Why Are Some People Perfectionists?

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Morgan Thompson is a cognitive sciences student at Case Western. She considers herself a perfectionist.(Photo: WCPN/Anne Glausser)
Morgan Thompson is a cognitive sciences student at Case Western. She considers herself a perfectionist.(Photo: WCPN/Anne Glausser)

Want to land a man on the moon?

Need brain surgery?

Want to have the tightest horns and sax band ever?

For some things in life there’s no substitute for a perfectionist. Astronauts like Neil Armstrong and musicians like James Brown relentlessly push themselves again and again, and we’re all the better for it.

Some people feel the pull of perfectionism in nearly everything they do, even in mundane activities like painting their nails.

“I’ll notice little things like I didn’t reach the cuticle,” says Morgan Thompson, a cognitive sciences student at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.

“(I obsess over) things that like literally no one else could physically see because it’s too far away.”

Thompson says on one recent day, the black nail polish she was wearing didn’t appear smooth enough; the brushstrokes weren’t right.

So, before going out the door, she started over and painted them again.

She can get hung up on other small stuff too – like a minor purchase – and the bigger stuff.

It can be exhausting.

There’ll be times when I’m writing a paper and I’m retyping the same sentence over and over and over…I’ll spend an hour and have only a paragraph done. With everything that I make I’ll focus in on here’s where I messed up.

Some perfectionists excel, as Thompson has academically, but still doubt their accomplishments.

Where does this come from?

It definitely runs in families–there’s no question about that.

Amy Przeworski is a psychologist at Case Western Reserve University who’s researched the subject. She says there’s evidence that perfectionist tendencies may be inherited; it’s one of those murky mixtures between nature and nurture, genes and environment.

Many are quite comfortable in their own skin.

You’re motivated, you’re striving, you’re achievement oriented, you have goals and work towards the goals. So it can be something incredibly helpful to you.
It gets more problematic when someone feels the need to be perfect all the time.

“So there is a link between perfectionism and not being able to achieve the goals you want to achieve and it can certainly get in the way,” Przeworski says.

Przeworski, a recovering perfectionist herself, recommends intentional mistakes as one way to cope.

“I’m not saying you bomb an exam, but you just leave these little imperfections in things. So when I write a paper and it’s something that’s going to be published and notice oh there should have been a comma there, I deliberately leave it.”

Same thing with a bit of cat hair on her blazer.

“And I probably have–yep I have–got some mud on my boots too, so there you go as well.
A simple tool to break the obsession of perfectionism.”

Of course, some say trying to “manage” perfectionism is a lot of hooey. The bigger problem, they say, is setting our sites too low.