- Picky people are often perfectionists. Perfectionism is involved in many mental health conditions and can harm well-being.
- New research suggests that people high in perfectionism also tend to have lower cognitive flexibility.
- Cognitive reappraisal—viewing situations as controllable and open to interpretation—can help overcome the challenges of perfectionism.
The daily lives of picky people can be filled with moments of frustration, if not outright exasperation. They may wake up in the morning with bright hopes for succeeding at the day’s tasks only to be let down within hours, if not minutes, when something goes wrong. The coffee isn’t “just right,” the dishes from the night before have lingering spots, or there’s a rip in the day’s intended shirt. These situations make life difficult for these individuals, but unless you live within earshot, they won’t have much of an effect on you.
When overly picky people set their sights on you, it’s a different scenario altogether. Now you’re the one whose behavior is flawed and you then become the target of criticism. Even if you don’t live with these people, they can still get to you anyhow. You’re working on a joint project and, try as you might, your work output has mistakes in it. Perhaps you’re supposed to keep a running log of changes in a file, with each change systematically numbered. You miss one of those changes and now the whole list needs to be redone. You can’t get to it right away, though, causing this picky coworker to hound you with endless emails until you fix the problem.
As you can see from these examples, picky people tend to expect nothing but perfection, and if it’s not from themselves, it’s from you. Although it’s painful for you to be the brunt of their high ideals, imagine for a moment what it’s like for them. Constantly tormented by life’s inevitable left turns, they can’t just relax and let things work themselves out. Indeed, some of the idealistic scenarios they expect to happen are generated from their very own unrealistically high standards.
The Consequences of Perfectionism
According to Niki Hayatbini and colleagues (2021) of Miami University in Ohio, “Perfectionism has been identified as a transdiagnostic process that presents itself in elevated levels across psychopathologies and is identified as a risk factor for the development and maintenance of psychopathology” (p. 2). Their very perfectionism, in other words, stands in the way of the “perfect” life the picky so desperately crave.
Based on previous research, the Miami University researchers believe that perfectionism stems from a deficit in cognitive flexibility, the ability to adapt to a changing (and imperfect) environment. One example of such inflexible thinking is to see outcomes in an all-or-nothing manner. You either succeed or you fail—there is no in-between.
What happens next leads to further maladaptive outcomes. Having “failed,” highly perfectionistic people then try to regulate their emotions by pushing them out of conscious awareness. This emotional suppression is what, Hayatbini et al. maintain, leads these individuals to become overly stressed. In the words of the authors, “Expressive suppression is a costly emotion regulation strategy that comes onboard during an emotional experience and allows the individual to conceal or inhibit their expression of emotions, and it is associated with increased physiological response” (p. 3).
By contrast, an adaptive way of reacting to an unrealized ideal is to use the emotion-regulating process of cognitive reappraisal. Taking failure and using the experience as an opportunity for growth would be one example of an adaptive reappraisal. As you can see from this example, such a step can be nearly out of reach for someone who’s rigidly fixated on having everything go “just so.”
Measuring Perfectionism, Flexibility, and Emotion Regulation
To test the relationships among perfectionism, cognitive flexibility, and emotion regulation, Hayatbini and her colleagues used an online sample of 486 adults ranging from 19 to 86 years old (averaging 33 years), of whom about three-quarters were male. Although the majority reported their race as White (57%) there were a range of races and ethnicities among the remaining 43%.
The measure of perfectionism used by the Miami University researchers assessed “rigid” perfectionism (e.g. “I do things perfectly, or I don't do them at all”), “self-critical” perfectionism (“When I make a mistake, I feel like a failure”), and so-called “narcissistic” perfectionism (“I demand perfection from my family and friends”). It’s this latter factor that potentially could be what makes life with a perfectionistic partner or co-workers so difficult, as they hold you to their unrealistically high, if not grandiose, standards.
To assess cognitive flexibility, Hayatbini et al. used a 20-item scale that measures the ability to approach stressful situations as both controllable and open to alternate interpretations. Feeling you have the power to change things in difficult situations can actually be helpful as a way to mitigate the stress you experience rather than being plagued by the sense that nothing you do can change an outcome.
Finally, emotion regulation, the ability to see the bright side of a situation as a way to feel better, was measured with a 10-item behaviorally oriented set of questions to tap both cognitive reappraisal (the positive quality) and emotion suppression (the unhealthy quality) (e.g." “When I want to feel less negative emotion, I change the way I am thinking about the situation”).
Addressing Perfectionism with Cognitive Reappraisal
Turning now to the findings, the scores across these three measures reflected a reasonably normal distribution, with the average at right about the middle of each scale. As the authors predicted, participants with high scores on all three components of perfectionism also had lower cognitive flexibility scores. However, even participants with high levels of perfectionism were able to approach challenging situations more flexibly if they used cognitive reappraisal rather than suppression as an emotion-regulating strategy.
As the authors concluded, “In other words, those individuals who had high levels of perfectionism and used cognitive reappraisal habitually, as an emotion regulation strategy, were also more likely to view difficult and stressful situations as more controllable” (p. 11). In turn, people who were cognitively inflexible, regardless of perfectionism, also tended to use emotion suppression, meaning that they were constantly trying to push their feelings of stress and anxiety away, or what the authors call a “costly emotion regulation strategy” (p. 12).
With the knowledge of the inflexibility that lies at the heart of the perfectionist’s emotional burden, you can now go back to think about the people in your life who seem tormented by their (or your) failures but seem unable to view life in other than all-or-none terms. If what seems like pickiness is actually a form of perfectionism, which the Miami University study would suggest, the antidote might just come in the form of bolstering both their flexibility and reappraisal skills.
As you watch these people struggle with their desire to have everything go according to plan as they confront an obstacle, help them look at alternate approaches. That shirt planned for the day may have a rip in it, but maybe there’s another one even more suitable for the upcoming events on the agenda. At the same time, help them reframe situations that didn’t go well as new challenges that they have the ability to handle. If you don’t feel comfortable making these recommendations, you can also take a page from the playbook of social psychology research by modeling this flexible approach through your own behavior.
To sum up, seeking perfection is hardly the same as seeking fulfillment. Indeed, being focused on perfection alone can actually have the opposite effect of thwarting people’s coping ability. There can be far greater benefits in helping picky people adapt both to life’s uncertainties and limitations.
Hayatbini, N., Knauft, K., & Kalia, V. (2021). Cognitive reappraisal moderates the relationship between perfectionism and cognitive flexibility. Journal of Clinical Psychology. doi:10.1002/jclp.23124