If someone is referred to as a perfectionist, it could be considered a compliment or an insult. Perfectionism is an ambiguous categorization, hallmarked by high standards and motivation for success. Being a perfectionist does not necessarily mean that an individual will have negative traits such as neuroticism. But it does not indicate that one will be highly resilient when goals are not met, either. Understanding perfectionism, and the subjective evaluations of perfectionism, is critically important for perfectionists and the clinicians who treat them.
Perfectionism can motivate someone to push themselves further in various domains. Having the desire to achieve something is not a bad thing in and of itself, but when that desire becomes an obsession, it can create problems. Because the definition of perfectionism is so unclear, Jeffrey S. Ashby of the Department of Counseling and Psychological Services at Georgia State University decided to evaluate perfectionism based on its positive and negative influences. In a recent exploratory study, Ashby asked 36 college students with significantly high standards how their perfectionist traits affected different areas of their lives. He also looked specifically at how high versus low levels of worry and stress were related to perfectionism.
Ashby found that although some of the participants did not describe themselves as perfectionists, they still had tendencies that would indicate otherwise. For instance, high worriers who reported stress as a result of their perfectionist traits exhibited less resilience than low worriers, even though they may not have considered themselves perfectionists. Although the levels of worry varied, Ashby found that worry was most closely related to high standards in professional, academic, and work domains. Interestingly, other areas, such as personal appearance, religious involvement, self-esteem, and relationships were mentioned as well, but had distinct significance for each participant. Thus, it seems based on the responses that perfectionism and its effects, positive or negative, could depend on the domain it is attached to.
This exploration into perfectionism also revealed a relationship to obsessive-compulsive traits. In particular, the participants with the highest levels of worry and negative outcomes related to their perfectionism also reported the highest levels of obsessive-compulsive habits or rituals. Also, Ashby found that those who experienced the most stress from their perfectionism were the least likely to call themselves perfectionists, and were for the most part unwilling to give that character trait up. “The apparent inconsistencies between the distress attributed to it, the benign evaluations of it, and the general reluctance to give it up, raise intriguing questions about perfectionism,” Ashby said. He believes that this finding suggests a deep-rooted sense of perfectionism that individuals consider inherent or ingrained. Future work should explore this nuance of perfectionism more thoroughly in order to better understand how this classification of perfectionism may impair change in those who experience negative consequences from their behaviors.
Ashby, Jeffrey S., Robert B. Slaney, Christina M. Noble, Philip B. Gnilka, and Kenneth G. Rice. Differences between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionists: Implications for mental health counselors. Journal of Mental Health Counseling 34.4 (2012): 322-40. Print.
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