How Maladaptive Perfectionism Can Arouse Anger
Aspiring to be perfect is very different than believing we need to be perfect.
Posted Dec 31, 2020
It is one thing to strive to be perfect. It’s another to believe we need to be perfect. After all, some aspects of perfectionism help move us toward success. In contrast, unrealistic perfectionism reflects the darker side of such strivings. It can cause conflict in our relationships, undermine work performance and career advancement, and contribute to emotional difficulties—including being prone to anger arousal.
Unrealistic perfectionism entails a personality disposition marked by:
A. Intensely high standards of performance
B. Overly self-critical evaluations
C. The desire to appear flawless
D. All-or-nothing thinking—“If I’m not perfect, I must be a failure.”
E. Being motivated by fear of failure
As stated by Paul Hewitt, a researcher in the area of perfectionism, “It’s not a way of being in the world…” Rather, it is an attempt to “perfect an imperfect self” (Hewitt and Flett, 1991b). It is fueled by an effort to avoid feelings of inadequacy and being “less than,” feelings that accompany shame that is triggered by such self-criticism. Rather it is about confirming that we are perfect. As such, unrealistic perfectionism can inform expectations regarding our physical characteristics, behaviors, intelligence, thinking, and feelings—in effect, our entire being.
It is understandable, then, how the intense demands of perfectionism can contribute to anger (as well as anxiety and depression), anger that may only exacerbate our being self-critical. As an anger management specialist, I’ve seen this reflected in many of my clients. Additionally, I’ve observed, at a deeper level, how shame both fosters and is a result of perfectionism.
Three Forms of Perfectionism
Hewitt and Flett (1990) identified what was to become one of the most widely researched models for understanding perfectionism. Their study identified three forms of perfectionism:
1. Self-oriented perfectionism: that includes having extremely high standards, expectations of perfection, and being highly self-critical following the failure to meet such expectations.
2. Socially oriented perfectionism, which entails having beliefs that others have expectations of us to be perfect and that they will be critical of us when we fail to satisfy these expectations.
3. Other-oriented perfectionism or proscribed perfectionism, in which we believe that others should be perfect.
Each of these forms of perfectionism can impact us in different ways with regard to anger.
Perfectionism and Anger
In the past two decades, there has been an increase in the number of studies exploring the details of the relationship between perfectionism and anger. These shed light on perfectionism and how it influences our relationships with others, the world, and ourselves.
One such study found that self-oriented perfectionism is associated with self-directed anger, consequent to perceived and experienced frustration with oneself (Esfahani and Mesharat, 2010). In contrast, socially prescribed perfectionism is related to anger directed toward others, resulting from perceived and experienced mistreatment by them.
Other studies have focused on exploring the association between perfectionism and aggression. In one of these studies, 445 Turkish adolescents were administered the Almost Perfect Scale (BPAQ) and the Buss-Perry Aggression Scale for the data (Ongen, 2010). It was found that those who maintained maladaptive perfectionism were most predictive of anger, physical aggression, hostility, and verbal aggression. Interestingly, those with only high rather than unrealistic standards for themselves predicted only verbal aggression.
In another study, 776 children from the 3rd through 6th grade were evaluated by first being asked to respond to the Child and Adolescent Perfectionism and an Aggression Questionnaire (Garcia-Fernandez, et al., 2017). The results indicated that children with a high degree of socially prescribed perfectionism scored significantly higher on four sub-scales of the Aggression Questionnaire compared to peers with lower levels of socially oriented perfectionism.
One study explored the associations of the three types of perfectionism, social disconnection, and interpersonal hostility (Stoeber, et al., 2017). In this study, 1,133 college students completed measures of self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism, together with measures of trust, empathy, and hostility, including aggression and spitefulness. Only other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism evidenced associations with social disconnection and hostility. In contrast, self-oriented perfectionism showed associations reflecting social connection and low hostility regarding physical aggression or spitefulness.
Perfectionism and Negative Emotions
A number of studies have explored negative emotions associated with the different types of perfectionism. For example, one investigated the impact on self-oriented perfectionists and socially prescribed perfectionists with regards to the dimensions of anger, anxiety, and depression (Stoeber, et al., 2014). One hundred college students engaged in experimental conditions that led to repeated failure. They were evaluated before and after doing so, with consideration for the negative emotions of anger, anxiety, and depression.
It was found that socially prescribed perfectionism predicted increased anxiety, depression, and anger after the initial failure and further anger with repeated failures. By contrast, self-oriented perfectionism predicted increased anxiety, but only after repeated failure. The key finding was that both types of perfectionists foster vulnerability to experience increased negative emotions after repeated failure.
Another study assessed the interaction of perfectionism, depression, anxiety, and stress in 114 children aged 10-15 (Hewitt et al., 2002). Participants responded to questionnaires related to these dimensions as well as one regarding anger. It concluded that self-oriented perfectionism was significantly associated with depression and anxiety, whereas socially prescribed perfectionism was significantly associated with depression, anxiety, social stress, anger suppression, and outwardly directed anger.
High Levels of Perfectionism and Anger in Sports
Participation in academic sports provides a rich arena for the examination of perfectionism, self-esteem, and anger. Toward identifying such associations, several researchers identified a sample of 229 male athletes between the ages of 13 and 17, who responded to questionnaires regarding anger, self-esteem, anger, and socio-demographics (A. Munoz-Villena, M. Lopez & J. Gonzalez-Hernandez, 2020).
The analysis found that those with low personal standards and high levels of organization (associated with perfectionism) acted as predictors of state anger (an ongoing tendency toward anger arousal). In contrast, those with high personal standards predicted higher anger management in athletes with high self-esteem. They concluded that high self-esteem appeared to serve as a protective factor when predicting anger traits and personal standards.
Another recent study explored how intense demands for perfectionism in team sports may give rise to anger as well as anti-social, angry reactions (M. Crugan & G. Jowett, 2020). The study group included 257 competitive team athletes (mean age = 20.70 years). They completed questionnaires assessing measures of perfectionism, angry reactions to poor teammate performance, and anti-social behavior.
This research indicated that self-oriented perfectionism evidenced no relationship with angry reactions toward teammate behavior and a negative relationship with anti-social opponent behavior. Additionally, the study found that other-oriented perfectionism shared positive, indirect relationships with antisocial behavior toward teammates and opponents, expressed by angry reactions to poor teammate performance.
The Need to Address Anger Related to Maladaptive Perfectionism
A recent study assessed over 41,641 college students from 1989 to 2016 for perfectionism (Curran and Hill, 2019). It concluded that there had been a steady increase in perfectionism—along all three dimensions of perfection. This is a significant finding in terms of its impact on anger and emotional well-being in general.
Consequently, it is in our best interest that educators, therapists, and others who address issues of mental health become educated about the powerful, negative influence of maladaptive perfectionism. By doing so, they can be more available to help those who they care for, with regards to anger and their emotional well-being in general.
Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1990). Perfectionism and depression: A multidimensional analysis. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality, Vol.5(5), 423–438.
Ibid., Hewitt (1990).
Esfahani, F and Besharat, M. (2010). Perfectionism and anger, Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 803-807.
Ongen, D, (2010). The relationships between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism and aggression among Turkish adolescents, Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling, Vol 20(1),99-108.
Fernandez, G, Manuel, J., Vicent, M. et. al. (2017). Relationship between socially prescribed perfectionism and aggressive behaviour during late childhood. European Journal of Education and Psychology, Vol 10(1), 15-22, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ejeps.2016.10.003
Stoeber, J, Noland, A. , Mawenu, T. et. al. (2017) Perfectionism, social disconnection, and interpersonal hostility: Not all perfectionists don't play nicely with others.Personality and Individual Differences, Vol 119, Dec 1 , 2017, 112-117
Stoeber, J., Schneider, N., Hussain, R., et. al. (2014). Perfectionism and negative affect after repeated failure. Journal of Individual Differences, Vol. 35(2), 87-94.
Hewitt, P., Caeliana, C., Flett, G. et. al. (2002). Perfectionism in children: associations with depression, anxiety, and anger, Personality and Individual Differences 32 (2002) 1049–1061.
Munoz-Villena, A., Gomez-Lopez, M., and Gonzalez-Hernandez, J. (2020). Perfectionism profiles and anger responses: the relevant role of self-esteem in athletes of professional quarries. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health, 17, 1416.
Grugan, M. and Jowett, G. (2020). The relationships between Perfectionism, angry reactions, and antisocial behavior in team sport. Sport, Exericise and Performance Psychology, Vol. 9(4), 543-557.
Curran, T. and Hill, A. (2019). Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.