The Pernicious Perils of Perfectionism

Certain perfectionists are predisposed to distress and rumination

Posted Apr 12, 2010

Do you tend to ruminate on things? Generalize your failures to other tasks or situations? Pay too much attention to errors? Interpret ambiguous feedback as criticism? If so, you may have a problem with perfectionism. A new study reveals that a basic personality trait plays an important role in understanding this maladaptive approach to life.

I'm fascinated with perfectionism because socially-prescribed perfectionism in particular has been related to procrastination. The more we can understand about perfectionism and the maladaptive processes involved, the more we might be able to address procrastination.

A study in the journal Personality and Individual Differences provides a new perspective on how our personality plays a role. Daniel Randles, Gordon Flett, Kyle Nash and Ian McGregor from York University along with Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia conducted a study to clarify the relations among trait perfectionism and our sensitivity to cues to punishment (known as Behavioral Inhibition) and cues for reward (aka Behavioral Activation).

This research is based on previous work by two of the co-authors who are well known for their research on perfectionism, Gordon Flett (York) and Paul Hewitt (UBC). In their earlier work, Hewitt and Flett had proposed a tripartite model of perfectionism: self-oriented, socially-prescribed and other-oriented. As they write, "self-oriented perfectionism (SOP) is defined broadly as a strong internal motivation to be perfect and to set unrealistic standards for oneself. Socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP) reflects a need to earn and maintain approval from others, coupled with the belief that others expect perfection. PerfectionistThe third MPS variable, other-oriented perfectionism, is not considered in this study, as it has been associated with interpersonal difficulty, but not consistently with negative personal symptoms related to cognitive processing" (p. 1).

Of the three types, socially-prescribed perfectionism (or SSP) is of interest because it is primarily maladaptive being associated with depression, suicidal ideation, anxiety and stress. A person who might best be described as a socially-prescribed perfectionist would be a person who read the opening paragraph to this blog and said, "Hey, that's me!"

Rationale for the Study
To understand their research, I need to say a little bit more about Behavioral Inhibition (BIS) and Activation (BAS), two hypothetical systems in the brain that are typically described as fundamental individual differences that are strongly related to our goal pursuit. BIS and BAS are concepts defined in Reinforcement Sensitivity theory.  In sum, BAS is a reward-sensitive system, responding to rewards or the cessation of punishment, whereas BIS is a punishment-sensitive system with sensitivity to blocked goals, threats of failure and the possibility of humiliation. Not surprisingly, BIS is closely associated with negative emotions and depression.

It can be argued that both BAS and BIS may be related to perfectionism. For example, the focus on rewards in BAS could be linked to seeking exceptionally high goals typical of self-oriented perfectionism, while at the same time the anxiety sensitivity of BIS may be part of the sensitivity to criticism of socially-prescribed perfectionism. Previous research has found results that supported a variety of relations between behavioral activation and inhibition and perfectionism.

Consequently, the purpose of this study was to re-examine these associations while including psychologically relevant variables such as rumination, a maladaptive cognitive process. Overall, they expected that socially-prescribed perfectionism (SPP) would be strongly associated with behavioral inhibition (BIS) and that both socially-prescribed and self-oriented perfectionism would be associated with rumination.

Their Research
They conducted two studies with student samples (primarily women, average age of approximately 20-21 years). The participants completed measures of Perfectionism, BIS/BAS and rumination (e.g., "I spend a great deal of time thinking back over my embarrassing or disappointing moments").

What they found
As usual, I won't get into the details of each analysis (you can use the link below to access the complete study if this interests you). My emphasis is on a couple of key findings.

First, both socially-prescribed (SPP) and self-oriented perfection (SOP) scores were associated with behavioral inhibition (BIS), however only SOP had a correlation with behavioral activation, and this was with a specific subscale that defines "drive."

Second, socially-prescribed perfectionism predicts rumination even when the effects of behavioral inhibition were statistically controlled. In other words, rumination is not solely an issue of our tendency to monitor the environment for possible failure, it is also related to our maladaptive internalizations of the expectations of others.

Overstrivers and Workaholics
The results do indicate that self-oriented perfectionists tend to be anxiety prone while at the same time having a heightened sense of "drive" or ambition. The authors note that this is consistent with the notion of self-oriented perfectionists being "overstrivers." That is, they "respond to feelings of anxiety and self-esteem threat by working tenaciously, not only in an attempt to be successful but also to stave off failure and the possibility of humiliation and embarrassment. . . . when taken to the extreme, this pattern of striving can result in workaholic tendencies . . ." (p. 4).

Ruminative self-focus
Trait rumination is a cognitive process typical of socially-prescribed perfectionists. The constant cognitive intrusion of ruminative thought is partially due to the personality trait defined by behavioral inhibition - the sensitivity to punishment and non-reward - but it is also due to the anxiety caused by the internalized expectations of others in socially-prescribed perfectionism.

Implications and Closing thoughts
In the authors' own words, "Our results have implications in terms of possible reactions to negative life events . . . One interpretation of our results is that certain perfectionists will have a tendency to experience strong emotional reactions following negative events and setbacks. It follows that those perfectionists characterized by strong BIS activation will be particularly at risk for prolonged, intense bouts of emotional distress when negative events are experienced" (p. 4).

It is clear from these results that multiple factors contribute to the emotional distress we often attribute to perfectionism, including this basic individual difference related to sensitivity to reward and punishment. For those of us who have internalized the expectations of others, criticism is a long-time companion. Of course, if we are also a person who would score high on a measure of BIS indicating our sensitivity to blocked goals, threats of failure and the possibility of humiliation, our emotional reactions to even the smallest of set backs in our goal pursuit can be intense and enduring.

In so many ways, these ruminative thoughts are the irrational thoughts that are at the heart of procrastination. They derail our goal pursuit, and until we can deal with them directly, our emotional reactions to these thoughts will leave us frozen in place, unable to move forward. I know that this is typical of many of the people who have written me to describe their lived experience of procrastination.

A place to start then in terms of personal change and intervention is with these irrational thoughts. So, in closing, because I have written about this issue before, I'll leave you with links to two previous posts that outline how our irrational thoughts are related to procrastination and what we might do about them: Tackling Procrastination: A practical counseling approach and Discomfort Intolerance: Why we might give in to feel good

Randles, D., Flett, G.L., Nash, K.A., McGregor, I.D., & Hewitt, P.L. (in press). Dimensions of perfectionism, behavioral inhibition, and rumination. Personality and Individual Differences (2010), doi: 10:1016/j.paid.2010.03.002