So, You Want to Be Perfect

Are you willing to pay the price for perfection?

Posted Apr 28, 2020

When Sandy was eight years old, she attended a performance of “The Nutcracker.” After that, she decided she would be a ballerina.

As she grew older, she set a very high bar regarding her performances and would not accept anything less. Sandy sacrifices a great deal as a young woman in pursuit of attaining her goal of excellence. Despite her family encouraging her to be “less driven,” she holds firm to her conviction and continues to strive to be an outstanding dancer.

Gregory is the first in his family to attend college. Because his parents had to borrow money to pay for his tuition, he believes he must be at the “top of his class” or else his parents will be angry and think he’s ungrateful for all they did for him. He does not want their disapproval in fear that they might not emotionally and financially support him, and possibly even reject him. Therefore, he spends countless hours studying to the extent that he does little else, including sleep.

Both Sandy and Gregory demonstrate facets of perfectionism: “self-oriented perfectionism” and “socially prescribed perfectionism” (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). They set very high standards for themselves and place substantial importance on achieving their lofty goals. However, the drive that motivates them is different. Sandy’s exceptionally high standard for achievement is based on her own need to be perfect (self-oriented perfectionism). Whereas, Gregory’s high standards are reflective of how he perceives the expectations of others and their strong disapproval of him if he is not “perfect” (socially prescribed perfectionism).

Generally, these two forms of perfectionism are characterized by the individual’s beliefs and may involve great striving and sacrifice. The primary distinguishing dimension is the impetus for the beliefs and behavior. In self-oriented perfectionism, the drive to excel and set high standards stems from the individual’s desire to be perfect. Socially prescribed perfectionism derives from the individual’s beliefs about the high standards set by others for the individual and how these others will react if the standards are or are not met (either acceptance or rejection/hyper criticalness).

Another way of considering perfectionism is whether it is normal or neurotic (Hamachek, 1978). Wanting to excel and working hard toward a goal is not an unusual desire. In some ways, this expression of perfectionism reflects the personality trait of conscientiousness. For those who are highly conscientious, achieving anything less than perfect may not be acceptable. They refuse (or at a minimum are very reluctant) to accept a lower performance even in situations that realistically are beyond their control, such as illness. Often these individuals remain inflexible, or do not derive pleasure from their efforts, or are being driven by fear of failure. Those who are “normal” perfectionists are more flexible and able to adjust according to situational circumstances.  

Although, striving for perfection may be a product of conscientiousness or good work habits, the forms described in the two case examples are extreme. The need to be perfect in self-oriented perfectionism tends to be compulsive, pervasive, and unrealistic. Moreover, the need to be perfect in socially prescribed perfectionism is more than a desire to be popular or not to disappoint others. It is based on one’s belief that others demand the individual to be perfect, as well as to have exaggerated concerns of meeting these high standards so as to avoid rejection.

Wanting to be the best you can be is an admirable trait, but does being the best mean being perfect? For some, the answer is “yes.” These individuals may have standards so high that any mistake or not meeting the goal translates to failure (Stairs et al., 2012). Hiding mistakes is not uncommon for those whose perfectionism is socially prescribed; this is especially true for individuals who want to project “effortless perfection” (Flett et al., 2016). There are significant emotional costs that come with the need to be perfect. It can contribute to depression, anxiety, panic disorder, compulsive disorder, and eating disorder (Stairs et al., 2012). Other psychological issues, such as social anxiety, stress, and relationship problems may also occur.

An additional issue to consider is that there are people who want to be superior to others (Travers et al., 2015). It is important for them to believe they are more successful, or more creative, or more intelligent, or more (fill in the blank) than others. This form of social comparison encourages the individual to outperform the others and thereby receive great satisfaction with their achievements.

Aside from one holding the belief that she or he must be perfect based on their personality traits, the development of perfectionism may also be influenced by parents and teachers. Cultural issues can also play a role. For example, in some societies, it is not uncommon to admire and respect people who are not only “exceptional,” but who are so without even trying. The pressure to achieve and maintain such stature can be immense and cause considerable stress. Often, the individual may not want or even have someone they can talk to about what they are experiencing, and thus have no release valve.

Understanding the underlying motives and pressures are critical in helping individuals modify their thoughts and behaviors to a form that is psychologically healthy and adaptive. One of the most important considerations is having the individual adopt a different mindset. Hornsey et al., (2018) discuss “the moderation principle,” where the “ideal level is often a point between two extremes: one of excess and one of deficiency.” (p. 1394). Moderation is also viewed as “perfect” in many cultures and religions. Thus, a re-examination of what is “perfection” may be the main issue in helping to address the individual’s psychological symptoms and problematic behavior.

One of the hallmarks of being “human” is that we are not perfect. We make mistakes and have frailties. But we can also learn from our mistakes and can modify our weaknesses, which we should do while simultaneously recognizing the importance of our physical and mental health. The true marvel of “imperfection” is when it stimulates, in an adaptive manner, our evolution into becoming better people.

References

Flett, G. L., Nepon, T., Hewitt, P. L., Molnar, D. S., & Zhao, W. (2016). Projecting perfection by hiding effort: Supplementing the perfectionistic self-presentation scale with a brief self-presentation measure. Self and Identity, 15(3), 245-261. DOI: 10.1080/15298868.2015.1119188

Hamachek, D. E. (1978). Psychodynamics of normal and neurotic perfectionism. Psychology: A Journal of Human Behavior, 15(1), 27–33.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456–470. doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.456

Hornsey, M. J., Bain, P. G., Harris, E. A., Lebedeva, N., Kashima, E. S., Guan, Y., Gonzalez, R., Chen, S. X., & Blumen, S. (2018). How much is enough in a perfect world? Cultural variation in ideal levels of happiness, pleasure, freedom, health, self-esteem, longevity, and intelligence. Psychological Science, 29(9), 1393-1404. doi: 10.1177/0956797618768058

Stairs, A. M., Smith, G. T., Zapolski, T. C. B., Combs, J. L., & Settles, R. E. (2012). Clarifying the construct of perfectionism. Assessment, 19(2), 146 –166.  DOI: 10.1177/1073191111411663

Travers, L. V., Randall, E. T., Bryant, F. B., Conley, C. S., & Bohnert, A. M. (2015). The cost of perfection with apparent ease: Theoretical foundations and development of the Effortless Perfectionism Scale. Psychological Assessment, 27(4), 1147–1159. doi.org/10.1037/pas0000109