A Sideways View

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The Curse of Perfectionism

Is being perfectionistic a curse or a blessing; a pathology or a gift?

A highly desirable trait that ensures high standards, quality assurance, and utter reliability or a psychological handicap indicative of dithering, delay, and delusions? Healthy drive or self-destructive perfectionism?

The concept of the perfectionist can be both positive and negative. There is the idea of the nit-picker—someone who looks for the hole in a transparent window. But we talk about the perfect holiday, the perfect meal and cry with delight "Sheer perfection." Surely then, those who seek to produce it in the kitchen or factory, studio or office are admirable people?

Perfectionists value and foster excellence and they strive to meet important goals. In certain areas like sports and science, perfectionism is not just tolerated but encouraged. To some, perfectionism is about high standards, persistence, conscientiousness. Perfectionists are organised. They have self-imposed high standards and in the role of parent, teacher or mentor, tend to impose those high standards on others. Combined with ability and stability, perfectionists can, should and do, reach their ultimate level of performance.

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But note the term stability. There is a dark side to perfectionism. It is seen as a cause and correlate of serious psychopathology. At worst, perfectionists believe they should be perfect: no hesitations, deviations, or inconsistencies. They are super-sensitive to imperfection, failing, weakness. And they believe their acceptance and lovability is a function of never making mistakes. They don’t know the meaning of "good enough." All or nothing…

Psychologists see trait perfectionism almost always as a handicap. They see perfectionists as vulnerable to distress, often haunted by a chronic sense of failure, indecisiveness and its close companion procrastination, and also shame.

The clinical take on perfectionism is that it can and does involve setting excessively high personal standards and stringently evaluating one’s behaviour in light of them. It can also mean imposing one’s standards on others and having equally high (often quite unrealistic) expectations of them. Perfectionists often believe that powerful others (bosses, parents, spouses) expect one to be perfect (in all ways) and are harsh, punitive, unforgiving judges. Perfectionists are rigid.

So where does perfectionism come from? Parents, of course. As always. They may be critical and demanding. Perfectionists in adulthood live with their parents’ voice and their standards. The way psychologists measure perfectionism probably explains best how they conceive of it. Measurement is mainly done by questionnaire or interview. And tests are multi-dimensional, trying to capture the full range of issues.

One issue is concern over mistakes which reflects negative reactions to mistakes, a tendency to interpret mistakes as equivalent to failure, and a tendency to believe that one will lose the respect of others following failure (“People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake”; “I should be upset if I make a mistake”). A second issue is of personal standards which reflect the setting of very high standards and the importance placed on these high standards for self-evaluation (“If I do not set the highest standards for myself, I am likely to end up a second-rate person”; “I hate being less than the best at things”). The tendency to believe that one’s parents set very high goals comprises the third issue of parental expectations (“My parents expected excellence from me”; “My parents wanted me to be the best at everything”). Fourth, the perception that one’s parents are (or were) overly critical constitutes the parental criticism (“As a child I was punished for doing things less than perfect”; “I never felt like I could meet my parents standards”). Another feature is the doubting of actions, which reflects the extent to which people doubt their ability to accomplish tasks. Finally, excessive importance can be placed on order and organisation ( “Organisation is very important to me”; “I try to be a neat person”).

So pity the poor perfectionist. They are driven by a fear of failure: a fear of making mistakes; a fear of disapproval. They can easily self-destruct in a vicious cycle of their own making. Set unreachable goals → fail to reach them → become depressed and lethargic → have less energy and a deep sense of failure → get lower self-esteem and high self-blame.

Pathological perfectionists are both unhappy and unproductive. They tend to have low self-esteem because they feel they are losers. And there is always the ghost of guilt and its fellow travellers of shame and self-recrimination. Most perfectionists struggle with depression, pessimism, and low self-belief. They can easily become immobilised and without motivation. But when they are at it perfectionists are marked by their compulsivity, obssessionality, and rigidity.

Perfectionists, poor souls, need help. Nothing wrong with setting high standards, but they need to be reachable with effort. It’s all about being OK; human not super-human; among the best, if not the best.

Perfectionism can be a curse. Perfectionists are carriers of criticism both of self and others. And by setting standards at the wrong level they are condemned never to achieve them.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

 

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