Perfectionism: When Perfection isn’t Enough

Paying attention to detail and seeking excellence are generally considered by society to be positive, but when we talk about perfectionism, we are talking about unhealthy extremes.

Perfectionism is a personality trait that is not included in the 5th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a disorder in its own right . Nor are there enough statistical data, questionnaires, or tests to evaluate it in a verifiable and reliable way. It is a trait, so to speak, that still has a long way to go before it is recognized at a clinical level and can be included in a diagnostic manual of mental disorders.

Even though perfectionism is not a personality disorder in itself, research has shown that perfectionism as a construct is a significant vulnerability factor for a variety of psychopathologies such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. Furthermore, in recent decades we have seen an increase in competitiveness within the work place and society as a whole, with people not only wanting to excel, but also demanding “perfection”. However, the well known saying that “no one is perfect” suggests that perfectionism is not only impracticable but also unworkable.

It’s hard to find a single definition of perfectionism that all theorists agree on. One of the first was termed by Psychoanalyst Karen Horney (1950), who emphasized what she called the “tyranny of the shoulds.” She pointed out that perfectionists are not concerned so much with what they have done, but rather, what they should have done and have not yet done. Other definitions highlight the “striving for flawlessness” and the “excessively high or unrealistic standards” sought by perfectionists.¬†¬†

Whilst undoubtedly striving for perfection is an advantageous characteristic in modern society, the demanding high standards that perfectionists insist on, both from themselves and others can be frustrating for all concerned, leading to a maladaptive personality style that encroaches on self-esteem and leads to interpersonal relationship difficulties.

Types of perfectionism

We can differentiate two types of perfectionism, adaptive and neurotic. Adaptive perfectionism is the tendency to obtain maximum satisfaction in activities that require a lot of effort and work to make them perfect, but this type of perfectionist feels under no obligation to achieve perfection if it is not possible. On the contrary, the neurotic perfectionist is characterized by trying their best in each task, but never managing to be satisfied, because they always believe that they can do better, leaving them frustrated and dissatisfied. According to Hewitt and Flett’s multidimensional model, perfectionism can be oriented towards oneself, towards others, or perfectionism is perceived as a social imperative, that is, believing that others expect perfection. Hewitt and Flett claim that perfectionism has both intrapersonal and interpersonal aspects.

Origins of perfection

As Hewitt and Flett’s multidimensional model would suggest, perfectionism would seem to be influenced by both psychological factors such as learning, as well as genetic factors such as biology. It is possible that biological and gentic factors contribute to perfectionism much the same way they do to other personality traits and coping styles. Someone who is overly criticised for making mistakes, could develop perfectionistic belief structures or behaviours, if they also had a genetic disposition towards excessively high standards.

In general, twin-study research has shown that genetics account for approximately 40% of personality, with 60% coming from learning and enviromental factors. Reward and reinforcement make a big contribution to perfectionism, as from school we are rewarded and reinforced to work hard and perfectionism is often seen as a desirable trait in corporate business. Being rewarded for perfection can lead to the belief that only perfection is good enough. Other types of learning that contribute to perfectionism include punishment, where receiving negative consequences as a result of making mistakes, could contribute to ideas that mistakes are unacceptable; or modelling where observed behaviour is imitated. In this case, someone who grew up in an enviroment where perfectionistic beliefs and behaviours were observed and encouraged.

The origins of perfectionism are complex and you will never really know for sure, so it may be best not to focus so much on the origins or look for someone to blame, but rather focus on how problematic behaviour can be addressed.

How perfectionism is maintained

Perfectionism, despite the fact that it carries negative consequences for the person when it appears in excess, is maintained based on the following aspects: Self-criticism and negatively biased evaluation of one’s own performance. Personal self-worth based on acheivements. Task-orientated objectives are often judged as insufficient and an overiding lack of self-esteem.

Perfectionistic personality

The personality of the perfectionist is charaterised by:

  • Need for approval from others
  • Sets unattainable goals for oneself and for others.
  • Great need for achievement and personal triumph.
  • Tendency to delay the completion of tasks for fear of failure (procrastination).
  • Setting disproportionate achievement expectations.
  • Competitiveness.
  • Focus objectives on certain tasks (sports form, housework, weight, etc.)
  • Constant self-criticism and difficulty accepting criticism from others.

Apart from all these characteristics, the most notable behaviors are: excessive verification, excessive zeal in the line of duty, excessive order, very indecisive, slowness, laziness, procrastination and accumulation of obligations.

Consequences of perfectionism

Anxiety and perfectionism: For someone who is excessively self-critical and overly focussed on other people’s opinion of them is likely to focus on the results and become worried about making mistakes. The result of excessive task-related anxiety can lead to procrastination where the fear of not performing to perfection prohibits attempting any task or taking any risks. This ends as a continual downward spiral of setting unachievable goals, which causes stress and leads to anxiety and in order to calm the anxiety unachievable goals are set in an attempt to boost self-worth.

Depression and perfectionism: The perfectionist is vulnerable to depression due to a low tolerance of frustration. This, added to the need to set difficult or unattainable goals, usually puts the perfectionist in an impossible situation. Excessively high expectations are the perfect breeding ground for failure and frustration which will inevitably lead to  states of sadness and hopelessness, feeding into feelings of worthlessness, low self-esteem and eventually over time, depression.  

Strategies for coping with perfectionism

Although perfectionism is not recognised as a pathology or personality disorder, the consequences can be devastating and if not checked lead to serious mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and a range of interpersonal relationship difficulties. Talking with a trained therapist or counsellor can be beneficial and research has shown Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to be effective in treating perfectionism as the cognitive component challenges negative and unrealistic beliefs, attitudes and expectations and behavioural strategies are designed to change unhelpful behaviours that maintain negative thoughts and feeling.

This article was written by Chris Neill who is a British Psychologist and Therapist who has lived and worked in Madrid, Spain for the last 25 years. To find a list of English-speaking counsellors or therapists in Spain see the ESHA Spain business directory.

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