You’ve planned the perfect day for yourself. It’s a lovely morning, and you head out to run a few errands, stop by the gym, and then spend an evening with your closest friends. Before you even get to leave your home, however, you turn too quickly and knock one of your favorite knick-knacks off the shelf. You can’t stop it before it smashes to the floor in a thousand little pieces. After sweeping up the remnants, you find yourself thinking about how foolish and careless you were. That perfect day has now caused a perfect storm in your mind, and it’s hard even for you to leave the house to carry out on the rest of your day’s activities.
Perhaps it wasn’t even a careless accident that ruined your good mood. Maybe those plans you were making started to unravel when you recall how you inadvertently snubbed a friend or co-worker, and now you can’t get that nasty interaction out of your head. Or possibly you remembered that you left work without completing a report, and will almost certainly be called on the carpet for your carelessness. Any of these ordinary flubs can pierce the bubble of your well-being, leaving you anxious, depressed, and worried. So much for that perfect day.
Psychologically, perfectionism is a double-edged sword. The high standards of the highly perfectionistic can inspire them to achieve their maximum potential. However, these very same standards can lead them to torture themselves over even the smallest deviation from their high expectations of errorless performance.
Being able to avoid mistakes, turn in excellent work products, and plan events that go off without a hitch are outcomes to which we all aspire. We'd also like to have a perfect love life and a perfect family. The question is what happens to us when the outcomes don’t match our expectations. Do we blame ourselves, ruminate over what we could have done differently, and worry about whether we will ever measure up, or do we roll up our mental sleeves and figure out how to learn from the situation? As it turns out, there are just a few critical coping strategies that all of us can use to keep our mistakes from derailing our self-esteem and happiness.
The answer may be as simple as taking a page from the ever-cheery Mary Poppins who, in the Broadway musical version of her story, claimed that she was “practically perfect in every way.” Mary never let her self-confidence droop, even for a moment, regardless of how much mischief her young charges may have created. To be a successful perfectionist, according to a recent study, you don’t need to be completely perfect. Instead, you need to be able, like Mary, to accept being “practically perfect.”
In this research, DePaul University psychologist Philip Gnilka and colleagues (2012) wanted to learn why some perfectionists successfully handle their desire to hold to high standards while others become despondent and self-critical. They administered a questionnaire called, in true Mary Poppins fashion, the “Almost Perfect Scale (APS-R)” to a sample of 329 undergraduate students along with measures of anxiety and coping. As they expected, those students who fit the criteria of “Adaptive Perfectionists,” using this scale, had lower anxiety than the students categorized as “Maladaptive Perfectionists.” However, even some of the maladaptive perfectionists were able to manage their lives without crippling anxiety. The key lay in the coping strategies that all of the perfectionists used to deal with their disappointment. I’ll explain those coping strategies in a moment. First, let’s look at the difference between maladaptive and adaptive perfectionists.
According to Slaney et al., (2001), the authors of the APS-R, there are two key dimensions to perfectionism: Standards and Discrepancy. People who score high on the Standards dimension set high expectations for themselves and report that they have a high need to strive for excellence. This is not the factor that distinguishes maladaptive from adaptive perfectionists because, obviously, both groups set high standards for themselves or they wouldn’t be considered perfectionists. It’s the Discrepancy scale that sets the two groups apart. Items on the Discrepancy scale assess the extent to which people feel frustrated when they can’t reach their goals or that they just can never do well enough. Adaptive perfectionists have high standards but don’t become overly frustrated when they don’t meet those standards. Maladaptive perfectionists have high standards but feel that they can never achieve those standards.
Test yourself on these Discrepancy scale items. Rate each one on a 7-point scale where 1 equals strongly disagree and 7 equals strongly agree:
- I often feel frustrated because I can’t meet my goals.
- My best just never seems good enough for me.
- I rarely live up to my high standards.
- Doing my best never seems to be enough.
- I am never satisfied with my accomplishments.
- I often worry about not measuring up to my own expectations.
- My performance rarely measures up to my standards.
- I am not satisfied even when I know I have done my best.
- I am seldom able to meet my own high standards for performance.
- I am hardly ever satisfied with my performance.
- I hardly ever feel that what I’ve done is good enough.
- I often feel disappointment after completing a task because I know I could have done better.
The maximum possible score on this scale is 84; people with a total of 42 and over would be considered high on the Discrepancy Scale and, along with stating that you have high standards (tested by 7 items to that effect), this would put you in the maladaptive perfectionism range.
The next key in the equation is to figure out when maladaptive perfectionism, as defined in this way, leads a person to feel unduly anxious. Gnilka and colleagues administered a standard anxiety measure to the students along with a test of their coping strategies. The maladaptive perfectionists indeed felt more anxious, but this was mainly true for the students who used ineffective coping strategies. These anxious maladaptive perfectionists were most likely to avoid, distract themselves from, and try to escape from events that lead them to feel anxious. At the same time, however, they were also likely to ruminate about these events, think that they will do better next time, or plan for the future while still, according to the authors “blaming themselves for their inability to meet their towering standards” (p. 432).
Even if you’re a maladaptive perfectionist, according to the APS-R, Gnilka’s research shows ways for you to reduce your self-blame and, hence, your anxiety. Don’t assume that being a perfectionist is inherently bad for you. You just need to recognize - and change- when you’re using ineffective coping methods. Avoiding, distracting yourself, and escaping events that make you anxious may also lead you, paradoxically, to one of perfectionisms’s common traps: procrastination. People who are maladaptively perfectionistic may actually put off starting a task because they fear they will fail to live up to their expectations. It’s also important to recognize when you’re at fault but, more importantly, when you’re not.
In the end, if your perfectionism causes you more pain than pleasure, it might be time to check out those high standards you hold. It’s better to accept being “practically perfect” than to live your life in constant need for absolute perfection. Once you do, you may even find that your anxiety eases, allowing you to feel- and perform- closer to your best.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Gnilka, P. B., Ashby, J. S., & Noble, C. M. (2012). Multidimensional perfectionism and anxiety: Differences among individuals with perfectionism and tests of a coping‐mediation model. Journal Of Counseling & Development, 90(4), 427-436. doi:10.1002/j.1556-6676.2012.00054.x
Slaney, R. B., Rice, K. G., Mobley, M., Trippi, J., & Ashby, J. S. (2001). The Revised Almost Perfect Scale. Measurement And Evaluation In Counseling And Development, 34(3), 130-145.