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Living with perfectionism, and the science of never being satisfied.

Perfectionism -- self portrait. (Roni Rosen/Flickr)

Perfectionism — self portrait. (Roni Rosen/Flickr)

Everybody knows a perfectionist.  Or two, or three, or four.  Or many more.  That person who’s so incredibly hard to please.  Who’s never quite satisfied.  Who always wants to tweak it a little more.  The Steve Jobs type.  It may be you.  Driven to that never quite achievable goal of perfection.

It can make great things happen.  It can drive people crazy.  It can be rocket fuel, and a real problem.  New science is looking at the sources of perfectionism.  Where it comes from.  What’s genetic, what’s not.

This hour, On Point:  the science and psychology of perfectionism.

-Tom Ashbrook


Thomas Greenspon, author of Moving Past Perfect: How Perfectionism May Be Holding Back Your Kids (and You!) and What You Can Do About It.

Amy Przeworski, assistant professor of psychology at Case Western Reserve University. She writes a blog for Psychology Today called “Don’t Worry, Mom.”

From Tom’s Reading List

Wall Street Journal “She earned a Ph.D. from MIT and an M.D. from Harvard. “But I also wanted to be the best mother possible,” says Dr. Silvers, so she worked part-time, not full-time, emergency-room shifts to maximize her time with her children, ages 3, 5 and 8.”

Huffington Post “She keeps her room super neat and she folds her socks and underwear “just so” in her dresser. She can’t seem to do anything less than 100%. I think she feels compelled to be perfect. She was adopted when she was 14 months old from China.”

Globe and Mail “It dawned on me that I was trying to be the perfect mom and perfect employee but I’m not. I’m okay with that. At least, I’m trying to be. Sure, the particulars of an important conversation might keep me awake at night and a typo may set off a stream of self-berating, internal dialogue. But this assumption that every part of our life – from our work to our children to our homes – must be impeccable dooms us to constant disappointment. Isn’t it time we kicked the perfectionism habit?”

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  • Wm_James_from_Missouri


    You are in dangerous waters here. I can just hear callers calling in complaining about their dissatisfaction about this show. I will have to admit that all too often I mental lip sync to Mick Jagger’s , “ I can’t get no satisfaction, no, no, no !”

  • Ellen Dibble

    I suppose all these perfectionists are Republican, and blaming those around them (who might be seen as not trying quite as hard to be perfect) for pulling down society, each and every one of them.  Isn’t perfectionism hard on one’s family and friends?, even if one thinks the standard is only being applied to oneself? To me, this syndrome seems to stem from grade school, where people in a changing world cling to the school-time idea that you can know all you need to know, and be all you need to be, and at the end of the day, or on the spot quiz or exam, you can get A+, or else you will be stepping onto the off-ramp when you’re wanting to stay on the highway.  There are indeed such unforgiving situations and people, and we celebrate them spectacularly, for instance, at the Olympics.  So don’t ask why.  

    • J__o__h__n

      Based on results, I see little evidence of Republicans being perfectionists: Iraq, economy, heck of a job Brownie . . .

      • Ellen Dibble

        I haven’t heard them saying how great it was that the economy tanked on their watch, though.  They blame the guy they handed it to!  I could go on.

    • geraldfnord

      I think this is a result of the dominance of the wealthy over the past few decades.  Though it has the down-side of the increased, needless, suffering of billions now and future, it has at least tended to keep those of us on the Left from thinking we can get anywhere close to where we might be tempted to think perfection might lie…which is a good thing, as we are as prone to error as any human being (see: Marxists calling their doctrine ‘scientific socialism’ but very often refusing to exercise the scientific method in analysing attempts at its use in real life).  That is to say, we know ourselves to be so far from Utopia that we’re willing to settle for a slightly higher level of decency.

      The Right, on the other hand, have got so much that they can easily fall into this vice implicit in believing that Utopia were just around the corner—once you have shucked most meaningful work-place regulation, you can dream only of the right to have your employees shed their blood and limbs for you without recompense; once you’ve begun a successful assault on the teaching of science in public schools, you can then dream of imposing savage, Biblical, law on all of us and letting prophetic visions (vetted by The Proper Authorities in Colorado Springs) count as evidence in open court.

  • stillin

    It’s a cultural epidemic…if you just could get that jacket, that car,that home….it would be perfect! Life would be perfect, but alas that hole is bottomless…you want, you want, you get, but nope that’s not it either..better to develop a spiritual life of any type any, doesn’t matter what kind…fulfillment in a different matter…schools reflect this cultural glitch like they reflect everything in society…the money people, the well dressed, the “perfects ” are the envy of the unenlightened.

    • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

      Speaking of consumption… Don Henley said it in 1989 in ‘Gimme What You Got’…

      “Its a nation of noses pressed up against the glass,
      they seen it on the TV and they want it pretty fast.”

      Not much has changed in 23 years. The iPhone is not so revolutionary from this perspective, is it now?

  • 1Brett1

    There are overachievers, people with OCD, fastidiousness, and those who have a fear of success, covering that up by using the excuse of attempting perfection. The artist who continues to work on the same piece, honing it, reworking it. The academician who gets degree after degree. The corporate climber who becomes CEO, then runs for public office, never really building anything or standing for anything.

    I was prone to “perfectionism” but figured a long time ago that it has no place in the real world or in truly realizing oneself. Being “the best” is an arbitrary standard. We can’t fully measure ourselves against others; there will always be someone else who is better at just about anything we attempt. We can compete with ourselves, but we must make sure we haven’t defined ourselves as perfect beings to be measured against.   

  • anamaria23

    Must perfectionism always be the desire for more?  Can it not also be a way of doing things?
    One of my sons is a perfectionist and while I lament the occasional times he thrusts his expectations on to me,  i remember that he is a civil engineer and perhaps the kind we need building our bridges and infrastructure or performing our surgeries.     

    • Ray in VT

      I think that perfectionism can be both a helper and/or a hindrance.  For people like civil engineers, as well as others who have jobs that require exacting specificity even if lives may not be on the line, perfectionism can help people achieve a high level at their job.  On the other hand, for some, or maybe even many, perfectionism can have negative effects that can bring paralysis to their lives due to a fear of making errors, as well as worry and anxiety.

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    My form of perfectionism is efficiency.
    My curse is that I indulge optimism – I take on too much.
    My blessing is that I indulge optimism – I can’t accomplish what I don’t try too.
    Without efficiency I won’t accomplish half of what I set out to.
    Without optimism I won’t accomplish a damn thing.

  • anamaria23

    Absolutely love the picture!

    • nj_v2

      Except that using the torpedo level that way makes no sense. But maybe that’s the point.

  • J__o__h__n

    I didn’t measure it, but the items in the photo appear to be a bit off as the angles don’t appear to be joining at 90 degrees. 

    • 1Brett1

      Of course, not only did she not measure it thrice, but nary even once, did she? While appearances can be deceiving, my sense is that they are off too! Only one recommendation: pull everything off, scrub wall thoroughly, then start from the beginning, measuring thrice before application.

    • stillin

      bahaha that is sooo funny love it…!

  • ToyYoda

    There seems to be a confusion of terms when it comes to procrastination.  In the book Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel (good book by the way), Steel presents his research that people who procrastinate often use the excuse that they are perfectionists and want to get everything right before they start.  And, also, it turns out people, whom we think are perfectionists, often dont’ view themselves as such, but are so bothered by their own or some kind of imperfection that they are willing to take remedial steps to address them. The bothered-imperfectionist turn out to be the high achievers.

    What I find is that perfectionists is just a subspecies of procrastinators, 99% of the time.  They mistake activity with progress and obsess over the trivial details of the task at hand instead of thinking of what really matters and doing what matters.  So they often end up avoiding the task; whether that’s life goals or confronting personal issues.

    So, I wouldn’t consider Steve Jobs a perfectionist.  Part of the genius of Steve Jobs is that he was the first to realize details often neglected due matter; like beautiful computer designs and friendly UIs.  Now, there isn’t a PC maker out there who would dismiss these “small details” as trivial.

  • ensteph

       Perfectionism is only an abstraction of intelligence, a mere shadow of an evolutionary trait about to become manifest. What we’re seeing world wide is the glimmerings of a rapidly changing human blueprint tending towards a higher consiousness and survival of its species and nest. Of course there are deviations in every shift paradigm, some perhaps leading us down or up creative and useful pathways and others, dead ends. The exciting new thing now is that all our trending perfectionism can push up against a world wide web of others in all fields…  

    • Ellen Dibble

      I read somewhere that intelligence is a disability in evolutionary terms; it tends to work against the survival of the species, as a statistical matter.  E.O. Wilson has written lately about the challenge to our species to get our collaborative instincts in play to meet global challenges.  I think of it in terms of there are many different human strengths, aptitudes, culturally, physically, all that.  And the better we can use ALL those, the more likely we can undo the damage we’ve done to the environment, for example.  Religion in the past has been the institution geared to join people together, for whatever purpose.  The root of the word “religion” lays that. But the “purpose” of the togetherness is not specified; supposedly it comes from Elsewhere.  Or maybe the Vatican.  But the object is to accommodate the shortcomings as well as the strengths in the interests of the betterment of all.  Some might want to get to heaven with a straight A score, leaving the rest of us in the dust.  Really?

      • Ellen Dibble

        Actually, I think we evolve not from increasing perfection but from genetic mistakes, the mutations that turn out to be useful, if not in everybody, in some of us.

      • ensteph

        I believe as we evolve towards a larger more compassionate consciousness, the institutions and artifacts we’ve created on our planet will be seen as neccessary adjustments or as anchors heaved out into a wondrous yet unknown universe. The Mind in all of its accomplishments is yet a step and only a step towards human potential only becoming apparent as the new mind of the Heart tempers the unruly older mind beneath the skull. Perfectionism seems to be the last dying breath of a mind that has wrought as much destruction as it has beauty. Lets hope the Heart mind kicks in soon! 

        • geraldfnord

          I’m sorry, but I don’t see any objective correlates to a lot of these nouns you’re using…evolution is utterly without direction or purpose, and our genes don’t care if they’re carried-around in the near-gods we could be or in a bunch of shivering savages…in fact, the latter are more evolutionarily successful if there are a lot more of them.

  • ttajtt

    now whats normal?  wear the same style of cloths daily.   don’t waste the energy emotions or thoughts on what to wear…, hear said.   free up your mind.

  • Shag_Wevera

    Makes me think of the rat race, which I whole-heartedly reject.

    • ttajtt

      rats – mice - fruit fly – micro – level, i’m getting old.

  • AC

    what happens to motivation and progression when a person is ‘content’? it seems to me only a supreme ego can only be truly content, i never want to think that i ‘know it all’, i’ll keep learning and trying to be better until the end…

    • 1Brett1

      I don’t know that I’ve ever met an interesting or dynamic person who was perpetually content. I’ve been contented  for very brief periods, which is good; I see it as a fleeting quality. 

  • Ellen Dibble

    Down below I was saying perfectionism is a Republican trait (less tolerant?), and I’d like to link to an article about presidential dispositions, from a scientific perspective, by Helen Fisher, in Newsweek this week, which got me thinking, and led me to that angle of thought.  http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/10/28/obama-romney-and-the-genetics-of-politics.html

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Brennan-Moriarty/100000655771831 Brennan Moriarty

    As a kid [early teens] I liked to clean the kitchen counter till it was spotless-1D and shined-2D; yet as concepts of recycling weighed in [sprouting over the decades], my scales became cluttered with ambition & eco-minded obligation. Then in my late teens & early 20′s the  reflective geographic-environment_of_culture and personal impressions-3D! tilted me a more vertically dimensional posture of pursuing impressionable activities & training, such as art music & extreme sports.
    This provided spacial-definition, yet it failed to balance the scales that psychologically & subliminally i had initially been trying to rise above, float past, and sort;;; of religiously normalize. Yet through my eyes per-deception imperceptible vectors erode to ultimate graphic linear truths of nature & nurture +/- & remainder’s purpose.
    I’d give almost::: anything to recapture the Volumes of illusion and innocent struggle.
    Yet… being on point is priceless, crystalline and godly ;) [jokes not so much, psych-eats-treats? and the tooth fairy is hoarding{!}]. Yet being interesting is NOT floating: only perfect happiness smiles into [your/the] resolve of nirvana’s empty vacuum [] spark of illumination that the mind desperately seeks and the body cautiously speaks piquing sacred peaks where proof looms, and poetry greets, with a distracted tune that poly-weeps, time unwinds the precious primes who pulley up from below the deep the purest truth that ‘nobody’ leaps/seeks.
    pickup sticks just lack structure: that’s all :)

  • Ellen Dibble

    I think what makes a perfectionist is failure to fail.  It’s frightening to fail.  People might reject you, ignore you, all sorts of things.  That may have actually happened.  I’m thinking of the father in the house of the Bronte sisters, the parson (without the moderating influence of a wife, who as I recall had died), sisters who wrote so wonderfully about living in that milieu, reminding me of the Jonathan Edwards threat of God coming down with tectonic wrath for failing to sit up straight.  People grow into much healthier personalities by consistently failing this way and that.  You learn to fight back.  You learn the great comic drama of the come-back kid, that sort of thing.

  • Laur5000

    Thank you for this interesting discussion. Perfectionism relates to shame and feeling unworthy of connection. You may be interested in these TEDtalks by Dr. Brené Brown. 



  • J__o__h__n

    I used to be paralysed before starting something as I expected that I needed to produce something perfect.  I realized that 95% of the time perfect isn’t needed and if it is there are numerous opportunities to revise and edit before completion. 

    • Scott B

       I tell the people that are worried about what others will see/hear/think that most people won’t even notice that they dropped a note, missed a brush stroke, or forgot whatever it is they didn’t get exactly right.  Often times the people that will tell them “Hey, ya missed that [thing]” will tell them their own story about screwing up and how nobody noticed.

      • 1Brett1

        This is something I learned in performing music. 1) You’re going to make a mistake 2) Most people won’t notice 3) Getting good at steering a mistake into something new and spontaneous is not only the only solution to making a mistake on stage, it is a good way to promote creativity in oneself.

  • AC

    ? wait a minute – i think i don’t have the same definition for contentment…..?

  • IsaacWalton

    I don’t want to live in such a perfect world.

  • IsaacWalton

    I’ve worked with ‘geniuses’ (read “highly-paid”) that strived for perfection in my work (I’m a designer in advertising/publishing). I’ve often found the process exhausting and not an improvement. The perfect product is one that comes from collaboration not one person imposing their will on others.

  • IsaacWalton


  • Wahoo_wa

    Steve Jobs’ douchey-ness just EXUDES from the radio!

  • IsaacWalton

    I worked at a tech company whose internal saying was SHIP IT or SHIP ART. The idea is you can work all day to perfect something and NEVER get it to market. At some point you have to say it’s perfect ENOUGH. It will never get to “PERFECT.” in business.

  • geraldfnord

    Look at this world we have made—to our collective shame, had we any—and tell me that there were any notable mercy for the failed.

    Under those circumstances it were understandable, for example, that the odious ‘tiger mother’ were held up as an ideal:  it was born in a system where passing one exam meant the difference between wealth and generations of poverty….

  • MadMarkTheCodeWarrior

    Ultimately I think Gardening cured me. When you dive into gardening you realize that you have no control. You may be the architect, but you are ultimately just a helper, working with Mother Nature. You either surrender control and embrace the moment or go stark raving mad.

    • ensteph

      Amen, so what I did was to build a business around this spiritual passion thus driving my nuerosis? to other properties. Unfortunately some customers are perfectionists who stay the watch while I do what they believe they want. I have kind of a mental questionaire that I run through in a natuaral way to determine what they believe is perfect-overly manicured, natural, etc. I asked one customer to come out and critique the work after finally finishing a two week wrap around foundation landscape including stone walkways and chosen statuaries. She pointed after talking a deep breath at something. What I asked softly. What is it. We walked together to the spot. There was a pine cone there next to the Burning Bush that had dropped since I had examined it for the last time. Whatever she said and cut me a check. 

  • EHF

    I have two sons that are perfectionists.  One, who will never try to do things because he might not be perfect, and the other who can beat a dead horse until he gets it right.

  • IsaacWalton

    What’s more important? Creating the perfect thing FOR YOU, or FOR BOTH of you? You gain nothing by perfecting an object by offending others around you.

  • ttajtt

    perfectionist sounds hobby=ish it is just so many items fit into it as a hobb motion, metal style.

    for some thats still can be called back.  like a compulsive cleaner, a compulsive perfectionist?   

    marathon runners.

  • tncanoeguy

    Is it possible to reach perfection?  Sure, on a simple task like taking a 10 question multiple choice quiz.  But what about writing?  Something like To Kill a Mockingbird might seem perfect to us mere mortals, but I bet Harper Lee looks at it and can think of something she would have done better.  

    • J__o__h__n

      Or not as she stopped writing.

      • tncanoeguy


  • Ellen Dibble

    I must be over the hill.  I would be happy to get the world and its people just to Improve, a teeny little bit.  But I push with all my might to get that teeny bit of improvement according to my possibilities and understanding, my lights.  Not perfect, just “onward and upward,” versus the opposite.

  • Yar

    God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.

    When God created the world, he didn’t say it was perfect.  He said it was good.  If that is good enough for God, it is good enough for me.  I hope to do good. Never try to control, on to guide, life is out of our control, we can guide the path for ourselves and others.

  • Susan Sauer

    My daughter is a perfectionist and it began when she should have started speaking.  She did not utter a word until she could speak clear, proper sentences at the age of 18 months.  In 3rd grade she was diagnosed with OCD and depression.  In some respects I think we encouraged the perfectionism. She was brilliant and we would always praise her and let relatives know how well she was doing.  Once she got to college, if she took a class that was extremely difficult for her she would just drop it rather than get an inadequate grade according to her standards.  Now that she is in the working world, she is never happy.  She is currently living in Japan, teaching English, but is always complaining about the job.  She says the Japanese are such perfectionists.  OMG!  I always said this girl would be happiest working for herself.  I think she realizes her angst is due (in part) is due to her perfectionism.  When she lived in Thailand, she got a tattoo that says “No Worries” in Thai.  At least that is a daily reminder of what she should aspire to. 

  • IsaacWalton

    Let’s use a visual. The pursuit of perfection would be a circle. No end, going no where, round and round and round. Rather, it should be a spiral. You can attempt to draw it perfectly but it has a start and an end point.

  • Susan Sauer

    Obiviously I am not a perfectionist as you can tell in my incorrect sentence in the post below. 

  • http://addcream.myopenid.com/ Erica

    Perfectionism is serious.  I don’t see it as a positive at all.  It has had a paralyzing affect of my life. I would be very happy to be rid of it.  

  • http://www.facebook.com/ian.macdonald.9638 Ian MacDonald

    Steve Jobs could be ruthlessly perfectionist because he had the money and the power to hire and fire and intimidate people. He made money initially somewhat by luck. If he weren’t as powerful he’d be another, perhaps unemployed, overbearing intolerable bore. I certainly don’t see his perfectionism as a good thing.

    • geraldfnord

      His perfectionism was also at the root of his desire for a walled garden, which system should offend any adult.  (Consider the first virtuous act in our legends, that of Adawm and Chavah in the [walled] Garden of Eden when they disobeyed an arbitrary law!)

  • Ellen Dibble

    If Streisand was having difficulty with other people because of perfectionism in her art, maybe she needed to insulate herself from needing others in that domain. A conductor (speaking of magic wands) requires the maximum perfectionism in the orchestra, then that is highly interpersonal, highly highly.  But I’m thinking a solo singer can have control of her domain without demanding too much of too many.  In my own work, I sure know where I think it’s worth it to work for a dollar an hour.  Justice demands that kind of fanatical attention, and if no one else is going to “care,” in my opinion it’s worth the grief.  So, for me, it’s justice that is on the line.  If it’s the state of my closet, forget it; I’ll leave that to the mavens of housekeeping.

  • Scott B

    I refuse to let others “perfectionism” be some kind of justification for them being difficult and bring me, or others, down.  Mostly they seem to want others, or some factor, to take the blame for any criticism of themselves or their work.

    I had to work with a woman that taught kids to dance and during their yearly benefit show she would constantly blame everyone but herself for things she screwed up, or that were out of anyone’s control.  At one point she screwed up and was denying she her responsibility for it, laying blame on these poors kids hard and heavy. I couldn’t take it anymore and informed her in front of everyone that SHE was the one that screwed up, not the kids (most of which were ages in the single digits and tweens). Someone close to her said, “But she’s a perfectionist!” Like it was an excuse.  I said , “Is ‘perfectionist’ a way of saying ‘Giant pain in the ass,’ or that she the inability to accept responibility? These are KIDS! This isn’t the Bolshoi Ballet!” 

    I didn’t get asked to helped with the next pageant, but I did get a LOT of kids and parents thanking me, and quite a few left her studio for others.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daniel.wetmore.7 Daniel Wetmore

    Old Russian Jewish folklore: if someone comes up to your baby or child and says “What a perfect baby!” immediately get away from that person. If she or he touches the baby, it will soon die.

    Perfect, in most senses means ‘finished’ ‘done’, as in the perfect tense, action completed.

    Vermont folklore (and elsewhere): the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    If something is worth doing it is worth doing poorly, which is to say that it is worth doing, period. Do it. Process it later. Shift, change, but move forward by doing.

  • J__o__h__n

    I wish a perfectionist built DISQUS. 

    • DrewInGeorgia


  • Shireen Damghani

    It’s very hard being a perfectionist like me, because nothing feels right! But in the end rejecting everything and everyone, I have realized that I have alienated everything & everybody from me. Trying to be okay with what is vs trying to make things right all the time is a better way to live. Although the perfectionist in me creeps up if I am not aware… It’s truly tough when a perfectionist is unemployed she/he can’t do anything about it. Moving with the current of life vs resisting everything to be right is a better way to live. Just sayin’…

  • DrewInGeorgia

    “The thing about perfection is it’s unknowable. It’s impossible. But it’s always right in front of you.” ~ KEVIN FLYNN, Tron: Legacy (2010)


  • Jennifer Ten Eyck

    What about the idea of needing to achieve such a high standard of perfection that you can cripple yourself from beginning/finishing a project?

  • EHF

    Colonial quilt makers never made a “perfect” quilt.  There was always a mistake somewhere in it.  The reasoning was that only God could be perfect and making the mistake in the quilt was their way of not mocking God.  Maybe perfectionists could learn from this.

  • geraldfnord

    Politics aside, I must be something of a Randroid—autism probably helps—because I see most people’s lives as sinks of boring and (at my worst) contemptible mediocrity.  I am a failure as the world accounts such things, and certainly as I do, but at least I have tried to do great things worthy of a flame that will last but a moment in this vast Night…and would not be anything else.

    Of course, to see most people in this way and to have great power is one of the receipts for becoming a Procrustean monster, but then again I’ve always disdained power as well….

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1089522332 Karen Sharpwolf

    Several people have said they are “recovering”.  How does one recover from perfectionism?

    • IsaacWalton

      Good question. My experience (being a tormented graphic designer) has been a path of acceptance. A letting go. It’s been a long journey but I am happier for it. I find myself slipping back into it now and then. I see commercials/catalogs and want real life to emulate what I see. And then I have to snap myself out of it.

      • Scott B

         Just think of it being in the mail. It’s gone, and you’re not getting it back. It’s done.

        • DrewInGeorgia

          That sounds an awful lot like Scientology…

          • Scott B

             Egad, no!  Anything but that.  I just mean that you have to think of whatever you did – painting , music,  cooking, whatever…- you need to let go of it or you’ll end up in therapy and on meds for OCD and ulcers. Like I tell myself when I find myself starting to fixate on something I want better, “Just walk away.” 

    • Laur5000

      I am not a psychologist, but from what I know about neuroscience, we can re-wire our brains to change mental habits. So, if one is mindful of one’s thoughts and notices tension or negativity about not being perfect at something, one can say, “Oh yes, my brain is wired to be “perfect” all the time, but this is just a glitch. It’s okay to be imperfect. I can let go a bit.”  Do this over and over, and the tension and negativity will eventually quiet down or even disappear. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/lynn.stanwood Lynn Stanwood

       Embrace imperfection.

    • tncanoeguy

      There is a 12-step program that involves sitting on your couch in your sweats eating chips out of the bag and watching reality TV.  

  • Ellen Dibble

    The caller who referred to the perfectionism of her autistic brother, and also the mother — I’m thinking of an interview with Uta Frith, who studies autism, on the Charlie Rose Show, where she stated that by the way, all these children with autism grow up, and are parents.  They learn to find their way, and there they are trying to parent.  I’m thinking you’d better believe they have a rigid idea of right and wrong, and probably aren’t so good at conveying that, would choose to convey it by osmosis if possible.

  • Scott B

    There’s few things more satisfying than looking a perfectionist  in the eye, after they’ve thrown their little barb or had their big snit, and saying, “It’s close enough for rock and roll!” And going about the business at hand.

    • IsaacWalton

      ha! Here’s one I always hear… “It’s good enough for government work!” 

      • Scott B

         True that!  LOL

          Being a rock n’ roll guy I gotta stick with Chuck Berry’s quote.  I don’t know how many times I’ve had someone in a band want to play a tune note for note exactly like the record (that dates me! lol) and I’ve had to whip that quote out.  That and  “Your playing through a distortion pedal, an amp on 11, and in a bar full of people with at least 2 drinks in them. NOBODY is going to notice or care your missed one note in a 3 chord tune!” 
        Sometimes they’ll rebutt it with something like, “But John Pretrucci (Steve Via, Randy Rhoads, or some other guitar god) doesn’t do it like that.”  To which I say, “Are you him? No? Then shut up and play like you and not like him.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/lynn.stanwood Lynn Stanwood

    I used to be a perfectionist, but I gave it up because I wasn’t good enough.

    • IsaacWalton

      And judging by your avatar photo, you are happier for it. Good for you.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    OCD is a spectrum – perfectionism is on it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/trevor.j.tebbs Trevor J. Tebbs

    I am very glad to have this subject aired … it is an extremely import issue to consider.  Perfectionism represents, potentially,  both  ‘agony’ and the ‘ecstacy.’ It is obviously a condition that can impact any human being … but a particular population susceptible to perfectionism is that defined by high levels of intelligence. As a clinician involved with this group of children and adolescents it is noticeable that the emotional intensity, sensitivity and introspection  –  often a distinguishing characteristic/trait associated with these individuals –  is a source of enormous stress leading to a wide variety of educational and social-emotional concerns.  It is often these very concerns that fly in the face of iill-founded perceptions by educators and other professionals that lead to the conclusion that highly able individuals have a natural ability to succeed and therefore do not require accommodations in schools. 

    I suggest listeners take a look at the SENG website for further information …

  • Unterthurn

    Friends were constantly bragging about their perfectionist daughter until it was obvious that her body image perfectionism had lead down the path of anorexia. 

  • Wahoo_wa
  • geraldfnord

    Doesn’t our winner-take-all society breed perfectionism?  When your choice were great success against the likelihood of poverty, or at least anxiety over it, how can anyone have tolerance for making mistakes?

  • http://www.facebook.com/heide.walker.1 Heide Walker

    I am a mother of identical twin boys who are both different kinds of perfectionists.  One will work very hard for a  long time to get things perfect and one will try something once and give up if he is not perfect at it.  Both work themselves into tears and frustrations but must be dealt with in different ways.  Can you speak to different types of perfectionism?

  • Ellen Dibble

    Dr. Greenspon, interesting to hear the description of the family where the child who can bring out the pride in the family and make it all right — pride.  The quest for that feeling.  It isn’t happiness.  I have my doubts about a family run around the feeling of pride.  Or any personality.  – Voltaire, don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  thanks, for reminding us who said that…

  • IsaacWalton

    The happiness won in pursuing perfection, pales in comparison to the anxiety lost in not pursuing it. I am blissfully good enough in my pursuits. I’m venturing into tying presentation quality salmon flies. I have to keep reminding myself that this is a HOBBY and not for money or praise. But, I do find my old tendencies coming back in whispering ‘perfection is paramount’ in my ear. And I fight it back into its dark corner.

  • jenphil

    I, too, am a recovering perfectionist.  As a suicidal teenager, I had to decide what my “standards” were and let the pursuit of perfect grades go in favor of setting a high standard to actually learn as much as I could.

    As the mother of a 7 year old daughter, I see perfectionism arising.  It is clearly tied to a group of anxieties and worries and desire to control all.  She is adopted — but Armenian (as am I) and I think our culture encourages perfectionism — especially among women. 

    I work hard not to pass on perfectionism to my child (although I constantly have to remind myself not to be a perfect mother!).  My two questions –

    Is perfectionism gender-based to a degree?  (Maybe more so in a patriarchal culture).

    How do you break the cycle of perfectionism from mother to daughter?

    Thank you very much!

    • IsaacWalton

      Good luck Jennifer! Western society is rife with the pitfalls of perfection. Especially when it comes to body image and performance. I used to tell my wife I want to look perfect. She would say…just be healthy! I love her for it so much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1555582672 Mike Mcglynn

    One of major hurdles is the self realization (or not !) at some point in your life that you are a perfectionist and learning to back off a bit – especially with employee’s or staff

  • Frannyzon

    The caller who talked about being married to a perfectionist really resonated with me. I have certainly been told many times that I am using the wrong knife or not putting the laundry back the right way. I am very much not a perfectionist. We still struggle with these differences in our marriage. Thanks for bringing this issue up!

  • DrewInGeorgia

    “Imperfections can add to the Beauty”

    Nice Nutshell!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_Y6CO5C2HE4WM2OYGCDVWGPRXXM oldman

    A good goal is learning how to determine, achieve and embrace “good enough”. 

  • Patrick T Gooch

    This resonates for me.  In my life, I have trouble maintaining relationships because of a desire to do everything right.  I am constantly critical of what I or my partner is doing, because I believe there is a “way” to do something and any deviation from that is wrong.  I struggle with this in my head constantly. However, the place it truly disrupts me is in school and work.  I am pursing a law degree and a master’s of Urban and Regional Planning at the same time.  My desire to excel or do things right prohibits me from doing work until I determine the perfect way to do so.  So instead of working on an assignment well before the deadline, I will struggle with the right way to do or conceptualize the task.  So my fear of not doing something the right way, keep me from doing anything.  Once again, I struggle with this in my head constantly.  

  • JB Comment

    I heard the report that perfectionism can be genetic.  My perfectionism is more a matter of nurture, not nature.  As a Black woman who grew up in a white community, I became a perfectionist under the pressure of feeling that I represent my race.  Even today I am often in circles in which I am the only person of color.  My admittedly dysfunctional perspective is: I’m an example, a representative.  If I’m not perfect, I’m undoing the hard work of prior generations to reshape the public perception of Blacks.
    (Okay, no type-os? Hit ‘send.’)

  • Brent Foster

    We want perfection when we rely on systems that control our aircraft or nuclear power plants, and increasingly our automobiles.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shannon.s.whitehead Shannon Smith Whitehead

    I think perfectionism manifests itself in different ways–There’s the Type A, Get-Everything-Done and Look Perfect while Doing it Type, and then there are those of us who get so overwhelmed our vision of how things “should be” and with a To-Do List that is endless, that instead of starting, we lay down on the couch and read a book. Or put it off until tomorrow. We end up looking more frazzled and cluttered, but the root is the same.

  • 1Brett1

    Streisand singing if one can’t be perfect than one must be nothing at all was perfect! I’ve known so many who have exceptional talent but refuse to share that talent with the world because they don’t feel they can be the best.

    Perfectionism in its extreme form is a kind of superstitious behavior, as if something bad will happen in some way if whatever it is they undertake is not perfect. That’s superstitious. Ritualized behaviors also fall into this category of superstitious behavior.

  • Brenda S.

    I was raised to be perfect by a father who could never accept what anyone else did as meeting his mark of perfection. I did not realize growing up why he could not praise what I did without saying “but, why didn’t you do this as well?” As a consequence, I am always concerned about whether I’m “good enough” in any of the things I’ve done in my life, and second-guess myself into inaction quite often. When things didn’t go my father’s way, he would literally throw a tantrum, with a lot of yelling and cussing and sulking. He quit jobs more than once because those he worked with did not do what he thought should be done (he & my mother have moved all over the country as a result). He is a very smart man, and IS often right about the consequences of business decisions, so the “I told you so” factor is always in play. I can now see why he behaves in this way — because he has always felt that HE wasn’t good enough, mostly because he feels his parents abandoned him as a child. His father divorced his mother when my father was a toddler (in the 1930s in eastern Kansas) and when his mother remarried, he stayed with his grandparents (whom he adored and took good care of him). My mother has spent their 50 plus years of marriage trying to keep everything in their home in perfect order, making excuses for his outbursts and placating him as much as she could. The anxiety level in their lives exhibits its self in constant worry over whether the dryer is turned off when they leave the house (it might catch fire), or any other myriad of extreme outcomes if they do not control all the variables.
    I am a much more open and less worried person by nature, but my upbringing made a huge impact on how I react to not getting first place in an art exhibition, or tripping over an inanimate object (at which I always curse) or always wondering if what I’ve done is acceptable (perfect). I’ve learned to accept imperfections in life and my artwork, but I can’t say I’m ever happy about those compromises.

  • Brenda S.

     Very true in my life! I have too many artworks half finished or in the sketch/idea phase, and not enough finished for all the reasons you’ve listed.

  • brenda metzler

    I like to say that I used to be a perfectionist, but I wasn’t very good at it, so I gave it up.  I’m sure that part of my perfectionism is my nature, and it was carefully cultivated by a perfectionist parent, making it quite a challenge to address.  It definitely got in the way of my closest relationships and overall productivity. At 45, the good news is that I have become much more relaxed about and comfortable with my own imperfections and those of the people in my life.  Yes, I’m still super-organized and pay great attention to silly details, but I don’t obsess over them anymore (mostly), and I no longer attach my self-worth to my performance.  Thank you for a thoughtful discussion on this very important topic – valuable for those of us with perfectionist tendencies, and for those with whom we live and work closely.

  • anamaria23

    To cite the familiar poem of Rumi:  “Out beyond the ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing there is a field.  I’ll meet you there.  When the soul lies down on that grass, the world is too full to think about.”
    It has taken me near a lifetime so far to sometimes be able to move my consciousness out into that field of loving non-judgement of self and others..  It has helped. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=570230411 Arianna Arbo-Yax

    This topic hits very close to home, as I identify with being a perfectionist and that’s not surprising, seeing as I come from an accomplished artistic and musical family. My mother and father are an awarding winning, children’s book duo. My mom, the main illustrator and my step dad, the author. My biological father, is a genius painter and two of my older sisters excelled in academics, music and the fine arts in school. As for myself, I always felt like I fell slightly behind my siblings, in all their “perfectionism”.  I have no less talent, than they, but I seem struggle a lot more. Interestingly enough, as I was growing up, I helped my parents with my younger sister, who was born with Down Syndrome and Autism. Much of our focus was on her and her development. As her big sister, I was happy to do my part to helping however I could. Now at age 27, I see more clearly my own woes involving school and general organizational skills, were over looked, because of my recent diagnosis of ADD and OCD tendencies.

      In spite of it all, I thank my mother for being there for me when I needed her. She was and is, the biggest influence on my artistic talents. When ever something became to overwhelming for me to do on my own, she always came to my rescue.  I wanted to be like her, so badly, and even now, I wish I could be as organized and disciplined as she was, and is still. Currently, my career includes my three beloved hobbies, jewelry making, yoga and landscaping. Perfectionism, for me IS a blessing and a curse. I can get lost in all the details and nuisances of a project, but in the end, I’m usually glad I took the time to pay attention to those things that others might not.  I know the combination of all my qwerks makes doing things difficult, but more times than not, they are rewarding. When I making something beautiful and people compliment me, I quietly thank my mom for the everything she passed on to me.

  • Jack Schultz

    I call it chronic “not-good-enough,” since the root of being a perfectionist is in problematic expectations and standards which are always *relative* to where you are.  That’s why treatment for perfectionism is recursively swallowed by the chronic tendency to implement it perfectly; The “good enough” BECOMES the “perfect.”

  • nick_tl

    Any other perfectionists out there who get frustrated while coding an über-stubborn machine that really doesn’t know how to carry on a conversation? (Be assured, I don’t talk to my machines.)

    Anyone who has done any coding may know what I was saying on the show: One has conceived of an elegant algorithm to solve a challenging engineering, math, statistics or graphic design problem, a beautiful idea that seeks to be embodied in executable expressions in some language and run on some computer. (Executable expressions are also called “well-formed formulas” or “wffs” in symbolic logic, and there’s a great game “WFF ‘N PROOF” created way-back by a lawyer at Yale.) All goes well until the ignorant, non-sentient machine refuses to cooperate until it “hears” your expressions just the way it wants to hear them. (Be assured, neither do I listen to my non-musical machines.) So, one modifies expressions here and there and eventually has the pleasing experience of having written some executable code that works just as envisioned, remains reasonably elegant, and has the machine do exactly what was desired, namely, in my case, to produce something beautiful that can help other people.

    • marcsbike

      One can easily make the reverse argument…that it’s not the computer but it’s that you really don’t understand your “elegant” solution (i.e. algorithm) until you have described it precisely and completely – whether that be as  a (set of) mathematical equation(s) or as a correct algorithm in an appropriate computer language. In a similar vein, too often I have heard students say after an exam that “I really understand the basic idea it’s just that I can’t apply it to solve problems”

  • Murali Saravanan

    I am definitely not a complete perfectionist but I definitely try to aim for perfection at all times. Often times this angers my peers as they call me controlling. Personally I have issues in trusting others in a collaborative work. Is there a link between perfectionism and trust issues? 

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  • ttajtt

    others don’t link perfectionism and trust issues with you? anger of peers, your controlling.   i’ll think about this one. 

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