People who are perfectionists set high standards for themselves. In
itself, this is not such a bad personality trait to have — it helps
some people become corporate leaders, skilled surgeons, or Olympic
champions. But it is the dark side of perfectionism that gives this
quality a bad name: a tendency toward endless self-criticism and
focus on mistakes rather than on achievements.
Perfectionism is sometimes a manifestation of a psychiatric
disorder. In people with eating disorders, for example,
perfectionism may show up as excessive self-criticism about weight
or appearance. In people with depression, it may appear as a
tendency to ruminate about failures. And in people with
obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it may be expressed as an
obsession with arranging things symmetrically — such as lining up
hangers or placing clothes in drawers in a specific way.
But perfectionism does have its advantages. Desirable aspects of
this personality trait include conscientiousness, endurance,
satisfaction with life, and ability to cope with adversity.
Dr. Jeff Szymanski, a clinical instructor of psychology at Harvard
Medical School and executive director of the International OCD
Foundation, believes it is possible to become a better
perfectionist — by building on the strengths of this quality and
learning to minimize its drawbacks. In his book, The Perfectionist's Handbook, he
discusses this theory in greater detail and provides exercises
people can try on their own at home.
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