Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable.

Hamachek (cited by Parker & Adkins 1994) describes two types of perfectionism. Normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labors of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things [well] enough to warrant that feeling of satisfaction".

The perfectionism that we are discussing here is the “pathological” or “neurotic” form.

For sure, we recognize the value of people that realize that “if a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well.” They are usually very efficient people who tend to take pride in their work, themselves, their general surroundings and are a great asset to society. They have learned to use perfectionism as a tool to help them excel in whatever field they may choose. This is noteworthy and healthy.

However, the “neurotic” perfectionists are far from being productive, useful and balanced members of our society. They are obsessed with the theory that NO job or action should ever be considered finished or satisfactory until it is perfect and can not be improved upon.

Of course, there are several problems with this thinking. First of all, it is safe to say that there is almost no task or action that can not be improved upon, no matter how successful it may have been. By definition, therefore, if improvement is possible, it is not perfect. Thus, by demanding perfection in everything he or she does, the “neurotic perfectionist” is setting him/her self up for continual, prolonged and absolute failure. If you feel that something is not finished or satisfactory until it is “perfect”, you can see that you will always be disappointed with yourself and life in general, no matter how successful you may be.

Because the “neurotic perfectionist” sees him/her self as a failure at everything he/she does, it is very common to develop a very real fear of doing anything, especially if it may be something a little different than the norm. This fear will successfully keep that person in the place where they are at the present and effectively prevent him/her from personal expansion. In the mind, anything that is not perfect is a failure. Of course, no one wants to willingly set himself up for “failure” although we do know that it is a necessary process for growth.

However, although failure is necessary in our education, we would be foolish indeed to knowingly and willingly do something that we are 100% sure will fail. For instance, we would consider that person insane who tried to peddle blocks of ice as fuel for our furnaces to keep our houses warm! We can see how ridiculous this is. However, in the “perfectionist’s” mind, many possible actions or endeavors appear in the same light because he/she “knows” for sure that it will fail and so is not willing to even take small steps in that direction.

It is very possible that those who accomplish the most in life and are on the leading edge of advancement in our society are those removed the farthest from perfectionism.

It is said that Thomas Edison tried some 10,000 different ways to make a light bulb and was encouraged by each failure because, as he noted, “That is one more way that doesn’t work.” If he had been obsessed with perfection and success at every task, he could very well have stopped after the first failure. Surely he would never have tried more than ten or fifteen times. In all likelihood, if he had been a “neurotic perfectionist”, he would not have tried it in the first place, convicted of his own failure ahead of time.

We know that the Wright Brothers did not design and build the 747 as their first project. They knew that people had been trying to fly in various ways for years but without success. If they had been perfectionists, they would likely have seen the lack of success of others and so not even have bothered to tempt fate by trying something that others deemed impossible. Fortunately, they were willing to take a calculated risk and be satisfied with failures until they were able to fly. Even at that, their aircraft was far from perfect but they still considered what they had done a success.

We consider Albert Einstein as one of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians in history, and so we should. However, when I look at his pictures I am convinced that his hair seldom, if ever, felt a comb or brush. I can’t help but feel he was anything but a perfectionist and so was willing to extend himself to the limit and beyond. Science is still benefitting from his work today.

It is honorable and noble to take pride in one’s work and do it well. However, when we become obsessed with the need for perfection, a gripping “fear of failure” will take over and hinder us from making any reasonable progress in life.

Author's Bio: 

I am a retired Farmer, logger and equipment operator. I am happily married to my wife of 33 years with four children, one of whom was killed in a car accident. I enjoy in-depth philosophical discussions, debates and articles. I am an outdoor enthusiast and enjoy hiking, hunting, fishing as well as team sports like baseball and especially hockey. I am a novice writer, as far as publishing, but have written and presented several documentaries over the years. I am developing a website that will promote more effective and fulfilling lives as well as providing some light entertainment. At present, I am using the following site until my permanent one is ready.