Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal while their adaptive perfectionism can sometimes motivate them to reach their goals. In the end, they derive pleasure from doing so. When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression.
Perfectionists strain compulsively and unceasingly toward unobtainable goals, and measure their self-worth by productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment. Perfectionists tend to be harsh critics of themselves when they fail to meet their standards.
Normal vs. neurotic
Dr. Hamachek in 1978 argued for two contrasting types of perfectionism, classifying people as tending towards normal perfectionism or neurotic perfectionism. Normal perfectionists are more inclined to pursue perfection without compromising their self-esteem, and derive pleasure from their efforts. Neurotic perfectionists are prone to strive for unrealistic goals and feel dissatisfied when they cannot reach them. Hamachek offers several strategies that have proven useful in helping people change from maladaptive towards healthier behavior. Contemporary research supports the idea that these two basic aspects of perfectionistic behavior, as well as other dimensions such as "nonperfectionism", can be differentiated. They have been labeled differently, and are sometimes referred to as positive striving and maladaptive evaluation concerns, active and passive perfectionism, positive and negative perfectionism, and adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Although there is a general perfectionism that affects all realms of life, some researchers contend that levels of perfectionism are significantly different across different domains (i.e. work, academic, sport, interpersonal relationships, home life).
Others such as T. S. Greenspon disagree with the terminology of "normal" vs. "neurotic" perfectionism, and hold that perfectionists desire perfection and fear imperfection and feel that other people will like them only if they are perfect. For Greenspon, perfectionism itself is thus never seen as healthy or adaptive, and the terms "normal" or "healthy" perfectionism are misnomers, since absolute perfection is impossible. He argues that perfectionism should be distinguished from "striving for excellence", in particular with regard to the meaning given to mistakes. Those who strive for excellence can take mistakes (imperfections) as incentive to work harder. Unhealthy perfectionists consider their mistakes a sign of personal defects. For these people, anxiety about potential failure is the reason perfectionism is felt as a burden.
Strivings vs. concerns
J. Stoeber and K. Otto suggest that perfectionism consists of two main dimensions: perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. Perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive aspects of perfectionism; perfectionistic concerns are associated with negative aspects (see below). Healthy perfectionists score high in perfectionistic strivings and low in perfectionistic concerns. Unhealthy perfectionists score high in both strivings and concerns. Non-perfectionists show low levels of perfectionistic strivings. Prompted by earlier research providing empirical evidence that perfectionism could be associated with positive aspects (specifically perfectionistic strivings), they challenged the widespread belief that perfectionism is only detrimental. In fact, people with high levels of perfectionistic strivings and low levels of perfectionist concerns demonstrated more self-esteem, agreeableness, academic success and social interaction. This type of perfectionist also showed fewer psychological and somatic issues typically associated with perfectionism, namely depression, anxiety and maladaptive coping styles.
Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS)
Randy O. Frost et al. (1990) developed a multidimensional perfectionism scale (now known as the "Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale", FMPS) with six dimensions: concern over making mistakes, high personal standards (striving for excellence), the perception of high parental expectations, the perception of high parental criticism, the doubting of the quality of one's actions, and a preference for order and organization.
Hewitt & Flett (1991) devised another Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), a 45-item measure that rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism is having unrealistic expectations and standards for oneself that lead to perfectionistic motivation. An example is the constant desire to achieve an ideal physical appearance out of vanity. Other-oriented perfectionism is having unrealistic expectations and standards for others that in turn pressure them to have perfectionistic motivations of their own. Socially prescribed perfectionism is developing perfectionistic motivations due to the fact that significant others expect them to be perfect. Parents that push their children to be successful in certain endeavors (such as athletics or academics) provide an example of this type of perfectionism, as the children feel that they must meet their parents' lofty expectations.
A similarity has been pointed out among Frost's distinction between setting high standards for oneself and the level of concern over making mistakes in performance (the two most important dimensions of the FMPS) and Hewitt & Flett's distinction between self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism.
Almost Perfect Scale-Revised (APS-R)
Slaney and his colleagues (1996) developed the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised (APS-R) to identify perfectionists (adaptive or maladaptive) and non-perfectionists. People are classified based on their scores for High Standards, Order, and Discrepancy measures. Both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists rate highly in High Standards and Order, but maladaptive perfectionists also rate highly in Discrepancy. Discrepancy refers to the belief that personal high standards are not being met, which is the defining negative aspect of perfectionism. Maladaptive perfectionists typically yield the highest social stress and anxiety scores, reflecting their feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem. In general, the APS-R is a relatively easy instrument to administer, and can be used to identify perfectionist adolescents as well as adults, though it has yet to be proven useful for children. Interestingly, in one study evaluating APS-R in an adolescent population, maladaptive perfectionists obtained higher satisfaction scores than non-perfectionists. This finding suggests that adolescents' high standards may protect them from challenges to personal satisfaction when their standards are not met. Two other forms of the APS-R measure perfectionism directed towards intimate partners (Dyadic Almost Perfect Scale) and perceived perfectionism from one's family (Family Almost Perfect Scale).
Physical Appearance Perfectionism Scale (PAPS)
The Physical Appearance Perfectionism Scale (PAPS) explains a particular type of perfectionism - the desire for a perfect physical appearance. The PAPS is a multidimensional assessment of physical appearance perfectionism that provides the most insight when the sub-scales are evaluated separately. In general, the PAPS allows researchers to determine participants' body image and self-conceptions of their looks, which is critical in present times when so much attention is paid to attractiveness and obtaining the ideal appearance. The two sub-scales it uses to assess appearance concerns are Worry About Imperfection and Hope For Perfection. Those that obtain high Worry About Imperfection scores are usually greatly concerned with maladaptive aspects of perfectionism, physical appearance, and body control behavior. They also demonstrate low positive self-perceptions of their appearance, whereas those scoring highly on Hope for Perfection yielded high positive self-perceptions. Hope For Perfection also corresponded with impression management behaviors and striving for ambitious goals. In summary, Worry About Imperfection relates to negative aspects of appearance perfectionism, while Hope For Perfection relates to positive aspects. One limitation of using the PAPS is the lack of psychological literature evaluating its validity.
Daniels & Price (2000) refer to perfectionists as "ones". Perfectionists are focused on personal integrity and can be wise, discerning and inspiring in their quest for the truth. They also tend to dissociate themselves from their flaws or what they believe are flaws (such as negative emotions) and can become hypocritical and hypercritical of others, seeking the illusion of virtue to hide their own vices.
Researchers have begun to investigate the role of perfectionism in various mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and personality disorders. Each disorder has varying levels of the three measures on the MPS-scale. Socially prescribed perfectionism in young women has been associated with greater body-image dissatisfaction and avoidance of social situations that focus on weight and physical appearance.
The self-help book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Jeanette Dewyze and Allan Mallinger contends that perfectionists have obsessive personality types. Obsessive personality type is different from obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in that OCD is a clinical disorder that may be associated with specific ritualized behavior or thoughts. According to Mallinger and DeWyze, perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By always being vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but that they can protect against unforeseen issues caused by their environment. Vigilance refers to constant monitoring, often of the news, weather, and financial markets.
The relationship that exists between perfectionistic tendencies and methods of coping with stress has also been examined with some detail. One recent study found that college students with adaptive perfectionistic traits, such as goal fixation or high standards of performance, were more likely to utilize active or problem focused coping. Those who displayed maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies, such as rumination over past events or fixation on mistakes, tended to utilize more passive or avoidance coping. Despite these differences, both groups tended to utilize self-criticism as a coping method. This is consistent with theories that conceptualize self-criticism as a central element of perfectionism.
There have been identified three main components of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionism is an intrapersonal dimension characterized by a strong motivation to be perfect, setting and striving for unrealistic self-standards, focusing on flaws, and generalization of self-standards. Self-oriented perfectionism may also involve a well-articulated ideal self-schema. Other-oriented perfectionism involves similar behaviors, but these behaviors are directed toward others instead of toward the self. Socially prescribed perfectionism entails the belief that others have perfectionistic expectations and motives for oneself.
Perfectionism can drive people to accomplishments and provide the motivation to persevere in the face of discouragement and obstacles. Roedell (1984) argues:
In a positive form, perfectionism can provide the driving energy which leads to great achievement. The meticulous attention to detail, necessary for scientific investigation, the commitment which pushes composers to keep working until the music realises the glorious sounds playing in the imagination, and the persistence which keeps great artists at their easels until their creation matches their conception all result from perfectionism.
Slaney and his colleagues found that adaptive perfectionists had lower levels of procrastination than non-perfectionists. In the field of positive psychology, an adaptive and healthy variation of perfectionism is referred to as optimalism.
Exceptionally talented people who excel in their field sometimes show signs of perfectionism. High-achieving athletes, scientists, and artists often show signs of perfectionism. For example, some contend that Michelangelo's perfectionism may have motivated him to painstakingly complete his masterpieces including the statue David and the Sistine Chapel. Scientists that intently pursue their interests in the laboratory are often considered perfectionists. This obsession with an end result may motivate them to work diligently and maintain an impressive work ethic. Famous figures have publicly admitted that they have perfectionist tendencies. Martha Stewart once described herself to Oprah Winfrey as a "maniacal perfectionist." An intense focus on one's passion can lead to success.
The adaptive form of perfectionism is typically considered the positive component of this personality trait. Adaptive perfectionism includes preferences for order and organization, a persistent striving for excellence, and conscientious orientation to tasks and performance. All of these characteristics are accompanied by low criticism and negativity, and high support and self-esteem. The positive, adaptive forms of perfectionism are more closely associated with the Big Five personality factor of conscientiousness, whereas maladaptive forms are more similar to neuroticism (see below).
In its pathological form, perfectionism can be damaging. It can take the form of procrastination when used to postpone tasks and self-deprecation when used to excuse poor performance or to seek sympathy and affirmation from other people. These together or separate are self-handicapping strategies perfectionists may use to protect their sense of self-competence. In general, maladaptive perfectionists feel constant pressure to meet their high standards, which creates cognitive dissonance when one cannot meet their own expectations. Perfectionism has been associated with numerous other psychological and physiological complications as well.
Perfectionism is increasingly being seen as a risk factor for suicide that has a double edged sword. The tendency of perfectionists to have excessively high expectations of self and to be self-critical when their efforts do not meet the standard they have established combined with their tendency to show a "perfect face" to the world increases their risk of suicide ideation while decreasing the likelihood they will seek help when they should.
Perfectionism has been linked with Anorexia Nervosa in research for decades. Researchers in 1949 described the behavior of the average anorexic girl as being "rigid" and "hyperconscious", observing also a tendency to "neatness, meticulosity, and a mulish stubbornness not amenable to reason [which] make her a rank perfectionist". Perfectionism is a life enduring trait in the biographies of anorexics. It is felt before the onset of the eating disorder, generally in childhood, during the illness, and also, after remission. The incessant striving for thinness among anorexics is itself a manifestation of this trait, of an insistence upon meeting unattainably high standards of performance. Because of its chronicity, those with eating disorders also display perfectionistic tendencies in other domains of life than dieting and weight control. Over-achievement at school, for example, has been observed among anorexics, as a result of their over-industrious behavior.
Perfectionism often shows up in performance at work or school, neatness and aesthetics, organization, writing, speaking, physical appearance, and health and personal cleanliness. In the workplace, perfectionism is often marked by low productivity and missed deadlines as people lose time and energy by paying attention to irrelevant details of their tasks, ranging from major projects to mundane daily activities. This can lead to depression, social alienation, and a greater risk of workplace "accidents". Adderholdt-Elliot (1989) describes five characteristics of perfectionist students and teachers which contribute to underachievement: procrastination, fear of failure, an "all-or-nothing" mindset, paralysed perfectionism, and workaholism.
According to C. Allen, in intimate relationships, unrealistic expectations can cause significant dissatisfaction for both partners. Greenspon lists behaviors, thoughts, and feelings that typically characterize perfectionism. Perfectionists will not be content with their work until it meets their standards, which can make perfectionists less efficient in finishing projects, and they therefore will struggle to meet deadlines.
In a different occupational context, athletes may develop perfectionist tendencies. Optimal physical and mental performance is critical for professional athletes, which are aspects that closely relate to perfectionism. Although perfectionist athletes strive to succeed, they can be limited by their intense fear of failure and therefore not exert themselves fully or feel overly personally responsible for a loss. Because their success is frequently measured by a score or statistics, perfectionist athletes may feel excessive pressure to succeed.
Perfectionism sheds light on people's desire for structure and guidance. They tend to work well in structured environments with explicit instructions. Because perfectionists focus on concrete aspects of a task, they may be inflexible to change and lack creativity if problems arise. This can pose a problem when an unforeseen situation arises.
Perfectionists can suffer from anxiety and low self-esteem. Perfectionism is a risk factor for obsessive compulsive disorder, obsessive compulsive personality disorder, eating disorders, social anxiety, social phobia, body dysmorphic disorder, workaholism, self harm, substance abuse, and clinical depression as well as physical problems like chronic stress, and heart disease. In addition, studies have found that people with perfectionism have a higher mortality rate than those without perfectionism. A possible reason for this is the additional stress and worry that accompanies the irrational belief that everything should be perfect.
Therapists attempt to tackle the negative thinking that surrounds perfectionism, in particular the "all-or-nothing" thinking in which the client believes that an achievement is either perfect or useless. They encourage clients to set realistic goals and to face their fear of failure.
Since perfectionism is a self-esteem issue based on emotional convictions about what one must do to be acceptable as a person, negative thinking is most successfully addressed in the context of a recovery process which directly addresses these emotional convictions.
According to Arnold Cooper, narcissism can be considered as a self-perceived form of perfectionism – "an insistence on perfection in the idealized self-object and the limitless power of the grandiose self. These are rooted in traumatic injuries to the grandiose self."
Narcissists often are pseudo-perfectionists and require being the center of attention and create situations where they will receive attention. This attempt at being perfect is cohesive with the narcissist's grandiose self-image. If a perceived state of perfection isn't reached it can lead to guilt, shame, anger or anxiety because he/she believes that he/she will lose the imagined love and admiration from other people if he or she is not perfect.
Perfectionism is one of Raymond Cattell's 16 Personality Factors. According to this construct, people that are organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise, exacting will power, controlled, and self-sentimental are perfectionists. In the Big Five personality traits, perfectionism is an extreme manifestation of conscientiousness and can provoke increasing neuroticism as the perfectionist's expectations are not met.
Maladaptive perfectionism is more similar to neuroticism while adaptive perfectionism is more similar to conscientiousness. The latter positively corresponds with life satisfaction, self-esteem, secure attachment, and cohesive self-development.
A study found that athletes with a respect and love for themselves ("basic self-esteem") exhibit more positive patterns of perfectionism, whereas individuals who have a self-esteem that is dependent on competence aspects ("earning self-esteem") show more negative perfectionism.
Treatment for perfectionism can be approached from many therapeutic directions. Some examples of psychotherapy include: cognitive-behavioral therapy (the challenging of irrational thoughts and formation of alternative ways of coping and thinking), psychoanalytic therapy (an analysis of underlying motives and issues), group therapy (where two or more clients work with one or more therapists about a specific issue, this is beneficial for those who feel as if they are the only one experiencing a certain problem), humanistic therapy (person-centered therapy where the positive aspects are highlighted), and self-therapy (personal time for the person where journaling, self-discipline, self-monitoring, and honesty with self are essential). Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to successfully help perfectionists in reducing social anxiety, public self-consciousness, and perfectionism. By using this approach, a person can begin to recognize his or her irrational thinking and find an alternative way to approach situations. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is intended to help the person understand that it is okay to make mistakes sometimes and that those mistakes can become lessons learned.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
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