The Pressure to Be Perfect. The line between conscientious and neurotic

By John D. Rich, Jr., Ph.D.

Are you a Perfectionist?

The pressure to be perfect can be a source of motivation, or a source of great anxiety. My son Josiah is on the freshman football team at his high school. He had his first game of the season on Wednesday. For almost a week leading up to that game, he was visibly nervous.

“What’s wrong, son?”

“I’m really nervous about the game. What if I don’t do well?”

“What makes you think you won’t do well?”

“I don’t know. I get really anxious before games, so what if they throw it to me and I miss it?”

“Well, then you miss it. Even the pros miss some catches.”


I am not sure whether this talk with my son worked. I know that he was nervous going into the game, and I also know that my son is particularly vulnerable to perfectionistic thinking. From my observation, perfectionist thinking is different from having high expectations and a drive to do a good job, in that the pressure to be perfect brings with it a host of negative thoughts: fears of failure (what if I mess up?),  worries about appearances (what will my teammates/coach/teacher/parents think?), and/or threats to the self-esteem (what if I’m not good enough?).

In an article published on September 15, 2017 in the Journal of Advanced Academics, two researchers investigated the connection between children’s personality characteristics, parenting styles, and what psychologists call an “achievement goal orientation.” Achievement goal orientation has been defined by John Nicholls at the University of Chicago as one’s “personal academic goals and beliefs about the causes of…success.”

Three Types of Perfectionism

  1. If you have self-directed perfectionism, you don’t necessarily care what others might have to say about your performance, but you have “impractical high standards” of your own. If you don’t achieve the standards of perfection that you have for yourself, you may get very upset at yourself.
  2. If you have socially prescribed perfectionism, you feel that others are putting “impossibly high standards or unrealistic expectations on [your] performance.” Notice, that it might not be true that your parents or teachers or coaches have these high expectations. It is enough if you perceive that these expectations are real.
  3. If you have other-oriented perfectionism, you have “unrealistic expectation or standards for others’ performance.” You may see the connection between this type of perfectionism on the part of a parent and the second type on the part of the child who picks up on his father’s stern requirements.

In this article, we will focus mainly on the first two types of perfectionism, and how those are connected to certain personality traits, and certain parenting practices.

Personality traits

In an attempt to identify the major components of human personality, many psychologists have narrowed us down to some mixture of what they call the “Big 5” traits. Three of them are: 1) Extroversion or introversion (how outgoing are you?) 2) Agreeableness and warmth vs. quarrelsome and cold (how critical or accepting are you of others?) 3) Openness or Closed-minded (How willing are you to try new experiences?)

The other two traits are of special interest to researchers who study the pressure to be perfect, since they are related to types of thinking and goal orientations that can lead to the stress that comes with trying to adhere to unrealistically high standards. The first of those two remaining traits is conscientiousness, which describes the degree to which “individuals attend to details in their work, have high levels of effortful control, and demonstrate goal-directed behaviors.” The other trait is neuroticism, which describes the degree to which “individuals display negative affect, unstable moods, and low emotional control.”

Can you see the connection between these two traits and the two types of perfectionism above? There is a strong relationship between conscientiousness and self-oriented perfectionism. If you have pride in your work and pay attention to detail, you are likely holding high expectations for yourself. On the other hand, if you have a high level of neuroticism, you are more likely exhibiting those neurotic behaviors in response to someone else’s high expectations. The key difference is the source of the high expectations – are they your own standards, or is there someone else that you feel you have to please?

Achievement Goals

In the study of achievement goals, psychologists have identified two different ways that people can focus their attention. People who demonstrate mastery goals are more likely to take on challenges and tasks because they truly want to get better, smarter, more knowledgeable about the topic or skill at hand.

I play tennis. I don’t think I’m really all that good, but I love the exercise and the challenge. I’ll watch videos about strategy, grip, swing and body position. I pay money each week to take lessons, and I try to get as many opportunities as I can to play more. My focus is not necessarily on winning (although I do like to win), but moreso on self-improvement and the enjoyment of striving.

The other type of achievement goal is a performance goal. People who demonstrate performance goals are more interested in completing a task in order to demonstrate how smart or able they are to other people. They want to get the best grade in the class, to be the best tennis player in the group, to have the highest number of sales in the department.

The focus is not so much on self-improvement as it is on beating out everyone else, and appearing to be great to other people. Once again, the difference is the source of the motivation. Are you wanting to prove something to yourself, or to please some outside judge?

There is an important lesson to be learned from comparing and contrasting these two achievement goals. When the person with the mastery goal makes a mistake, it is information that he can use to be better. He can ask himself, “What can I do next time to do better?” He is not likely to view errors as threats to his self-esteem. The focus is on the process of improving, rather than on the outcome of success.

When the person with the performance goal makes a mistake, it is a danger to the appearances she wants to create, and perhaps a personal assault on her self-concept. Consequently, she is more likely to cheat, avoid difficult challenges, or self-handicap. Self-handicapping involves behaviors which provide a justification for failure. A student who is worried about a test can party the night before, oversleep, or “forget” to study. When he fails the test, he doesn’t have to take it to heart – he has a ready excuse that lets him off the hook.

Putting it all Together

When my son first discovered football, he really enjoyed playing. We would go outside and throw the ball around. He’d invite friends over to play two-hand touch. Somewhere along the line, he got too wrapped up in the results, and left behind the enjoyment. What I want for my son is to be more accepting of his mistakes, and just be in the sport to get better. I want his focus to be on improvement, not glory. I want him to see me as a resource and a source of support, not a judge. I want him to experience satisfaction from making progress, rather than only from success.

I’m looking for him to be conscientious – having high standards that are there as challenges to approach, rather than impossible sources of anxiety to avoid. We all need to teach our children the value of hard work and diligence, but give them room to be imperfect. This is difficult for some of us, because we want them to achieve big goals, and we believe that they can. The moral of the story is, if your goals are too big, they may shrink from them.

Parents who create family environments where “parental love and approval are perceived as conditional based on performance,” may unwittingly provide more love and praise when their child succeeds, and withhold that same level of love and interest when their child falters. Our children need us to push them forward, but they also need us to catch them when they fall.

My son, I love you. Whether you succeed or fail, I’m here. Take life on, and see what happens. There’s nothing more fun than a challenge taken on willingly, with an open mind for any result. You’ll get there, son. You’re gonna be just fine.