A primer on perfectionism

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A PRIMER ON PERFECTIONISM

By Joyce Chong

 

It’s easy to think of perfectionism as one overall category in which you’re driven to achieve exceedingly high standards, and attaining the standard is like climbing to the peak of a mountain. But perfectionism is so much more complex and diverse than that. Today, we’re taking a closer look at the different ways in which we can think about perfectionism.


WHERE DOES PERFECTIONISM COMES FROM?

The cause of perfectionism is thought to be varied. [1] Genes potentially make a contribution, as suggested by studies of identical twins raised together versus those raised apart, as do parental expectations. It’s also thought that we can ‘learn’ perfectionism through mechanisms such as observation, reward (e.g. getting praised for doing well), and punishment (e.g. getting punished for failing to meet others’ expectations).  


ABOUT PERFECTIONISTIC STANDARDS

We often think of perfectionism as something that is driven from within, influenced by our own high standards and driving our own behaviour. However perfectionism isn’t necessarily directed at ourselves.[2]

Perfectionism can be directed at others wherein you expect others to adhere to the high standards that you expect of them. Thus, you may expect:

  • Your partner to do housework a particular way;
  • Your family to conform to your idealised vision of how family members should relate to each other
  • Your friends to act in a particular way
  • Your children to behave how they ‘should’

In each of these situations it’s easy to see that disappointment, hurt, and anger may follow when others don’t meet your expectations.

There is also something that we call socially prescribed perfectionism, wherein we believe that others hold high expectations that we must meet. Not surprisingly, it’s been shown to be linked to a fear of negative evaluation, loneliness and shyness, lower levels of social self-esteem[3]. It has also been linked to a tendency to be perfectionistic when it comes to how one presents oneself (perfectionistic self-presentation), the perception of having received social feedback that is negative in nature, to ruminate more about having (potentially) offended others, and also feelings of depression and social anxiety.[4]


HOW IS YOUR PERFECTIONISM MANIFEST?

Perfectionism can be manifest in different ways in different domains of our lives. For instance you may see perfectionism:

  • Within the home, with lawns meticulously manicured, the interior and exterior cleaned spotlessly, and objects arranged ‘just so’. There may be daily, weekly, monthly, and seasonal cleaning routines that must be rigidly adhered to.
  • At work where you pore over every detail of every project, find it hard to delegate tasks, and set extremely high targets that you ‘must’ achieve at all costs. Long hours are typically involved in getting outcomes that meet your exacting standards.
  • At school or at university, where you aim for extremely high marks, relentlessly study or research to ensure that you have all the answers readily available and that you avoid making any mistakes. Your assignments keep getting reworked until they feel ‘just right’.
  • In hobbies, where there are multiple attempts are made to get something ‘just so’. If cooking is your thing, then it may be attempting to replicate a dish so that it looks exactly like it does in a magazine.
  • In sport/exercise, and not just at the lofty levels of competition. There may be multiple attempts to achieve a textbook yoga pose, or overtraining against a coach’s advice because of a desire to perfect techniques.
  • In self-presentation…how you speak, dress, your level of grooming, your lifestyle choices, your body weight and shape. Throw in the heightened scrutiny of social media to this mix and it’s easy to see how perfectionism can take over in a bid to maintain a perfect image. 

HOW IS PERFECTIONISM MAINTAINED?

How do perfectionistic standards continue to persist given they are often unrealistically high and therefore at times unlikely to be met?

One factor is the thought process or interpretation – that a failure to meet these standards are not a reflection of the unrealistic nature of the standards themselves, but rather a reflection on your own failures. Or, if the standard is somehow achieved, then it may be discounted as being too easy and attainable by all.

Perfectionistic behaviours also reinforce the problem, as you increase your efforts to achieve the unrealistic standards. While it may pay off, it’s important to recognise that this level of effort is often difficult to sustain in the longer term.

Interestingly, procrastination also plays a part for some dealing with perfectionism. By ‘opting out’, or perhaps completing the work with insufficient time to do a decent job, the ‘blow’ of being unable to meet the unrealistic standard becomes far easier to handle.


THE IMPACT OF PERFECTIONISM

Critically, what is the impact of perfectionism? Is it something that motivates you, spurring you on to strive for excellence? When that excellence is achieved do you feel a sense of contentment and satisfaction?

Or, is perfectionism more like a rod of punishment, where you feel pressured to reach a particular standard, your motivation is driven by a fear of failure, or where achievements are quickly dismissed as being too easy and replaced by even loftier goals?

Give that perfectionism can have very different effects, the big question is what differentiates adaptive perfectionism from maladaptive – or clinical – perfectionism?

A key factor to look at is how much 'wiggle room' we give ourselves when it comes to our standards. When perfectionism is adaptive we tend to see the goals as guidelines to work tirelessly towards, however we can show some degree of flexibility when it comes to the goal that is set, whether the goals are realistic, and whether there is flexibility in the time frame within which it is to be achieved.

In contrast, when clinical perfectionism is at play goals are set unrealistically high (typically setting us up for failure), however in typical black and white thinking any deviation from the goal is viewed as failure. Clinical perfectionism leaves us constantly feeling that we’re not good enough, leading us to set even loftier goals that we are unlikely to meet. With this type of mindset is it any wonder that clinical perfectionism is linked with burnout, psychological distress, depression, and other mental health disorders?[5]  To learn more about this, see our Tip Sheet in our FREE Resource Library on When Perfectionism Harms your Wellbeing.

 

When considering the effects of clinical perfectionism, the big question to ask yourself is…Is it really worth it?



 

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REFERENCES

[1] Antony, M.M., & Swinson, R.P. (1998). When perfect isn’t good enough: Strategies for coping with perfectionism. Oakland: New Harbinger.

[2] Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G.L., Turnbull-Donovan, W., & Mikail, S.F. (1991). The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale: Reliability, validity, and psychometric properties in psychiatric samples. Psychological Assessment, 3, 464-468.

[3] Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L., & De Rosa, T. (1996). Dimensions of perfectionism, psychosocial adjustment, and social skills. Personality and Individual Differences, 20, 143-150.

[4] Nepon, T., Flett, G.L, Hewitt, P.L., & Molnar, D.S. (2011). Perfectionism, negative social feedback, and interpersonal rumination in depression and social anxiety. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science, 43, 297-308.

[5] Egan, S.J., Wade, T.D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M.M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. New York: The Guilford Press.