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Perfectionism: Inherited or A Psychological Solution?

Many people with eating disorders have perfectionistic tendencies - But why?

In some ways, I am a perfectionist. On the plus side, I can count on myself to get a job done, and generally on time. I know my patterns enough to know that even when I procrastinate, particularly if I have a deadline, I will usually meet it. So, I have stopped worrying when I procrastinate. I trust my perfectionism will prevail when I need to perform, produce or provide. I am also driven and trust that I will approach a challenge with gusto, at least, if not success. I can easily explain my own perfectionism as both a defense against childhood issues that left me feeling demoralized and devalued, but perhaps my perfectionism was inherited. My sister had it too. She had very different, and, for the most part, pleasant childhood experiences and memories than I did; yet, she was, almost entirely, if not in all senses of the words, “practically perfect.” Like, Mary Poppins. I, on the other hand, had none of the outward socially or familiarly acceptable manifestations of perfectionism, but was rather remote, academic, and socially awkward. Yet, I would describe us both as perfectionists. Perhaps, she was dealing with her own internal psychological struggle and perfectionism was her solution. Perhaps, both of us had ‘simply’ inherited our tendencies.

Perfectionism can be as constructive as destructive.

A 2014 article in “Science of Us,” Melissa Dahl writes, “[A] British study of students who committed suicide, 11 out of the 20 students who’d died were described by those who knew them as being afraid of failure. In another study, published last year, more than 70 percent of 33 boys and young men who had killed themselves were said by their parents to have placed ‘exceedingly high’ demands and expectations on themselves — traits associated with perfectionism.”

The issue of Perfectionism with respect to eating disorders is a tricky matter. Research appears to be supporting Perfectionism as an inheritable trait, however, I have yet to learn how it is known that indeed it is inherited. I know that there are studies which show the link between eating disorders and perfectionism, but how do you know for sure that inheritance is from whence the perfectionism originated? On the other hand, I find research that examines Perfectionism as a response or defense against psychological or relational issues - the stuff that Psychoanalysis describes, is equally absent of “proof.”

Three explanations, at least, are necessary to articulate my point:
What is Perfectionism?
What is “thinking/theory/proof/research” that perfectionism is inherited?
What is “thinking/theory/proof/research” that perfectionism is the consequence of psychological unrest?

Perfectionism defined.

In seeking a suitable (preferred?) definition of perfectionism Wikipedia, addresses the psychological aspects, despite making overreaching claims to its origin:

“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person's striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal, and their adaptive perfectionism can sometimes motivate them to reach their goals. In the end, they derive pleasure from doing so. When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression.”

WebMD states, “Researchers say perfectionism is a personality style in which a person is overly critical of his or her own performance. Perfectionists also tend to have an excessive need for approval and are greatly concerned about making mistakes. They differ from high achievers who are driven by a goal to achieve, whereas perfectionists are driven by a fear of failure.”

What evidence do we have that perfectionism is inherited?

In an article published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders (May 2013,) the author (Keel) assumes that perfectionism is a personality factor. She bases her findings on that assumption. “Personality factors such as negative emotionality and perfectionism contribute to the development of eating disorders.” She goes on to say, “However, these factors (negative emotionality and perfectionism,) may be influenced indirectly by increasing susceptibility to internaliz[ation of] the thin ideal…”

Cynthia Bulik, Univeristy of NC, a highly regard expect in the field of eating disorders, has done extensive research on genetic influences in eating disorders. Dr. Bulik states, "Most patients and their patients say that perfectionism goes back to before they developed an eating disorder," She continues, "Young girls who are highly perfectionistic and punish themselves unduly for perceived failures can be helped to learn how to give themselves a break and set more realistic goals. This could also help them develop more realistic body image standards as well and perhaps prevent them for developing such extreme weight-loss behaviors." (American Journal of Psychiatry, February 2003.) Dr. Bulik appears to assume that perfectionism is an inheritable trait, like eye color? Further exploration and explanation is halted when something is inherited.

Carrie Paulus of Vanderbilt University not only correlates perfectionism with societal factors but states that perfectionism is the result of societal pressure.
“Much of the research confirms assumptions that rigid and controlling personality traits such as perfectionism are highly correlated with people afflicted with eating disorders. These personality dimensions such as perfectionism and obsessive-compulsive traits are often the result of intense sociocultural pressures which drive our modern, fast paced society.”

This assertion, even with a positive correlation between perfectionism and societal pressure, still cannot affirm that one causes the other. True, those who are perfectionistic are likely concerned about what other people think; therefore, social pressure, including the media, would likely have a reinforcing effect on people who lean toward perfectionism. But causation is a different matter and which caused what quickly becomes the discussion, rather than focussing on the root cause of perfectionism.

I am still left perplexed about the origin of perfectionism. It may be reasonable to assert that perfectionism is inherited, but is that assertion, correct? If a grandparent, parent and child may have perfectionistic tendencies it does not guarantee that the trait was inherited. Could be. But, the ‘traits’ could be patterned and learned over time too (the stuff that CBT is based on,) or all three generations are dealing with a psychological repetitive issue. Trauma and abuse, for instance, is often a gift that keeps on giving. So, perfectionism may be a response to control, or manifestation or an attempt to master the fall-out from traumatic events or abuse that occurred cross-generationally.

What evidence do we have that perfectionism is a psychological response or consequence of psychological or relational issues?

Jon Frederickson is the author of Co-Creating Change, a book based intensive short-term dynamic psychotherapy, an approach which is gaining momentum in treating general mental health issues as well as eating disorders. Fredericton’s understanding of perfectionism is through a psychoanalytic lens.

“As you remember, with a character defense the patient does to himself what someone did to him in the past. Thus, if the patient had a perfectionistic, critical father, he may criticize himself and hold himself up to perfectionistic standards. That is, rather than feel rage toward his critical father, as a defense he identifies with the father toward whom he felt rage. “Oh no, I don’t feel rage toward him. I am him.” As the psychoanalytic literature shows, the patient may identify with the critical parent to avoid loss, to ward off anger, and to maintain an insecure attachment. Thus, as Lorna Benjamin so beautifully says, the defense is a “gift of love.” “I love my father so much that I will protect him and our relationship from my anger by turning it on myself in the form of self-criticism and perfectionism.”

Fredericton continues, “The most important thing to remember about perfectionism is that it is fundamentally a form of self-hatred. The perfectionistic patient believes he cannot be loved for his essence, only if he becomes the same as an ideal. He believes he is not unconditionally lovable for who he is; he believes he can be loved only conditionally, based on what he does. Perfectionism, in it’s neurotic form, is the love of the perfect and the hatred of the person.”

This ‘argument’ appeals to my psychoanalytic sensibility, however, what proof is there that indeed perfectionism is a psychological compromise of sorts, or attempt to make sense of relationships and experiences or to find a solution to intra and inter psychic conflict?

My point is this. We don’t know definitively and likely, as with most situations, people are complicated and unique. So, one person’s perfectionistic tendencies may be the result of trauma and another may have learned it from a parent who exhibited obsessive/compulsive behavior. Others, may have inherited it as a ‘trait.’ What matters to me is that we refrain, once again, from all or nothing statements or statements that stop the discussion by virtue of making sweeping definitive assertions (ommmmm.)

To say that eating disorder sufferers are likely perfectionists is true; ask many sufferers and they will tell you. To assert that their perfectionism has been inherited is likely true for some, but not all. Severing further exploration by asserting that something is inherited helps some, particularly eating disorder sufferers who can benefit from stopping the negative talk loop in their head. But, it may not explain why others are perfectionists and understanding psychological motivation may prove useful and healing, particularly in situations of trauma, guilt and experiences in childhood that leave a child feeling shamed or criticized.


Judy Scheel

Judy Scheel
Judy Scheel, Ph.D, LCSW
Source: Judy Scheel
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