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Perfectionism: Vice or Virtue?

By Batool Aljfri

“Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it” – Salvador Dali

In psychology, perfectionism is a multidimensional personality trait that is characterised by an individual’s striving for an idealised image of the self or a particular situation. The individual sets high standards (often unattainable goals) for themselves or others, opt for flawlessness and are often excessively critical of themselves or over particular external outcomes.

I found myself living through life in a difficult flow guided by a subtle, almost subconscious fear of everything. My perfectionism masked itself in the form of excessive fear of failure, bouts of procrastination, and a great deal of evasive behaviour. All of this was constantly tied together by perfectionism’s ultimate best friend: chronic overthinking.

As human beings, we strive to make the world around us a certain and predictable place. Yet, for the perfectionist this dire need to control every outcome in our lives (sometimes, even other people’s lives) becomes a daily obsession governed by an all-or-nothing mindset. Perfectionism comes in many different habits, but it’s safe to say that there are common underlying causes or motives that drive them. Anxiety of things going wrong, or moving into an unknown territory, fear of failure or stepping outside one’s comfort zones are all motives that make the perfectionist say something like “I don’t know how this will turn out, so I’ll avoid it all together to save myself the disappointment” – which by the way is bound to happen whether you go for it or not.

Sometimes even if the goal is achieved, it is likely that the perfectionist will feel somewhat unsatisfied because they will find a fault somewhere, because surely it must be too good to be true.

Factors that may trigger perfectionism

Notice how the traits I struggle with appeared to be shared by many other people today?

Unfortunately, when I became certain that I might be a perfectionist, I realized it to be a deeply inherent issue that may be universal in the world of humanity, and is becoming increasingly prevalent with each passing generation. In comparing the prevalence of perfectionism amongst people between 1989 and 2017, Curran and Hill found that in comparison to earlier generations, the recent cohort of college students reported considerably higher scores for different types of perfectionism that are mediated by multiple factors in the individual’s life.[1]   

The developmental dimension is one of the critical factors of this trend. Early on, the individual internalises their immediate social environment (family, upbringing, parental practices, etc.) to orient themselves in the world. Later on, the individual starts to internalise cultural values and the broader social context that aids in the overall shaping of their personality and in constructing a solid sense of identity.

Perfectionism starts to rise when there is a mismatch between the individual’s needs (self-esteem, belonging) and the responses to those needs from external environments.[2]  This asynchrony occurs when an individual’s perception towards others and themselves becomes distorted and they start viewing the world from an untrustworthy and critical lens – rapidly making their way to feelings of unworthiness and low self-esteem.

Parental attachment styles early on can heavily influence the child’s coping mechanisms later in life. If parental practices emphasise high standards and strict rituals, the child may grow up with self-soothing difficulties and will likely engage more with their perfectionist tendencies. In this sense, perfectionism acts as an aid to the individual’s distorted identity, appearing as the constant need for approval and the constant pursue for flawlessness to comfort themselves and maintain their identity as they know it.

Other factors also play a critical role in flaring up this asynchrony. The modern world does not help much either. There is a high demand for young people to constantly adapt to changing behaviours of societal standards, legal institutions, technological advances, economical fluctuations, and so on. Our market-based world closely ties together the individual’s sense of worth to extrinsic outcomes, such as academic performance, career progress, relationship status – all in the effort of perfecting our image and earning a place in our society. In turn, this places the individual under immense pressure to catch up with the world, and worse, perceive competition as the only way to life’s success.

So, regardless of achieving decent results and lifestyles, dissatisfaction is still greater than ever. This is largely because young people are not so much dissatisfied with what they have, but with who they are as individuals.

Let’s take the millennial example of internet and social media consumption. In 2019, there were approximately 4.388 billion internet users and 3.484 billion social media users worldwide, representing a 9% increase from the previous year.[3]  The majority of the statistics were naturally accumulated in the industrial and developed countries. In part, what makes social media so popular is the opportunity to curate the perfect image of ourselves and increase our representational and interpersonal self-image.

On the contrary, it seems that more exposure to these platforms actually makes the individual compare and question their own self-representations and accomplishments in relation to others, leading to unhealthy obsession of trying to reach a high-bar that may be non-existent in the first place.

Since the emergence of social media, it became evident that problems such as social alienation, eating disorders and body dysmorphia have increased considerably due to the visual culture of these platforms. Not surprisingly, practices such as plastic surgeries and other forms of body modifications have also increased, bringing forth promises of the perfect, idealistic image of self.

On an economic scale, more individuals are now obtaining a higher-education degrees compared to earlier generations. The traditional purpose of education – that is broadening one’s own skillset and knowledge – has been redefined to be of no use unless it has an economical value and elevated career prospects. In this case, perfectionism naturally manifests as a survival mechanism, and pushes the individual to the extreme and pushes the individual to the extreme just in the effort to catch up with the high demanding neoliberal lifestyle.

Types of perfectionism

There has been extensive research on the dimensions of perfectionism – these can be adaptive in some cases, and maladaptive in others. 

Perfectionism is not a one-size fit all trait, and it comes in types that manifest differently for different individuals. Hewitt and Flett divided the manifestation of perfectionism into 3 components: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism and socially-prescribed perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism manifests in self-directed behaviours such as setting high-end, exacting goals and standards for oneself and associates self-importance to performance and achievement. This type of perfectionist may take 2 hours to complete a 30-minute task, feels like a failure if they don’t get an A+, and ruminate on every detail of their day to day life.

Other-oriented perfectionism is the individual’s expectations and beliefs of others. They set impossibly high standards for other people, expecting them to be faultless and well-adept, and can be highly critical if the other falls short of their expectations. This type can be passive aggressive, engage in other-directed blame, exhibit hostile feelings towards others, is often dominant, authoritarian and self-centred. Not surprisingly, their personal life can greatly suffer as a result. One study concluded that perfectionism, particularly other-oriented, is viewed as an undesirable trait in potential partners with an anticipated low relationship satisfaction in long-term commitments.[4]     

Socially prescribed perfectionism is the most prominent sibling of the other two types, because we often find ourselves around it, willingly or unwillingly. Socially prescribed perfectionism is the need to attain certain standards prescribed by others – it is the perception that others place pressure on us to be perfect, stringently watch and evaluate us, and set unrealistic standards that we should reach. This type of perfectionism will likely apply to individuals who are held by high cultural and societal standards and expectations. It may be related to academic achievement, body image, religious practices, sexual orientation and career success, just to name a few. More often than not, many of these aspects can be incongruent with the individual’s personal beliefs and identity, but still need to be maintained to achieve social and cultural competence as a result.

This in turn manifests itself in the constant need for approval, fear of judgement, inability to handle confrontation, and constantly comparing oneself to other’s accomplishment, most likely in a negative light. Those affected by socially prescribed perfectionism may experience perceived inability to please others and the inability to reach social and cultural competence – which is naturally accompanied by experiencing negative emotions such as anger, fear, and feelings of failure. Sounds vaguely familiar right?

Adaptive and maladaptive facets of perfectionism

Although the prevalence of mental health has not dramatically increased in the past two decades, in 2017, approximately 792 million people suffered from a range of mental illnesses worldwide. [5]  Although there is no causal relationship between perfectionism and the prevalence of mental health, it can be the backdrop to such global trend.

With a combination of genetic predispositions and the environmental context, perfectionists are overall highly vulnerable to a range of mental illnesses and psychological difficulties. These include, but are not limited to, social phobia, body dissatisfaction and eating disorders, anxiety disorders, clinical and sub-clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and most lethally, suicide ideation and behaviour.[6]   

On the other hand, perfectionism becomes adaptive when it turns into a desire to accomplish and improve performance without the negative criticism.

In their study, Dunkley, Zuroff and Blankstein distinguished between maladaptive perfectionism (self-critical) and adaptive perfectionism (personal-standards). Essentially, personal-standards perfectionism involves goal setting and demands high standards of the individual. On the other hand, self-criticism feeds on self-scrutiny, excessive criticism, chronic concerns about other’s expectations, and an inability to feel satisfactions even if performances are successful. Specifically, self-critical perfectionists maladaptively cope with distress and daily hassles through avoidant behaviour, disengagement and denial.

While personal-standard perfectionists also engage in critical self-evaluations that result in negative emotions and perspectives, this maladaptive tendency is compensated by the individuals’ engagement in “active, problem-solving coping”.  In addition, the study found a strong link between personal-standard perfectionism and conscientiousness, implying that perfectionism can result in successful outcomes and a reputable work ethic.

However, other research concluded that perfectionism is not correlated to performance.[7]  In other words, the same tendencies that may drive the individual with adaptive perfectionism to succeed can also result in consequences such as burnout, anxiety and depression. Given that one of the defining features of perfectionism is negative self-evaluation, to make perfectionism work to your advantage, it requires conscious and continuous effort and perhaps professional help to overcome this obstacle.

Dealing with perfectionism

As a recovering perfectionist, there are a few strategies that have helped (helping) me along the way, hopefully they can be starter steps for you also. First of all, understand that having this trait is not a fault in itself. It simply won’t disappear and is likely to be a lifelong trait. It can even be a virtue if you quit being your own enemy.

Secondly, learn to constructively identify your weaknesses. You see that mistake you’ve been ruminating on since the beginning of time? Or the fact that you lowered your voice and hid yourself so as not annoy someone with your existence? Yeah, it happens to the best of us. Just understand these experiences and your maladaptive responses to them are all an effort of your subconscious trying to tell you: it’s time to leave the cage you’ve been placed in.

Thirdly, educate yourself. You’d be surprised how many maladaptive habits we unknowingly engage in everyday that can sabotage our lives and attitudes. When I used to engage in my perfectionist tendencies, I thought I was simply difficult and out of place. Now that I have exposed myself to the reality of perfectionism, and have made it a goal to overcome my negative self-views and habits, I can spot the cycle straight-away when it occurs and strategically remould it to make it work to my advantage. I am not attempting to cease the trait, but befriend it

Always remember, reconditioning lifelong habits or traits takes time. Lots of time. So, be patient, and get acquainted to elapses and a wide range of intrusive thoughts that try to freeze you in place. Just keep in mind before pursuing anything in life, big or small, that it’s precisely the flaws which make everything around us interesting. Don’t get preoccupied with the perfect time and place. Just embrace the imperfection of life and proceed out of the door to get the job done – or undone in many cases.

[1] Curran, T., & 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. doi: 10.1037/bul0000138

[2] Hewitt, P., & Flett, G. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470. doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.60.3.456

[3] Global social media research summary 2019 | Smart Insights. (2020). Retrieved 20 January 2020, from https://www.smartinsights.com/social-media-marketing/social-media-strategy/new-global-social-media-research/

[4] Davis, W., Abney, S., Perekslis, S., Eshun, S., & Dunn, R. (2018). Multidimensional perfectionism and perceptions of potential relationship partners. Personality and Individual Differences, 127, 31-38. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2018.01.039

[5] Ritchie, H., & Roser, M. (2020). Mental Health. Retrieved 20 January 2020, from https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health

[6] Limburg, K., Watson, H. J., Hagger, M. S., & Egan, S. J. (2017). The relationship between perfectionism and psychopathology: A meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 73, 1301–1326. doi: 10.1002/jclp.22435

[7] Di Schiena, R., Luminet, O., Philippot, P., & Douilliez, C. (2012). Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in depression: Preliminary evidence on the role of adaptive and maladaptive rumination. Personality and Individual Differences, 53(6), 774-778. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2012.05.017