Is Perfectionism Helpful or Harmful?


Written by Zoe Shiu


It’s the first month of the year! And for many, it means setting new goals with extensive plans on how to reach them. I know I’ve got a long list – intonation work, relaxation, effective musical communication, tone production, bow distribution… the list goes on, and I might as well just write at the top of there “PLAY EVERYTHING PERFECT.” 

Sound relatable? And perhaps more relatable is how debilitating it feels when you DON’T play/sing everything perfectly (which is usually all of the time, if you’re like me) and you’re frustrated to the point of chucking your work, music, and instrument out the window. Or perhaps you get so stuck in the details of making every last note perfect that you end up getting nowhere at all.  


But is perfectionism all bad?

Because we need big dreams to inspire and motivate us, and people wouldn’t get far in the world if they didn’t strive for some kind of high, perhaps almost impossible, ideal. 

It turns out that psychologists have begun to view perfectionism as a multi-faceted personality trait. This means that perfectionism is not just a black-and-white dichotomy of whether it's good or bad, but rather, it has multiple dimensions. Some research focuses on two of those dimensions, labeled personal standards perfectionism (PSP) and evaluative concerns perfectionism (ECP). 


Let’s break these down

If you have high personal standards perfectionism (PSP), you tend to hold high expectations, set tall goals, and strive for excellence. Research has suggested that this kind of perfectionism is not harmful, and furthermore can even be adaptive, or beneficial. 

If your tendency is evaluative concerns perfectionism (ECP), you may be concerned about making mistakes, worry about what others may think of you, or feel nasty after a less-than-perfect performance. As you may expect, this is the kind of perfectionism that seems to be detrimental.

Obviously, it’s possible to be high in both kinds of perfectionism. Or you may be high in one kind and low in the other. (OR you could have neither kind, but I’m guessing you wouldn’t be reading this if that was the case). This gives us 4 different combinations of perfectionism:



So, does it matter what quadrant you’re in?


In this study on athletes (who, by the way, actually share a lot in common with us musicians in terms of constant exertion and pressure to perform well), Madigan and colleagues investigated how people in each of the four perfectionism categories differed in wellbeing – particularly, in increases of burnout – over three months. As we might hope, the pure-PSP athletes (helpful perfectionism only) developed less burnout compared to the pure-ECP (harmful perfectionism only) athletes. And that’s good news – it means we can stay healthy without compromising our musical goals.

But what’s even more interesting is that the athletes high in BOTH helpful AND harmful (mixed) perfectionism also ended up developing less burnout than their pure-ECP (harmful perfectionism only) friends. This might be even better news because it means that not only is helpful perfectionism beneficial by itself – it also has the power to reduce harmful perfectionism’s effects on burnout! 

While more research needs to be done on musicians specifically to see if this discovery in athletes also holds true for us, the existing athlete studies suggest that we don’t need to discard our perfectionism entirely to be healthy humans. If you’re like me, you probably have a bit of both kinds of perfectionism in you, and have discovered that setting high goals actually is a huge part of growing as a musician. The key is to embrace the part of yourself that dreams big, strives for utmost beauty, and aims for improvement… while simultaneously learning how to treat yourself with compassion when the inevitable mistakes do happen. There are so many ways to go about this, but one way I have found helpful is to remember that failure is a part of being a human, and that life is about growth over a period of time rather than hitting perfection in a single moment (no matter how major that moment may feel). 

In other words… aim high, BUT give yourself grace when you fall.

And remember, we’re also here for you! Cheering you on as you continue your journey in your art – complete in all its beautiful blemishes and imperfections – this year.    


Oh, by the way, if you want to learn more about how to harness your inner helpful perfectionism while addressing the harmful perfectionism, as well as how to grow overall as a musician and nourish your soul as a human, it’s not too late to sign up to become a member of THRIVE! You’ll receive seminars throughout the year, monthly group calls, options for 1:1 audits, and a community of musicians building fulfilling lives in music.  Click here to join THRIVE for 2024!  




Bieling, P. J., Israeli, A. L., & Antony, M. M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 36(6), 1373–1385.

Frost, R. O., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R. (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism. Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14(5), 449–468.

Gaudreau, P., & Thompson, A. (2010). Testing a 2×2 model of dispositional perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(5), 532–537.

Madigan, D. J., Stoeber, J., & Passfield, L. (2016). Perfectionism and changes in athlete burnout over three months: Interactive effects of personal standards and evaluative concerns perfectionism. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 26, 32–39.

Stoeber, J., Otto, K., Pescheck, E., Becker, C., & Stoll, O. (2007). Perfectionism and competitive anxiety in athletes: Differentiating striving for perfection and negative reactions to imperfection. Personality and Individual Differences, 42(6), 959–969.

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