What Does It Mean to Be a Maladaptive Perfectionist?

New research breaks perfectionism into two components.

Posted Aug 25, 2020

Paola Crash on Shutterstock
Source: Paola Crash on Shutterstock

Is perfectionism a trait to be desired or dismissed? According to new research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the answer may depend on the type of perfectionist you are.

A team of researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway offers convincing evidence that there are actually two types of perfectionists. One type, called the "striving" perfectionist, may be associated with positive psychological outcomes, and another type, called the "evaluative" perfectionist is likely associated with psychological problems.

"Although there currently is no guiding definition of perfectionism, it is often defined as consisting of unrealistically high expectations and overly critical self-evaluations," state the researchers. "With the influx of research identifying the negative effects and correlations of perfectionism, there is increasing debate in regard to whether perfectionism can be adaptive."

In an attempt to settle this debate, the team of psychologists recruited 423 Norwegian adults to complete the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. The scale, first developed in the early 1990s, is composed of eight agree-disagree statements and is grouped into two categories: strivings and evaluative concerns. See the scale below.

Strivings

  • I set higher goals for myself than most people.
  • I have extremely high goals.
  • Other people seem to accept lower standards from themselves than I do.
  • I expect higher performance in my daily tasks than most people.

Evaluative Concerns

  • If I fail at work/school, I am a failure as a person.
  • If someone does a task at work/school better than me, then I feel like I failed at the whole task.
  • If I do not do well all the time, people will not respect me.
  • The fewer mistakes I make, the more people will like me.

From reading the statements above, you can see how the two components of perfectionism differ from each other. One has to do with an intrinsic desire to be the best while the other has to do with the importance of not failing in the eyes of other people.

Through a series of statistical tests, the psychologists examined whether the scale was a better measurement tool when strivings and evaluative concerns were lumped together, or when they were explored separately. Interestingly, they found that the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale was a more accurate measurement tool when separated into two components. They write, “The bifactor and the confirmatory factor analysis [...] support the two-factor model, indicating that the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale lends itself best to studying correlations and changes in evaluative concerns and strivings separately.”

The researchers note that the evaluative concerns dimension of perfectionism is probably the form of perfectionism that leads to psychological problems. In their data, evaluative concerns correlated significantly to measures of depression and anxiety, whereas strivings had a weak correlation to anxiety and did not correlate at all with depression.

In sum, the strivings dimension of perfectionism may be something to be encouraged while the evaluative concerns dimension of perfectionism may be something to be suppressed. The authors hope their work inspires more research on developing effective interventions for maladaptive perfectionism, as other research suggests that perfectionism is on the rise in the United States and Europe. They write, "Perfectionism is [...] receiving increasing attention in Scandinavia where generation Z is colloquially referred to as the generation of performance anxiety.” 

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References

Woodfin, V., Binder, P. E., & Molde, H. (2020). The Psychometric Properties of the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale–Brief. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1860.