Having excessively high standards, to the point we feel highly anxious unless whatever we undertake we get precisely right, can be self-defeating. Indeed, we might be so concerned we always perform ‘perfectly’ that we are reluctant to take on, and, therefore, avoid, challenges for fear of not meeting the highly exacting standards that we set ourselves (even though we may, in reality, have easily succeeded in the challenge). Also, ‘perfectionists’ make life harder for themselves by being excessively self-critical, even when they make very small mistakes; this can produce anxiety which may, ironically, lower performance or cause the ‘perfectionist’ to abandon whatever task, project or activity s/he was involved in. Furthermore, a person suffering from this is too dependent on performing exceptionally well to maintain his/her self-esteem. Some individuals may go through life never reaching their potential because their ‘perfectionism’ makes them so fearful of ‘failure’ (as they perceived it) that they never take on the necessary challenges. Such people may, at the end of their lives, regret this very much. Rather than being a ‘perfectionist,’ a healthier and often more productive attitude is to set ourselves the goal of doing whatever it is we are doing ‘to the best of our ability.’
The Link Between The Development Of Perfectionism And Being Brought Up By Inflexible, Authoritarian Parents: Several studies that were conducted in the early 2000s have shown that authoritarian parents who rigidly and inflexibly enforced rules with scant regard for their children’s feelings, who regarded unquestioning obedience as essential and rewarded their children for it, produced children prone to significant anxiety and, later, in adulthood, excessively fearful of making mistakes and errors. In short, such children were significantly more likely than average to develop ‘perfectionism.’
It is likely that genetic inheritance can put a person at greater risk of developing pathological perfectionism than average. However, so far the research suggests that environment plays a larger role. For example, if one was brought up by parents who only showed their offspring affection and approval when they excelled in their activities (in other words, the parents’ love was conditional upon the offspring’s achievement levels – eg academic, sporting, musical achievement etc – click here to read my article about problems gifted children may face) such offspring might grow up to develop pathological perfectionism ( in an attempt, conscious or unconscious, to win/ keep their parents’ love).
Also, if one experienced a childhood in which there was significant psychological upheaval and one grew up, in consequence, with a deep sense of life ‘being out of control’, one may become a pathological perfectionist in an attempt to compensate for this. A workaholic, for example, may be so driven in his/her work/career as all other areas of his/ her life feel out of control.
Two Types Of Perfectionism: Perfectionism can be of two types; these are :
– Adaptive perfectionism (which helps performance)
– Maladaptive perfectionism: if suffering from this type of perfectionism the individual is unable to tolerate even minor flaws in performance (which harms performance) Children brought up in the manner described above are more likely than average to develop both of these types of perfectionism.
Negative Consequences Of Pathological Perfectionism May Also Include: – social isolation (so busy trying to attain great success the person is likely to have little time to socialise/ maintain a relationship) – no hobbies/ no time spent on recreation (s/he may see these things as a ‘waste of time’ and/or feel guilty about undertaking such ‘frivolities’ – the limited range of interests – exhaustion – insomnia – poor concentration – obsessive preoccupation with errors/perceived failure – constant self-criticism – procrastination – depression – anxiety – obsessive-compulsive disorder – eating disorders ( e.g in the quest to have ‘perfect’ body) – avoidance of tasks (see immediately below):
Individuals with standards that are high but are also realistic and obtainable tend to be effective and proactive when undertaking problematic, difficult and stressful tasks. However, maladaptive perfectionists tend to be less effective when faced with such tasks and are prone to what is termed ‘avoidant coping’ involving ignoring the problem or denying its importance.
What Kind Of Problems Does The ‘Avoidant Coping’ Style Of Maladaptive Perfectionists Lead To? – high levels of stress – impaired self-confidence – indecisiveness – unrealistic/unobtainable standards – enervating obsessiveness Let’s look at some of the above problems in a little more detail:
- Anxiety may be linked to perfectionism because one feels constantly under pressure to reach exacting standards which are often, in fact, unobtainable, thus dooming one to perceived ‘failure’.
- Social anxiety may be linked to perfectionism because one is always nervous in social situations that one’s ‘performance’ may be less than perfect and that one will make a faux pas or show oneself up in some way
- Eating disorders may be linked to perfectionism if one is obsessed with gaining the ‘perfect’ body as such an obsession can lead to the development of anorexia nervosa or bulimia.
- Depression may be linked to perfectionism because if one sets impossibly high standards for oneself one is likely to be constantly oppressed by a subjective sense of ‘failure’ and of ‘not being good enough.’
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder may be linked to perfectionism. For example, one may be obsessed with ‘perfect’ household cleanliness and therefore feel compelled to spend extreme and excessive amounts of time cleaning and re-cleaning it to the point that it seriously diminishes one’s quality of life.
To minimize such effects, we need to cut ourselves some slack; with the self-imposed pressure alleviated, our overall effectiveness and productivity are likely to improve.
Also, we can reduce our tendency towards maladaptive perfectionism by trying not to ‘see things in black and white’ (i.e. as either ‘perfect’ or ‘terrible’, with no grey areas). It is also useful not to compare our solution to a task with an imagined, ideal solution, but, instead, to compare it with no solution whatsoever.
Futile Treadmill: Pathological perfectionists are likely to discount, dismiss or minimize their successes and fixate only on how they perceive themselves to have ‘fallen short’. No amount of success satisfies them, they always need to do better and achieve more. In this way, they become trapped on an exhausting, debilitating treadmill, never reaching their ‘destination.’ An utterly futile exercise. Of course, striving for success can also be undertaken in a more psychologically and physically healthy manner. There is no set point when striving for success becomes so intense and obsessive that it could be termed ‘pathological’, but the more negative consequences it gives rise to, the more likely it becomes that it could reasonably be so categorised. Also, when deciding if one’s perfectionism is pathological, to what degree one’s self-esteem is dependent upon always achieving great success is a particularly important consideration; the greater the dependency, the more unhealthy the person’s mode of perfectionism is likely to be.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a very effective way of addressing maladaptive perfectionism.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.