In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is 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
A vicious cycle
Perfectionism often develops into a vicious cycle:
- setting unattainable goals
- failing to achieve those goals
- chronic pressure and failure lead to decreased productivity and effectiveness
- self-criticism, self-blame, decreased self-esteem; possibly anxiety, depression
- think they will do better if they just try harder next time, and this repeats the cycle
Adaptive vs. healthy types
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’s imited research on the biology of perfectionism, there is some indication that it is moderately heritable. There are a number of different therapeutic options that can be helpful for perfectionism, including cognitive behavioural 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?
- Brown University Counselling and Psychological Services
- Canadian Counselling and Psychotherapy Association
- Martin M. Antony, Chair of Psychology at Ryerson University. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Perfectionism.
- Psych Central
The Psychology Corner page includes an index of the terms that have been covered in the What Is… (Insights into Psychology) series, as well as a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.