Maladaptive Perfectionism

In contrast, maladaptive perfectionism can be characterized by perfectionism that gets in the way of leading a successful and happy life. Sally's obsession with getting straight A's is an example of this. People whose perfectionism is maladaptive often feel the need to be in control of every aspect of their lives and environment. When it becomes clear that this is not possible, such as when Sally earned a B, the reaction is extreme and self-critical. People with maladaptive perfectionism tend to be highly self-conscious and develop negative attitudes when things don't go as planned. Maladaptive perfectionism has also been linked to psychological disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Out-of-Control Perfectionism

There are certain signs that indicate when someone's perfectionism is getting out of control. These signs include:

  • A history of always wanting to please others
  • Criticizing the behavior of others
  • Procrastinating on important tasks
  • All or nothing thinking
  • Always needing to be in control of your emotions
  • Closing yourself off to others
  • Taking everything personally
  • Becoming defensive when being criticized
  • Feeling guilty and shamed for perceived failures

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