What is… Perfectionism

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.

This week’s term: Perfectionism

Perfectionism is “a set of self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively high unrealistic goal” according to a Brown University site.  It tends to be learned through messages early in life that value is based on achievement, and as a result self-esteem becomes based on external standards.  Distorted thoughts associated with perfectionism include:

  • fear of mistakes and failure, and a belief that making a mistake equals failure
  • fear that others will not approve
  • all-or-nothing thinking
  • heavily focusing on “shoulds”
  • perceiving that others achieve success easily

Perfectionism often develops into a vicious cycle:

  1. setting unattainable goals
  2. failing to achieve those goals
  3. chronic pressure and failure lead to decreased productivity and effectiveness
  4. self-criticism, self-blame, decreased self-esteem; possibly anxiety, depression
  5. think they will do better if they just try harder next time, and this repeats the cycle

An article on Psych Central differentiated between adaptive/healthy and maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism.  Adaptive perfectionism is associated with high standards, conscientiousness, and strong organizational skills, and tends to be viewed as helpful by those who possess the trait.  This is similar to the Brown University site’s description of “healthy striving”.

Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, is associated with worry, doubt, preoccupation with actual or potential mistakes, and an unhealthy need for control.  This unhealthy type of perfectionism is common in people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).

According to the chair of the psychology department at Ryerson University, perfectionism show up across multiple different mental health diagnoses in addition to OCD, including anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, eating disorders, body dysmorphic disorder, and depression. While there is limited research on the biology of perfectionism, there’s some indication that it is moderately heritable.  There are a number of different therapeutic options that can be helpful for perfectionism, including cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, and acceptance-based approaches.

Common psychological tests used by psychologists to assess perfectionism are the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale and the Hewitt and Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale.  Psychology Today has an online 46-question perfectionism test that gives a brief summary of results for free.  I took it, and it said I had a “healthy” level of perfectionism (although it wasn’t clear what the alternatives were).  It pointed out that the standards I apply to myself are variable depending on the situation.  There was also a very interesting observation:

“You don’t feel pressured to live up to society’s expectations of what is “perfect”, which is healthy – however, you may want to consider whether your rejection of societal standards might be jeopardizing your chances for success out of a desire to be a nonconformist.”

When I was younger I was never the cool kid.  I was more the geeky type.  It’s funny, I still remember from grade 7 a friend of mine had decided to tell the boy I was crushing on that I liked him, and he said he didn’t want to be my boyfriend because I was “too smart”.  While I got plenty of positive feedback at home, I figured out pretty quickly that if I was going to try to be perfect, I was going to fail.  I also figured out that if I was going to try to be a “cool” kid, I was going to fail miserably.  Add into the mix that I’m intelligent and capable when it comes to some things and an absolute doofus when it comes to some basic practical things, imperfection was always going to be a better fit for me.

Are you a perfectionist?  If so, has it helped or hindered you?

 

Sources:

You can find the rest of the What Is series on my blog index.

19 thoughts on “What is… Perfectionism

  1. Paula Light says:

    I’m like this. It’s a burden in many areas, but also has saved me from doing even worse things. Forex, now I’m obsessed with writing and spending time with my cat, plus I’ve decided I hate all dating, so I stay home all the time unless I’m with close friends. If I didn’t have these thoughts, I would have joined more dating sites and been with more creeps.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. DV says:

    I used to be very perfectionistic (thanks mum /s). This was something I worked on the very first time I was in therapy, and I found being able to lower my standards in some circumstances very helpful in my life. At the end of that I embroidered myself a little wall hanging that said “practice makes better, not perfect” because that was something my therapist had said which stuck in my head. Now I sometimes think I’ve gone too far in the other direction and stopped trying, in more areas than I am happy with. Need to find the right balance again.

    I tried the quiz – not sure that it gives a very accurate picture because the questions are too broad and don’t allow for context. For example, with family, nothing was ever good enough for my mother but my siblings continue to surprise me by how accepting they are of my flaws. And with work, it all depends on what is at stake if you make a mistake. In my job (surgery) of course I’m going to have very high standards and would not hesitate to point out or query it if a colleague makes a mistake, but I also know that sometimes, aiming for absolute perfection can be counterproductive – a saying I hear a lot is “better is the enemy of good”. I guess that is what you’re describing as adaptive perfectionism.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Meg says:

    This blog post couldn’t have come on a better day, because it’s November 30, aka the last day of NaNoWriMo. My goal was to write 50,000 words toward my Enervation of Eve novel. It’s currently 5:30 in the evening here, and I’m at 41,000 words. Yeah… problem. I can’t write 9,000 words in the next 6.5 hours! AAARRRGGHHH.

    It was my goal, I wanted to reach it, but then I went crazy, and I know you know what I’m talking about because you’re kind enough to read my blog. 🙂 HA HA HA HA HA HA. I could’ve gone the distance if life hadn’t interfered. Darn it all!

    But, you know, I’m just like, I tried hard and it wasn’t meant to be. And then I remember that I won NaNoWriMo two years ago despite being hospitalized with pneumonia. And then I’m all like, “Geez inner voice of reason, shut the heck up already!” And then I’m like, “I should eat something. Need food.” GROAN.

    Your article is really good. You have a lot of scientific/research talent, and I hope you’re still putting these on that site where you get tips!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. atchildhoodsend says:

    Really interesting post! I am a perfectionist by nature, and would cry over the odd ‘bad’ grade at school all the time. Since starting university I’ve tried to accept bad grades and look at the bigger picture, and it’s helped me a lot.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Stevie says:

    Great post and thank you for sharing the perfectionism test. Having just written about my own perfectionism, I was actually quite relieved to also be placed in the ‘healthy perfectionism’ category. Mine varies: I do not set high standards for colleagues or family, yet at times the standards I set for myself are extreme. It has helped me achieve goals, yet it leads me to be critical of myself. I’m working on finding the balance, rather than trying to overcome it.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s