Perfectionism

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Perfectionism, while sometimes seen as a positive trait that can increase one's chances of success, can in fact lead to self-defeating thoughts or behaviors that may actually decrease the likelihood of achieving one's goals. The trait may also lead to the development of conditions such as stress or anxiety. Those who strive for perfection out of feelings of inadequacy or failure may find speaking to a therapist to be a helpful step in the resolution of excessively self-critical thoughts.

What Is Perfectionism?

Often defined as the need to be or appear to be perfect, perfectionism is typically viewed as a positive trait rather than a flaw. However, Brené Brown, a writer and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says, "Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth." She goes on to explain that perfectionism is used by many people as a shield to protect against the pain of blame, judgment, or shame.

"Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth."While most people do engage in perfectionistic behavior from time to time in certain areas of life, those who are truly perfectionistic are often unable to perform a task unless they know they can do it perfectly. Rather than focusing on the process of learning or simply aiming to complete a task to the best of their ability, people with perfectionism tend to view the end product as the most important part of any undertaking, and they cannot see the project or task as finished until the result is, according to their standards, perfect.

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Perfectionism can often lead to procrastination because many people who are perfectionistic do not want to begin a task until they know they can do it perfectly, and they may take an excessive amount of time to complete a task. For example, a person who has perfectionistic tendencies might spend three hours sweeping the kitchen in order to remove every trace of dust. There is a correlation between obsessive-compulsive behavior (OCD) and perfectionism, but not all people who are perfectionistic have OCD, and not all people with OCD are perfectionists.

Types of Perfectionism

There are generally considered to be two types of perfectionistic behavior: personal standards perfectionism and self-critical perfectionism. Someone who practices personal standards perfectionism will typically adhere to a set of standards that motivate them, though others may consider these standards to be high. Those who have self-critical perfectionistic tendencies, however, are often intimidated by the high standards they have set for themselves instead of being motivated by them, and they may feel as if their goals will never become reality. Research suggests that self-critical perfectionism is more likely to lead to distress, avoidance, anxiety, and self-condemnation. Personal standards perfectionism, when not combined with potentially harmful coping methods, such as avoidance coping, or other life stressors, does not tend to have the same effects.

A 2014 York University study describes a third concept of perfectionism: socially prescribed perfectionism, which describes the demand for excellence that is often placed on those who have jobs that require extreme precision, such as lawyers, medical professionals, and architects. These individuals were shown to experience more hopeless thoughts, life stress, and a higher risk for self-harm and suicide. Socially prescribed perfectionism also applies to those who are held to high cultural or societal standards and strive to meet these unrealistic goals. For example, students who are held to high academic standards by their parents, and teens and adults who feel pressure to obtain the type of body purported to be "ideal" by society may develop traits of socially prescribed perfectionism as a result.

Examples of Perfectionistic Behavior

Most people want to achieve success, and working hard to achieve one's goals and aiming to excel at pursuits are not necessarily indicative of perfectionistic behavior. Instead, people who are perfectionists typically operate with the belief that nothing they do is worthwhile unless it is perfect. Instead of being proud of their progress, learning, or hard work, they might instead constantly compare their work to the work of others or fixate on achieving flawless output. Even when those who are perfectionistic obtain their desired results, they may still not be satisfied, believing that if they truly were perfect, they would not have had to work so hard to achieve those goals.

Some examples of perfectionism might include:

  • Spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email.
  • Believing that missing two points on a test is a sign of failure.
  • Difficulty being happy for others who are successful.
  • Holding oneself to the standards of others' accomplishments, or comparing oneself unfavorably and unrealistically to others.
  • Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning.
  • Believing that anything less than a perfect or ideal outcome is not worth achieving.

What Causes Perfectionism?

A number of factors can contribute to the development of perfectionism. Anxiety, insecurity, and fear of disapproval may all lead to perfectionist behavior. Children of parents who are perfectionistic are more likely to become perfectionists themselves. Some parents may drive their children to perfectionism by encouraging them to succeed in every area or pushing perfection on them to an extent that can be considered abusive, expressing disapproval when their children's efforts do not result in perfection.


People with a history of high achievement sometimes feel overwhelming pressure to live up to their previous achievements, which often leads them to engage in perfectionistic behavior. Children who are frequently praised for their accomplishments may often feel pressure to continue achieving as they age, and this pressure may lead to the development of perfectionistic tendencies.

An insecure early attachment may also be a contributing factor toward one's tendency to develop self-critical perfectionism, as those who had a troubled attachment with parents may experience difficulty self-soothing as well as a difficulty to accept a good outcome as a good outcome, if it is not perfect.

Mental Health Conditions Associated with Perfectionism

In the field of mental health, perfectionism is generally known to be a trait that may have negative consequences. Research increasingly shows that perfection has a high correlation to anxiety, depression, high levels of stress, and suicide risk. Those who have perfectionist qualities are also less likely to disclose their pain to others, as doing so would mean their appearance as less than perfect, so they may not be as likely to seek treatment for conditions resulting from their attempted perfection.

Perfectionism is also often associated with vulnerability and a lack of resilience, and it is linked to the development of eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa. The trait may cause relationship problems, as individuals who aspire to perfection may often expect that same level of perfection from others around them, and through this expectation, become critical of a spouse or intimate partner.

How Is Perfectionism Treated?

Perfectionism can be measured using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, and this scale can provide mental health professionals with insight into the specific sources of perfectionism, as a person might be a perfectionist in one domain but not another. The developers of this scale, Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt, also developed the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale, which rates perfectionistic behaviors in self-presentation and appears to predict psychological distress as a result of perfectionistic tendencies to a greater extent than the original scale did.

Therapy is often helpful in treating perfectionism because it can help those people experiencing the condition re-frame their thoughts, often through cognitive behavioral therapy, in such a way as to realize that perfection is not the end goal of each undertaking. A therapist who treats perfectionism might avoid focusing on the high standards that those in therapy hold themselves to, because a person with perfectionistic tendencies who is simply told to lower his or her standards is likely to ignore the advice. Instead, therapy typically focuses on treating those issues that led a person to develop perfectionistic qualities, whether that is a fear of failure, a desire to be loved and admired, or a desire to please one's parents.

Case Example

  • Therapy to treat perfectionistic behavior: Lena, 34, is encouraged to enter therapy by her wife, who tells her that she asks too much of their 9-year-old daughter, Abbie. She admits to the therapist that she does want Abbie to do well and that she often encourages her to try harder in school and at her voice lessons. Lena becomes defensive in the session, telling the therapist that she does not put any more pressure on Abbie than Lena's parents put on her, claiming that she turned out just fine. The therapist notes the way Lena's tone changes when she mentions her parents and questions her further, eventually uncovering some resentment that Lena felt at being required to take both ballet and piano lessons as a child while still being expected to maintain top grades in her class, which left her with little time of her own. The therapist encourages Lena to apply these feelings toward her treatment of Abbie and remember what it felt like to be pushed to succeed. Lena admits that she may have been too pushy. Once Lena begins to be truthful with the therapist, she soon relates the stress and anxiety that she experiences as a result of still trying to be perfect: a perfect mother, a perfect employee, a perfect woman. Over several sessions, the therapist works with Lena to reframe these thoughts into ones that are more accepting and accommodating of Lena's strengths and weaknesses, as a person and as a parent. As part of her treatment, Lena is also encouraged by the therapist to share anecdotes of her own mistakes and failures with Abbie to reinforce the fact that she is not perfect, and that Abbie does not need to be, either.

References:

  1. Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10), 18-18.
  2. Flett, G., Heisel, M., & Hewitt, P. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156-172.
  3. Perfectionism. (n.d.). University of Illinois Counseling Center. Retrieved from http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=113.
  4. Rettner, R. (n.d.). The dark side of perfectionism revealed. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/6724-dark-side-perfectionism-revealed.html.
  5. Scutti, S. (2014, September 26). Perfectionists Are More Likely To Commit Suicide Than The Rest Of Us. Retrieved from http://www.medicaldaily.com/perfectionists-especially-doctors-architects-and-lawyers-are-higher-risk-suicide-305256.
  6. Szymanski, J. (2011, October 3). Perfectionism: Healthy or hurtful? Retrieved from http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/is_perfectionism_helping_or_hu.html.

 

Last updated: 07-03-2015

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