Julia Child, Barbara Bush, Sylvia Plath, Nancy Regan – were they all perfectionists?  I have no idea, but they did all attend Smith, a top-ranked all-women’s college where Dr. Randy Frost studies perfectionism amidst the top-ranked, all-women students. Dr. Frost’s research team set out to rate the intensity of six distinctly identified aspects of perfectionism.  After some careful consideration about the demographic they were studying, it seems a decision was made to emphasize the name “scale” instead of “test.”

Good call.

The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale measures these six aspects of perfectionism:

1. Excessive concern over making mistakes

2. High personal standards

3. Excessively high parental expectations as ‘perceived’ (wink) by said perfectionist.

4. Excessively high parental criticism as perceived by said perfectionist.

5. A preference for order and organization (This is the aspect of perfectionism that explains why counting and making to-do lists are so soothing for many perfectionists.)

6. Doubting the quality of one’s actions

The sweet spot for healthy perfectionism seems to be scoring high on having high personal standards and a preference for order (both associated with positive achievement striving) and lower on the rest.

What happens when you score high on the other four points?

Not surprisingly, excessive concern over making mistakes and a focus on outer criticism were correlated with a parade of other P words, including problems, procrastination and paralysis.

You want it to be perfect, and daunted by the overwhelming challenge to present a sparkling, polished, perfectly perfect version of fill-in-the-blank goal, major procrastination and/or paralysis sets in.

It’s important to note that this type of procrastination/paralysis doesn’t just happen with work related goals.  Personal goals are impacted too:  You don’t have the conversation about being ready for more in your relationship because you don’t know how to perfectly bring it up at the perfect time, you don’t throw a dinner party because you don’t have the right stemware yet, you don’t eat a healthful breakfast because you slept in instead of working out so your perfect health day is already shot, etc.

This type of damaging relationship with perfectionism often isolates incredibly gifted, creative and brilliant people in a world of self-imposed rules for a game that can’t be won. 

But alas, all is most definitely not lost.  There’s no need to wear your perfectionism like the Scarlet letter P.  Perfectionism is a luminous, wonderful, amazing quality that many of the most powerful and influential contributors to society possess.

I don’t appreciate it when people tell perfectionists things like, “Don’t worry so much, just go with the flow…you’d be a lot happier if you just stopped thinking about this…why don’t you just focus on everything that can go right!”  The subtext of those messages is: You’d be a lot happier if you had a different personality and you were someone else, you should maybe try that.  

There’s no need to eradicate fundamental parts of who you are in order to achieve that damn white whale of balance. As human-beings, we all have personalities that are kind of here to stay, and making an enemy of your personality is going to cause you substantial emotional harm. Behaviors and thoughts can change, personalities generally don’t.

Instead of eradicating (which always fails and subsequently makes you feel like a failure), consider expanding the repertoire of ways to manage and understand your strong qualities.  The expansion approach is much easier because it removes resistance and it celebrates your strengths while also acknowledging that those qualities have the potential to be both constructive and destructive.

Does perfectionism become dangerous and deeply painful when it’s not harnessed and managed properly?  As many perfectionists know all too well, the answer to that questions is an unequivocal (italicized and in bold), yes.  Perfectionism can be toxic if you don’t manage it.  So what does managing perfectionism look like?

To move away from negative perfectionism towards a more adaptive approach, join my monthly newsletter, where I love talking about how to — and this is breakthrough so hold on tight — celebrate who you actually are right now instead of constantly trying to fix and twist yourself into a new and improved you (something we’re all told to do WAY too much). Everyone who gets my newsletter is always like, “WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT THIS SOONER?!” (You’ll see.)


  • Katherine Schafler

    NYC-based psychotherapist, writer and speaker.

    Katherine earned her Bachelor’s degree in psychology at UC Berkeley before obtaining two Masters from Columbia University, one focused on clinical assessment and the other on psychological counseling. Additionally, she completed post-graduate training and certification at the Association for Spirituality and Psychotherapy in NYC.