What is perfectionism?

From the perspective that Dr. Hewitt, Dr. Flett, and colleagues have developed, perfectionism is a personality style that involves the requirement or need to be or appear to be perfect. It involves a strong need for perfection (not excellence or high standards), critical and stringent evaluations of oneself or others, not experiencing reward in successful endeavors, self-punishment, fear of failure, and rigid maintenance of perfectionistic expectations in the face of challenges or failure. Although there are several different conceptualizations of perfectionism that exist in the literature, most researchers and clinicians would agree that perfectionism is multidimensional and that it is complex. It is not a disorder per se, but rather a core vulnerability factor that produces problems for adults, adolescents, and children.

Here is a quote from one of Dr. Hewitt’s papers that describes perfectionism:

“…perfectionism is a personality/relational characterological style that arises out of early relational experiences and is maintained by enduring relational contexts. The need to be or appear to be perfect is a defensive position and serves, in a costly and ineffective manner, the purpose of attempting to solve problems of not fitting, not belonging, not being accepted or mattering to others, and problems of feeling, at the core, not good enough, flawed, defective, fragile, and unworthy. It is multifaceted and multilayered and infuses all manner of one’s behaviour. Hence, it is a way of being or existing in the world that costs dearly” (Hewitt, 2020).

We believe that perfectionism is not the same as needing to be excellent or high achievement striving or needing to attain high standards; it involves the need for total perfection, not just excellence. Achievement striving and conscientiousness involve appropriate and tangible expectations (often very difficult but attainable goals) and produces a sense of satisfaction and rewards. Perfectionism, on the other hand, involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals (i.e., perfection), and a seemingly constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance.