Perfectionism: When is it healthy, when is it unhealthy?

iStock_000011758998XSmallPerfectionism can be both positive and negative. One student, who is a perfectionist, is highly productive, a top achiever and well-adjusted. Another student is such a perfectionist he can’t get his work in on time, if he completes it at all; he is an underachiever and is very anxious.

Although there’s little evidence that perfectionism is higher among gifted students, researchers studying perfectionism have tended to focus on gifted children.

A recent study in Psychology in the Schools reviews research on perfectionism and achievement motivation in the general student population with the goal of helping educators, parents, counselors and researchers become more sensitive to the consequences of perfectionism so that they can better guide students who have this tendency.

“Early identification and counseling of gifted students struggling with perfectionism will be critical in forming healthy self-beliefs and achievement goals that will allow gifted students to realize their full potential,” the researchers write. “To effectively identify these students, an understanding of leading theories of motivation, as well as the intersection of motivation and perfectionism, is necessary.”

Perfectionism is often broadly classified as adaptive perfectionism or maladaptive. In adaptive perfectionism, students are intrinsically motivated to reach goals, with pleasure coming from achievement. In maladaptive perfectionism, students are driven to reach an unobtainable ideal and often experience psychological distress.

Motivation theories

To better understand perfectionism in students, it is helpful to consider achievement motivation. There are two central motivation theories that attempt to explain why students seek achievement: Self-determination theory and achievement goal theory.

Self Determination Theory-

Self-determination theory (SDT) is focused on intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. According to SDT, students are intrinsically motivated when they engage in academic tasks out of curiosity, interest, challenge and enjoyment.

There are two types of intrinsic motivation. The first is when a student is naturally interested in a subject or task. The second type of intrinsic motivation is influenced by external factors. For example, many students don’t find academic tasks such as math homework enjoyable. However, they are motivated by external reminders from teachers or parents that practice will make them better students. They then identify with the value of the task and integrate this value into their sense of self. It is an internal process that sounds something like this: “if I do my math homework, I know I will become a better student.”

When students engage in academic tasks because of deadlines, punishments, and/or pressure from themselves or others in order to maintain self-esteem or avoid criticism, their behavior is extrinsically motivated. When students are extrinsically motivated, they do not accept the value of the task, but have allowed external forces to drive their behavior.

Achievement Goal Theory-
Achievement goal theory is focused on how students evaluate their performance relative to oneself or others and on the strength of a desired outcome (i.e., desiring a positive outcome vs. avoiding a negative outcome). According to this theory, students evaluate their competence in goal achievement in 4 distinct ways:

  • Mastery approach (driven to meet intrapersonal or fixed goals)
  • Mastery avoidance (driven to avoid losing an interpersonal goal, such as maintaining a level of academic performance)
  • Performance approach (driven to appear competent relative to others)
  • Performance avoidance (driven to avoid appearing incompetent)

The mastery approach has been linked to better learning outcomes while the performance avoidance approach has been linked to lower levels of achievement. The performance approach has mixed results, leading to both higher grades and higher test anxiety. Mastery avoidance may be more common among older students because this approach requires that students have first gained a level of mastery.

Perfectionism orientations

Perfectionism can be healthy and positive when students are self-oriented, have high personal standards and organization skills. However, perfectionism can also be unhealthy and negative when students feel that others have high expectations and become overly concerned with mistakes and doubtful about their actions.

Researchers have identified three types of perfectionists: non-perfectionists, healthy perfectionists and dysfunctional perfectionists. Non-perfectionists score low on personal standards, are less concerned about parental expectations and parental criticism and have fewer doubts about their actions. They are the least conscientious.

Healthy perfectionists also are less concerned about mistakes and parental criticism and have few doubts about their actions. Dysfunctional perfectionists are highly concerned about mistakes, personal standards, parental expectations and criticism and have more doubts about their actions. Dysfunctional perfectionists were found to have the greatest incidence of neurosis and the least amount of agreeableness, but also the greatest incidence of openness to new experiences.

Researchers also have identified three types of perfectionist behavior or orientations: self-oriented, socially prescribed and other-oriented. Self-oriented perfectionists are intrinsically motivated and have high personal standards and organization. These students generally follow a mastery approach, performance- or performance-avoidance approach to their work.

Socially prescribed perfectionists perceive that others have unrealistic high expectations, regardless of the accuracy of these perceptions and are extrinsically motivated. These students are more likely to be concerned about mistakes and have doubts about their actions. Socially prescribed perfectionists follow a performance approach or performance avoidance approach to learning.

The third type of perfectionist behavior is other-oriented. Other-oriented perfectionists have unrealistic expectations of others. There has not been research done that identifies the approach to achievement motivation in this group.

Outcomes for gifted students

Educators should take care not to infer that high-performing gifted students “have it all together”. High achievement is not always a sign that gifted students feel able to achieve their goals. The research has indicated that perfectionist students may have suppressed anxiety, depression, excessive concern over mistakes, fear of failure, and self-worth dependent on achievement.

Extrinsic motivation may dampen gifted students ability to be intrinsically motivated. In one sample of high-ability students, external regulation of motivation caused school engagement to decline. Students who were extrinsically motivated reported being anxious, angry, bored and avoided school more than intrinsically motivated students. Therefore, educators should be cautious with stressing extrinsic factors such as pleasing their parents and teachers with gifted students. This type of external motivation may lead to negative feelings related to school resulting in psychological distress.

Early identification, careful guidance and positive feedback of gifted students with perfectionist traits is critical in helping students form healthy self-beliefs and achievement goals. These practices will help students to realize their full potential. With socialization, maturity and personal growth students who hold perfectionist tendencies may become more capable of setting and meeting achievement goals that override negative tendencies and help to lessen or eliminate psychological distress.

“Research on Perfectionism and Achievement Motivation: Implications for Gifted Students,” by Kathryn L. Fletcher and Kristie L. Speirs Neumeister, Ball State University, Psychology in the Schools, 2012, Vol. 49(7) pps. 668-677.

2 Responses to “Perfectionism: When is it healthy, when is it unhealthy?”

  1. noah dorius

    Is there such thing as a perfectionist support group/s (for maladaptive behavior) in the Portland area? If so, who can I contact?

    • Diana

      This is a good idea but we’re not aware of anything. Maybe this would be a good group to start.

      Diana Sterne


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