Perfectionism comes in at least two flavours: adaptive and maladaptive. The maladaptive flavor seems to have social roots. (Take the self-test at the end of the post.)
We've been discussing personality traits and procrastination in the last couple of blog entries, but these have been considered at the highest level of the personality trait taxonomy. Today, I want to consider a lower-order trait, perfectionism. It's not formally part of the Big-Five personality traits that we've discussed.
It was originally assumed, as the diagram implies, that perfectionism undermines our action; all perfectionism was seen as maladaptive. It's not that simple. Perfectionism is multi-dimensional, or there's more than one flavor.
My focus today is on a relatively recent study reported by Jeffrey Kilbert (Oklahoma State), Jennifer Langhinrichsen-Rohling and Motoko Saito (University of South Alabama). They report on adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially-prescribed perfectionism. In doing this, they summarize key aspects of the literature. Let me begin by defining some terms.
Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett developed a multidimensional perfectionism scale with three subscales or types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed. Here's a brief description of each:
Self-oriented perfectionists: Adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to attain perfection and avoid failure; engage in stringent self-evaluation.
Other-oriented perfectionists: set unrealistic standards for significant others (e.g., partners, children, co-workers) coupled with a stringent evaluation of others' performances.
Socially-prescribed perfectionists: believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (and that they can't live up to this); experience external pressure to be perfect, believe others evaluate them critically.
Of the three, my focus will be on self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism as these have shown different relations with measures of procrastination in past research, and they are differentially related to what has been labeled adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. (If you're interested in other-oriented perfectionism, I'd recommend reading "The no asshole rule" by Robert Sutton as there is quite a bit of overlap here, I think).
Conceptually, perfectionism had been considered a maladaptive trait overall. It didn't matter what form it took, perfectionism was seen to be detrimental (hence the figure I chose for this blog entry). However, another multidimensional perfectionism scale developed by Randy Frost revealed two underlying dimensions for his six subscales of perfectionism: concern over mistakes, personal standards, parental expectations, parental criticism, doubting of actions and organization. These two broad dimensions of perfectionism were labeled: positive strivings and maladaptive evaluation concerns.
In terms of Hewitt and Flett's three types, Frost found that the broad "positive strivings" dimension was related to self- and other-oriented perfectionism, as well as his own subscales of high standards and organization. Frost's research also demonstrated that positive strivings was related to increased positive emotions and it was not correlated with depression.
The second broad dimension of maladaptive concerns was related to Hewitt and Flett's socially-prescribed perfectionism, as well as Frost's own subscales of concern over mistakes, parental criticism and expectations, and doubts over actions. This dimension of maladaptive concerns was found to be related to higher levels of negative affect (emotions) and depression, and other research has shown that maladaptive concerns (socially-prescribe perfectionism) is related to procrastination, depression, suicidal ideation, lower self-esteem, anxiety, loss of self-control and shame.
In sum, there is some clear evidence that perfectionism is not one maladaptive flavour, and that a key distinction is between what we can see as perfectionism set by self and perfectionism imposed, or prescribed, socially. Given this past research, Kilbert and his colleagues wanted to explore the extent to which self-oriented perfectionism might be related to other adaptive traits such as self-esteem, perceived self-control and achievement motivation. At the same time, they wished to further explore the potential negative associations with socially-prescribed perfectionism
Kilbert and colleagues used a battery of measures with a sample of 475 students. As you might expect given the concepts listed above, they measured things like perfectionism, self-esteem, achievement tendency, depression, anxiety, shame, guilt and procrastination. In their analyses, they also distinguished "types" of perfectionists in an unique fashion. They created types by using scores for both self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism in combination. This resulted in four possible types: Low-Low (low on both forms of perfectionism), Self-oriented perfectionism only, Socially-prescribed perfectionism only and finally high on both scales. You can see that this 4-type continuum basically goes from not perfectionistic at all to having high scores on both types of perfectionism.
Given the variety of groupings and variables, it's not surprising that their results varied. Because the blog is about procrastination, I'll simplify things by keeping my focus on this aspect of their results. As they summarize the findings, "Regarding procrastination, results indicated that SOCIALLY Prescribed ONLY participants reported a tendency to procrastinate more than SELF Oriented ONLY and Generally Perfectionistic participants. Additionallly, Non-Perfectionistic students procrastinated more than did the SELF Oriented ONLY participants" (p. 152).
I find this very interesting, of course, as it clearly delineates socially-prescribed from self-oriented perfectionism in relation to procrastination. Not only do individuals who report higher socially-prescribed perfectionism procrastinate more, but individuals who are described as self-oriented perfectionists actually procrastinate less than non-perfectionists! Clearly, at least in terms of procrastination, there are adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism.
And, just because it helps round out the story, I want to add that the results of this study also revealed that self-oriented perfectionism was associated with higher levels of self-control and achievement motivation, whereas socially-prescribed perfectionism was associated negatively with self-esteem, self-control and achievement motivation, and this maladaptive form of perfectionism was significantly related to higher levels of depression, suicide proneness, anxiety, shame and guilt. The distinction between these two types of perfectionism is very clear.
The implication of these findings for perfectionism and procrastination
Here is how Kilbert and colleagues make sense of the results overall.
". . . self-oriented perfectionists are those who derive a sense of pleasure from their labors and efforts, which in turn enhances their self-esteem and motivation to succeed and eventually helps them to develop a sense of control over their environment. Self-oriented perfectionists may then use their pleasure in their accomplishments as encouragement to continue and even improve their work" (p. 154).
"In contrast, socially prescribed perfectionists may be compared to neurotic perfectionists [a term originally coined by Hamachek] in that they do not derive pleasure from their labors and efforts and tend to view their work as inadequate or inferior. Furthermore, they report experiencing external pressure and or coercion to accomplish tasks. Therefore, the maladaptive symptoms of the socially prescribed perfectionist emerge not from an internally felt desire to be their best, but more from a fear of failure and/or a desire to avoid embarrassment, shame and guilt" (p. 154).
So, what kind of perfectionist are you? It seems to make a big difference!
How do you know if you're a perfectionist? Check out Psychology Today tests to learn more. This 44-item test will give you personal feedback for your overall perfectionism score. If you want specific feedback for each of the three types of perfectionism discussed in this blog entry, there is a fee (Note: This is not my test, and I am not promoting its use. I'm simply making you aware of this option if you want to know more).
Kilbert, J.J., Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J., & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46, 141-156.
Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60. 456-470.
Frost, R.O., Heimberg, C.S., Holt, C.S., Mattia. J. I., & Neubauer, A.L. (1993). A comparison of two measures of perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 14, 119-126.