There’s nothing wrong with striving for an ideal. However, if you’re never satisfied with the outcome of the events or plans in your life, it may mean that you have a touch of perfectionism. One of the problems with perfectionism is that it causes you to look at what goes wrong instead of what goes right. A family event may go 99% as you planned, but it’s that 1% that keeps you preoccupied and keeps you from looking back on the event with pleasurable memories.
Similarly, if you’re an avid DIY’er (“do it yourself”), you may find yourself confronted with a psychological challenge when you complete a project only to realize that you made a few tiny errors. It’s possible that you’re the only person who knows, or would ever notice, those errors. What follows will be a reflection of your perfectionistic personality. Will you throw the whole thing away? Will you undo all your hard work to fix that error even if it means another day or week of effort? Or will you shrug, figure that it’s not even visible, and chalk it off to experience which, you hope, will teach you something for the next time?
This tendency to seek the idealistic state of affairs is more common than you may realize. Researchers believe that perfectionism plays an important role in causing, and perpetuating, depression. The “perfectionism diathesis-stress” model, according to McGill University’s Vera Békés and colleagues, proposes that “the effects of life stress (i.e. failure) on depression are intensified for individuals with higher levels of perfectionistic vulnerability” (p. 479). In other words, if you are constantly on the lookout for things to go wrong, and they do, your mood will take a major hit and you may end up in a depressive episode.
The key, then, is to avoid that perfectionistic mindset. Before you can tackle that, you need to understand what kind of perfectionist you are. As Békés and her coauthors note, you can be a Personal Standards (PS) type of perfectionist or a Self-Critical (SC).
As the terms imply people high on PS have developed their own internal compass for what constitutes perfection. They’ll set high standards for themselves, and use realistic, problem-focused, methods to meet them. People high in SC have developed to a fault an inner voice that tells them they’ve failed, and also pressures them into thinking that they’re constantly being scrutinized in a negative way by others.
The SC-type of perfectionist deals with this stress through the maladaptive form of coping known as avoidance. Because they don’t think they can do something perfectly, they don’t try it at all. Although both PS and SC types of perfectionism place people at risk, the SC variety is far more likely to develop depressive symptoms. That hopelessness becomes a mental obstacle that’s difficult to overcome.
At the root of perfectionism, Békés and team argue, is an internalization of high parental standards and/or criticism that made these individuals feel, as children, that they could never be good enough.
Békés and her fellow researchers reasoned that, whatever the cause of their perfectionism, people high in its two subtypes would experience depression when undergoing a specific kind of stress; namely, the pressure to achieve. Following a group of 47 depressed individuals seeking outpatient therapy, the research team conducted observations before therapy started, 6 months later, and then 1 year after the first questionnaires were completed. On average, participants completed 15 therapy sessions.
Included in the questionnaires was the Almost Perfect Scale as well as several clinical measures of perfectionism and depression, as well as the personality traits of neuroticism and conscientiousness. Participants completed therapy over the course of the year and were also rated by interviewers at each time point.
The question was whether people high in perfectionism would show improvement in their depressive symptoms over the course of therapy, particularly under conditions of high achievement-oriented stress. In general, the perfectionists did not respond as well to therapy as other patients lower in both SC and PS varieties. For the people high in SC perfectionism, moreover, therapy made fewer inroads on their mood if they were experiencing high levels of interpersonal, or relationship, stress.
Making the case stronger for perfectionism’s perils, the McGill researchers found no such effects for neuroticism or conscientiousness. Even though therapy helped clear up some of their depression, perfectionists were more resistant to the attempts by their therapists to alter their negative, dysfunctional thoughts.
Knowing that perfectionism can interfere with even the best type of therapy’s effectiveness, what can you do to reduce your own tendencies to seek the ideal or, alternatively, avoid criticism?
1. Ask yourself where your desire to be perfect comes from. Were you, in fact, exposed to parents, teachers, or other respected adults who constantly demanded you live up to unrealistic standards? Or did you hear nothing but constant criticism of your efforts, causing you to internalize that voice looking for flaws? Knowing that your perfectionism comes from early upbringing can help you find a grown-up way of resisting its hold on you.
2. Recognize when you’re going through times of stress, and which type they are. Because achievement-related and interpersonal-related stress are different, being able to identify which you’re experiencing is an important step in tackling your perfectionistic expectations. People high in SC perfectionism were particularly affected by relationship stress, or feeling that others were looking at them negatively. You may even be able to enlist your relationship partners in helping you identify when your perfectionism is making matters worse.
3. Challenge your dysfunctional attitudes about perfectionism. Just as DIY-crafters can torture themselves unnecessarily over tiny flaws, people high in perfectionism expect everything they do to be error-free. Give yourself permission to err from time to time, and don’t assume that everyone else is waiting and watching to point out your mistakes.
4. Make a mistake on purpose from time to time. I’ve often noticed that students with a perfect grade point average become more and more risk-averse as their college careers continue. As a result, they won’t take a course that might educate and intrigue them if they think they won’t ace it. People with less-than-perfect grades are less anxious about losing that precious perfect record. Similarly, if you allow a mistake to enter your world, use it as an opportunity to make a mental adjustment in which you can live with that mistake. Instead of focusing on what you did wrong, focus on what you did right and that error will recede in importance.
The perfectionism that originates from early childhood learning experiences can stick with you throughout your life, even making you more resistant to the kinds of positive changes that therapy can promote. Recognizing where it comes from, acknowledging that you’re more vulnerable to stress, and that you may even create some of your own stress are important steps to putting at least some of that perfectionism behind you.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015
Békés, V., Dunkley, D. M., Taylor, G., Zuroff, D. C., Lewkowski, M., Foley, J. E., & ... Westreich, R. (2015). Chronic stress and attenuated improvement in depression over 1 year: The moderating role of perfectionism. Behavior Therapy, 46(4), 478-492. doi:10.1016/j.beth.2015.02.003