Fat loss is really hard if you are a “perfectionist.” Clients who self identify as a “perfectionist” tend to be the clients who fail the most often, are knocked out of the game by failure the longest, and have the hardest time bouncing back after failure.
In other words, clients who self-identify as “perfectionists” tend to be the least successful clients on a nutrition plan, by a huge margin.
I put “perfectionists” in quotes, because I’ve started to study the research on perfectionism, and the research identifies two kinds of perfectionism:
- Positive Perfectionism — sometimes also called healthy perfectionism or perfectionist strivings
- Negative Perfectionism — sometimes also called unhealthy perfectionism or perfectionist concerns
So, obviously there are two different ways perfectionism can show up.
I put my notes from a bunch of studies at the bottom of this post, so you could check out everything about what I learned. But I’m going to give a summary up here:
- Positive perfectionism = pride, conscientiousness, healthy pursuit of excellence
- Negative perfectionism = concern about mistakes, concern about looking bad, shame, guilt
Personal Standards vs Concern over Mistakes
- Personal standards tend to associate with higher motivation
- Concern over mistakes associates with deppression and anxiety
- Personal standards, if they aren’t met, often turn into concern over mistakes
- Personal standards are never met in clinical perfectionism – when a perfectionist hits their standard, they raise the standard.
There is Actually Some Debate
- There’s evidence both positive and negative perfectionism are functions of fear of failure
- Negative perfectionism is easy to measure and distinguish. Positive perfection is hard to measure and distinguish.
- Positive perfectionism may not actually exist
- It might be more accurate to say conscientiousness
- Conscientiousness is the personality trait of being thorough, careful, or vigilant. Conscientiousness implies a desire to do a task well. Conscientious people are efficient and organized
- Or it might be more accurate to say healthy pursuit of excellence
So, we’re left with a few different things to think about.
- If perfectionism makes you feel good, increases pride of work and increases the amount of work you do, it’s probably positive
- If it’s positive, you should probably call it healthy pursuit of excellence, instead.
- If it makes you feel bad, or if you are concerned about mistakes or looking bad in front of others, it’s negative perfectionism.
- If you have a habit negative perfectionism, you want to practice empathy, encouragement, self-reflection, courage to be imperfect, and doing the work you said you would.
Because humans are inherently imperfect, perfectionism makes life a discouraging burden.
Perfectionism is a habit. It’s something you practice every day.
The healthy pursuit of excellence is also a habit. It’s something you practice every day.
To change from one to the other, change what you practice.
Striving for excellence is vitalizing and energizing, and it opens the possibility of continued growth. Perfectionism, by contrast, is deadening, bringing with it feelings of hopelessness and personal failure.
—Thomas S. Greenspon, Ph.D
The habits that move you from perfectionism to a healthy pursuit of excellence:
- The courage to be imperfect
Failure resilience might be the defining factor int he pursuit of excellence.
People with a healthy pursuit of excellence are disappointed by failure. But, despite initial dissappointment, they move on and keep taking action.
Perfectionists are crushed by failure, they are stopped by failure, and stop taking action.
Anyone who’s coached fat loss (or anything) for any amount of time, knows that failure is where the game begins. We try, we fail, we learn, we work smarter. We try, we fail, we learn, we work smarter. That’s literally how it works.
What most people miss is the learning and working smarter, but that’s a different blog post.
For now, I hope you embrace your imperfection, and enjoy the ongoing and never-ending pursuit of excellence. It’s awesome to be a human. It’s also awesome to grow over time.
Research and my notes:
Andrews, D. M., Burns, L. R., & Dueling, J. K. (2014). Positive perfectionism: Seeking the healthy “should”, or should we?. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 2(08), 27.
- Positive perfectionism was found to correlate with optimism and conscientiousness
- Negative perfectionism was found to correlate with pessimism and neuroticism
So, the first place you could look to see if perfectionism is positive or negative would be if it looks optimistic or pessimistic. The second place would be if it looks conscientious or neurotic.
Fedewa, B. A., Burns, L. R., & Gomez, A. A. (2005). Positive and negative perfectionism and the shame/guilt distinction: Adaptive and maladaptive characteristics. Personality and individual differences, 38(7), 1609-1619.
- Positive perfectionism correlates with pride
- Positive perfectionism correlates less shame
- Negative perfectionism correlates with guilt, shame, and shame-proneness
So, the next place you could look for which kind of perfectionism it is is if it has you feel pride or shame.
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review,10(4), 295-319.
- Perfectionistic strivings are positive if you aren’t overly concerned about mistakes or negative evaluations from others
- Perfectionistic concerns are negative if you are overly concerned about mistakes and negative evaluations from others
Egan, S., Piek, J., Dyck, M., & Kane, R. (2011). The reliability and validity of the positive and negative perfectionism scale. Clinical Psychologist, 15(3), 121-132.
Indicates that depressive symptoms are common in both positive perfectionism and negative perfectionism. That something that starts off positive can go negative over time.
They also, again, noted that fear of mistakes was a major negative that often showed up between both groups. They also questioned if positive perfectionism does exist. Ultimately, they found their Positive and Negative Perfectionism Scale could effectively measure negative perfectionism, but not positive perfectionism.
Kobori, O., & Tanno, Y. (2005). Self-oriented perfectionism and its relationship to positive and negative affect: The mediation of positive and negative perfectionism cognitions. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 29(5), 555-567.
- Personal standards had a positive effect
- Concern over mistakes had a negative effect
- Concern over mistakes reduced positive effects
- Personal standards can become conern over mistakes if you set them too high and don’t meet them
- Personal standards can become concern over mistakes if you don’t see your progress towards meeting them
But even worse
- Personal standards aren’t effective because when clinical perfectionists meet them, they re-appraise them as being too low — in other words, if they meet the standard, they raise it.
- They are unsure if personal standards reflect a “healthy pursuit of excellence”
- Concern for mistakes reduces motivation
Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2006). Positive versus negative perfectionism in psychopathology a comment on Slade and Owens’s dual process model. Behavior modification, 30(4), 472-495.
- Positive perfectionism might not exist
- Research findings call into question how healthy positive perfection actually is
- We might be confusing conscientiousness and positive perfectionism
- What’s healthy might just be conscientiousness