As the ball flew past the keeper into the goal for the second time, I watched the young player burst into tears and cover her face in shame. My heart went out to this ten-year-old. Even though she has been told a hundred times that it takes a whole team to make a goal or to defend the net, she felt the burden of responsibility for losing the game. Rightly or wrongly, she realized that the “buck stops here.” She had failed her team. She and everyone knew it.
Perfectionism is the bane of performance whether it is in academics, the arts or sports. It seems that you can’t live with it and you can’t live without it… that is if you want to perfect your skill and win. Learning to live with it means defining perfectionism in such a way as to bring out the best in a player or performer or student without damaging side effects. Perfectionism need not be bad. In fact, it is the driving force behind excellence of any kind. It only becomes harmful, psychologically and even physically when the person is motivated by fear of failure rather than a love of what they’re doing.
So what is the difference between healthy perfectionism or striving for excellence and neurotic perfectionism? Much research has gone into answering this question. It’s not always easy to tell if a performer is motivated by neurotic or healthy perfectionism, because perfectionists are good at covering their flaws. However, if you look at the whole person within the environment of their family and/or team, you can spot some telltale signs. For example, the neurotic perfectionist has (1) a constant need for approval from others, (2) too high standards for he or she to meet, (3) endless anxiety with no way to cope, (4) and no role models of others who handle failures or successes well.
On the other hand, the person with healthy perfectionism is guided by (1) a high need for order and organization, or discipline, (2) reasonable, achievable standards that nevertheless require hard work, (3) a belief that mistakes are opportunities to learn, and (4) role models who accept their own mistakes and encourage them to do their personal best.
The young goalkeeper who failed to defend the goal may or may not be motivated by perfectionism, healthy or neurotic. You don’t have to be a perfectionist to feel the sting of defeat. Talented people thrive on competition. Competing with other talented people gives them the challenge they need to achieve excellence. The healthy perfectionist, however, is wise enough to recognize that a less than stellar performance just means he or she has work to do. He or she knows what they are capable of and they push until they meet their goals; then they set new ones to achieve.
Ultimately the talented person who is motivated by perfection to strive for excellence does so because she or he loves to do well. While fear may motivate the neurotic perfectionist, and ultimately prove to be his or her undoing, the healthy perfectionist plays because they love what they do. Performing well is its own reward.
Copyright © 2000 Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.
Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist with over twenty-five years of experience as a marriage & family therapist. Visit her website at for more of her practical self-help advice. Sign up for her free ezine for the latest self-help information and special discounts on wellness products at Enriching Your Life Newsletter