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Understanding Perfectionism

Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Here's one for all you perfectionists out there. The latest Journal of Counseling Psychology contains an article by Mirela Aldea and Kenneth Rice, both of the Psychology Department at the University of Florida, titled "The Role of Emotional Dysregulation in Perfectionism and Psychological Distress" (October 2006 Vol. 53, No. 4, 498-510). This article follows in a line of articles exploring dimensions of what it means to be perfectionistic.

While all perfectionists by definition strive to become perfect in their actions and being it turns out that there are actually two different ways or styles of going about doing this. Some people practice what is referred to as a "Personal Standards" perfectionism, while others practice a "Self-Critical" perfectionism. Personal standards perfectionism involves holding yourself to high standards that you find motivating and which inspire you to perform. Self-critical perfectionism also involves setting high standards for performance, but at the same time being intensely aware of the gulf that exists between those standards and reality. Instead of finding high standards to be motivating, self-critical perfectionists find them to be intimidating and anxiety-provoking.

This is all fine and good in theory, but theory doesn't mean much until it has been tested against reality. Drs. Aldea and Rice administered tests measuring perfectionism styles, capacity for distress, and a survey of coping strategies people use when stressed to a large group of college students at their university, and did the math necessary to figure out if their basic idea held water. It did. In the author's words:

... we found important differences between the two perfectionism dimensions in terms of Psychological Distress and Emotion Dysregulation. Maladaptive Self-Critical Perfectionism does appear to have important implications for psychological difficulties, whereas adaptive Personal Standards Perfectionism appears to have inverse and significant associations with Psychological Distress, suggesting an adaptive element to high performance expectations. The same pattern was found with regard to the relationship between the two dimensions of Perfectionism and Emotional Dysregulation.

What the authors found was that student participants evidencing a high degree of personal standards perfectionism tended to report little emotional distress or use of maladaptive coping methods, while other students evidencing a self-critical perfectionism style reported far more incidence of distress, avoidance and other maladaptive coping mechanisms.

As I read this article, I'm struck by how the the main difference between adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism (as measured by whether standards are found to be intimidating or motivating; distressing or exciting) seems to get down to different biases that individuals bring to the process of self-judgment. The self-critical perfectionists who are so troubled by their high standards see the gap between what they feel they must embody and what they actually embody and declare themselves a failure. Any deviation from perfection is grounds for self-condemnation to this sort of person. Contrast this to the personal standards sort of perfectionist who also measures herself (or himself) against standards, but manages to not harshly self-judge when standards are not fully met. This trick of not harshly self-judging makes all the difference in the world.

What is the source of this tendency to self-judge harshly? The authors suggest (but don't know for sure) that it starts during development when attachment relationships with key caregivers (re: mom and dad or guardians) are troubled. When attachment to early caregivers is secure, people tend to self-judge less harshly. When early caregivers are erratic or overly harsh and judgmental themselves, attachments become insecure, and a tendency towards harsh self-judgment also arises. At the very same time, insecurely attached children are not comforted adequately by their caregivers, and thus do not learn how to self-comfort (or self-sooth - a vital adult coping skill). The combination of harsh self-judgment, difficulty knowing how to self-comfort when distressed, and a sense of urgency to be perfect lead up to the adult paralysis that a lot of self-described perfectionists will be familiar with.

I can't help wondering if another facet that differentiates whether someone will find the process of striving for perfection to be anxiety-provoking or exciting and motivating has to do with whether that someone had the opportunity to self-choose the goals towards which he or she strives. When someone decides themselves to approach a goal, there is a voluntary quality to that striving. Contrast this with a situation where someone has a absolute goal towards which they must strive drilled into their heads from without (e.g., by parents, educators, etc.). When goal striving becomes a matter of "must" rather than "optional", the need to be perfect becomes much stronger, and the tolerance for failure much smaller. Also, when the goal is not self-chosen, there is no reward in pursuing the goal. All motivation comes from the desire to avoid punishment, which of course only adds to anxiety.

The take home lesson here is that if you are perfectionistic in the maladaptive "self-critical" way described here, you are likely to have one or more basic problems:

     

  1. You don't actually like the standards to which you are aspiring towards. They were mandated, not chosen. If this is your case, consider revising your standards to ones that you like better.
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  3. You are viewing and judging yourself from someone else's perspective, rather than your own. Your standards may not be your own standards, but rather someone else's standards that you were force-fed. If this is the case for you, you have an opportunity to decide whether you want to continue to pursue someone else's standards or rather forge your own.
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  5. You are all too ready to pounce on any deviation from perfection (e.g., you are biased to harshly self-judge). Try to recognize this if it is happening for you. Once you are able to recognize it, you will gain the capacity to decide whether to continue in this vein rather than just default into knee-jerk harsh self-judgment reaction.
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  7. Your coping skills for managing distress are not well developed. If this is the case, look into improving your coping skills, including your self-soothing skills, and your task-management and time-management skills. Our Psychological Self-Tools Self-Help book is a good place to review this material.
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Reader Comments

genius - connie c smith - May 2nd 2010

Talent hits a target no one else can hit...... Genius hit a target................. no one else can see.

Perfectionism is a learned behavior - - Jun 11th 2009

I've always known that I was a perfectionist. For years I've taken pride in my drive to be the best. There have always been moments where I've doubted my approach, however, to be called a perfectionist has always been received as a compliment. It is difficult for me to admit that at age 25 I am just realizing how destructive my behavior is. Even with that knowledge it is so hard to change. It is even hard to want to change.

Dear G-d,

     How many things do I have to relinquish? You've given me so many good things in my life, and now You are asking for them back. Am I unworthy of keeping these gifts? Have I failed as Your daughter? You brought me into this world, an oldest girl with desires and ambitions to succeed. Now, You are requesting that I let go of parts of myself that I've come to believe in and to love. Aspects about myself that I do not wish to surrender. I want to fight, to beg. Please don't take away these attributes. They are familiar and they are all that I know. I am scared. What will life be like without the part of me that wants to stay?

     I've learned a long time ago to hold my tongue in times like these. To think past my narrowmindedness. To think bigger. You've demonstrated to me over and over just how good challenges are. That the more bitter the test; how much sweeter is the victory. You've taught me that in hindsight there is clarity. I know that You would never ask me to do anything counterproductive to my growth. It's just that real growth is painful. And pain makes you blind. I don't see what You see.

     But I don't need to see, I just need to trust. To trust in You and there is noone that I trust more. So with faith and trust, I surrender. I surrender all the negativity that I've held onto in the past. I surrender my way of doing things. I surrender my will. I surrender my unreasonable demands. I surrender my position of always needing to be first, always needing to be the best, and always needing to be right. I surrender my reality. I surrender with faith and trust. With faith and trust I surrender it all.

Perfectionism is a learned behavior and it can be overcome. Although, I am still struggling with it, I have come a long way in understanding its destructive nature. I'm at the beginning of my journey, but with G-d's help I will change. 

I'm so interested - - Jan 6th 2009

I have been researching this thought of perfectionist. I, a perfectionist, have found the anxiety and depression that comes from letting myself down when I fail. My husband and I both perfectionists, have seen this trait in our two children, which we have had a great relationship with. They aren't quite as agressive with this trait, though. And my younger years were of more anxiety and depression than today. I have found myself being able to overcome this overzealous trait, especially with Joy in my life. And I can definitely say that my Faith in My Lord, Jesus, has been a very intense strength to accept myself with the imperfections. And too, I was more the self motivating kind of perfectionist, but had the traits of the other. So interesting!

It is hard to self-soothe but it can be self-taught - Debbie - Jul 2nd 2008

I know that it is difficult for those who are self-deprecating. Many of us hold high standards for ourselves and that is how we aspire, and accomplish, by having these goals for ourselves....the problem comes if we do not forgive us if we don't meet the goals by an artificial deadline that we construct for ourselves. Instead of being hateful to ourselves, we must realize that the part of the person who is wrong is that the one who didn't meet the goal, it's the one who set the goal...that is what needs to be changed to help the inner child stumble to meet the goal.

People have to learn to treat themselves half as kindly as they treat their friends, or even their acquaintances. Be as charitable with yourself, and as patient, as you are with others.

If you really want to meet these goals, then find help for yourself to meet it, clearly you must need it. If it's learning, go for extra help, if it's eating, go for help. If a weekly meeting isn't enough, find something that is every 2 or 3 days, or daily. (If you can't afford it, find free help, either a friend, or your religious organization).

Find a way to help yourself. This article points out the rationale for why the problem exists. Understanding this is the beginning to your salvation.

I agree with the previous comment - Sally B UK - Oct 9th 2007
The fact that these theories can be understood at an intellectual level is one thing but to fully intergrate them the perfectionist has to be able to incorporate them into his or her understanding of them in their life.  If these things are not part of your life experience it is as the previous comment suggests like speaking a foreign language.  This is not impossible but takes time and I'm not sure I've read the book that gives me anything much more than hope.  Please keep working on it because I like many others would like to know how to change what can be at times a self distructive behaviour.

How true this is - - Jun 4th 2007
I completely agree with the article and the ways it discusses change.  I have worked with counselors and supervisors on my prefectionism and finally understand it.  when it comes to work I am very self ciritcal but at home I am more peronal.  Once I realized where my prefectionism was I could learn steps to change it.  The changing of "thinking patterns" is not easy and takes pratice.  However I made that part of my prefectionism which gave me the motivation to keep at it and finally change it.  Final tools and understanding for what I was taught and focused on for years of schooling and worklife.

Agree with Previous Post - Ellen - Jun 3rd 2007

I also think that the advice given is not helpful.  The only way I know to 'be' is self-condemning and self-critical.  I have been this way since childhood, and despite reading every self-help book I have been able to find.... and despite attempting therapy whenever I've been able to afford it, I haven't really made much progress.

Telling me to "think positively", (ie. cognitive behavioural therapy) would be great if I honestly knew how to do that.

You might as well tell me to suddenly start speaking Chinese. I don't know HOW.  

Sometimes I feel like I am drowning, while all the rest of you are standing safely on the shore telling me how I should use some fancy butterfly stroke, or something. But I was never taught how to swim in the first place, you see.

That's what you don't seem to understand.                                                             

Commentary is not that helpful - - Jan 30th 2007

Interesting article and commentary. However, I think its really easy to say "consider adjusting your standards", but having lived this way for 50 years I find it almost unfathomable how to go about changing the way I think, feel and behave about everything. In taking a hard look at myself I find that I am retreating more and more into my shell, more and more self-critical in a maladaptive way. I think I'm far too concerned with what others think and therefore I've become more socially inept and find myself with no friends and almost no outside interests. Although, by some yardsticks, I have been successful in my career and life I seem to be getting more and more debilitated and I really don't know how to change. I know what I'm doing is hurting me (and possibly my family) but I really don't know what to do about it and I don't think just "adjusting my standards" is all that helpful as a plan of action.

Editor's Note: No doubt. A vague plan like "adjust your standards" is likely to fail. In order to have a fighting chance to actually make changes occur, you will need to create a more specific plan with much more specific actions you determine you will take. The more you can specify and measure your success and break it down into little bite-sized chunks, the easier of a time you will have in actually making change happen. Our self-help book describes this process in some detail.   If you are indeed having a difficult time figuring out how you might act differently to create a better social and interpersonal situation for yourself, consider hiring a therapist for a few weeks to see if he or she can't get you jumpstarted. A behavioral therapist (probably a cognitive behavioral therapist these days) will likely offer you the best no-nonsense approach to habit change, but other approaches might ultimately be very helpful too if you give them a chance. Good luck.