Harvard Mental Health Letter

Becoming a better perfectionist

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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