More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Study finds perfectionists at higher risk for an array of problems
Fri, May 21, 2004
by Kyung M. Song -- Seattle Times

SEATTLE - (KRT) - Karen Kain, Canadian prima ballerina, confessed in her autobiography that out of some 10,000 performances during her career, there were only seven or eight with which she was truly satisfied.

Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the American commander during World War II, loathed admitting defeat and once uttered during battle, "We are not retreating - we are advancing in another direction."

Martha Stewart, the notoriously demanding lifestyle maven-come-felon, once threatened to dump her Merrill Lynch stockbroker because she didn't like the firm's telephone hold music.

Kain. MacArthur. Stewart. Perfectionists all.

Perfectionism is the need to be - or to appear - perfect. Perfectionists are persistent, detailed and organized high achievers. Perfectionists vary in their behaviors: Some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection. But all perfectionists have in common extremely high standards for themselves or for others.

Researchers are split on whether perfectionism has only negative aspects; some argue it could be a virtue that propels people to excellence. Yet convincing data link certain forms of perfectionism to a host of emotional, physical and relationship problems, including propensity to depression, eating disorders, marital discord and even suicide.

According to the prevailing definition, perfectionists are people who not only hold unrealistically high standards but also judge themselves or others as always falling short.

"The thing about perfectionists is that they don't ever experience satisfaction," said Paul Hewitt, professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and one of the leading researchers on perfectionism. "Nothing is ever good enough."

Hewitt had a patient who was a classic case: A graduate student set out to earn an A-plus in a particular course, only to become distressed and morose when he succeeded.

"He said that if he was really, truly smart, he wouldn't have had to study so hard," Hewitt recalled.

Hewitt and his co-researchers have identified three types of perfectionists. Self-oriented perfectionists expect perfection of themselves. Other-oriented perfectionists demand perfection from other people. And socially prescribed perfectionists think others expect perfection from them.

Hewitt helped to develop a 45-question test, called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, to measure the three different facets. He contends that all three types of perfectionism are maladaptive - that is, nothing about them is beneficial.

Some studies have shown that self-oriented perfectionists, such as the ballerina Kain, score higher on exams and get better grades than nonperfectionists, even when adjusted for IQ levels. But Hewitt says such accomplishments come with a price. For instance, all three types of perfectionists tend to experience greater personal dissatisfaction despite their accomplishments. The correlation between self-oriented perfectionism and another potential consequence, depression, is inconclusive. However, Hewitt maintains that perfectionistic tendencies create a vulnerability that could push a person into depression if something were to trigger it.

Socially prescribed perfectionism, the belief that others have exaggerated expectations of a person, is the type most closely linked to suicide. A 1992 study by Hewitt and two co-authors examined the records of psychiatric inpatients and outpatients and found that socially prescribed perfectionists were significantly more at risk for suicide. Such patients not only made more attempts but also were more likely to succeed in killing themselves, indicating the seriousness of their intent, Hewitt said.

In 1993, a group of Israeli researchers published the results of psychological autopsies on 43 suicides by male soldiers during compulsory military service. The victims were all between 18 and 21 years old.

Examination of their military records and interviews with those who knew them implicated intense perfectionism as a key trigger for 28 percent of the soldiers. These suicides stemmed in part from the victims' perception of "humiliation or insult or a failure to live up to his own or others' expectations" during their service. The study appeared in the Archives of General Psychiatry.

Other-oriented perfectionism, a form Martha Stewart is said to exhibit, can involve exceedingly high expectations by parents of their children or extreme criticism of a spouse or significant other. This type is associated with low marital happiness - particularly on the part of the besieged partner - and other relationship difficulties.

In addition to identifying the three types of perfectionists, Hewitt and his co-researchers say perfectionists reveal themselves in three distinct ways.

The first, a "self-promotion" style, involves attempts to impress others by bragging or displaying one's perfection. Self-promoters care deeply about appearing in control, about displaying perfect social graces and are meticulous about their looks. Politicians and most of the cast of television's "The Apprentice" could fit this mold.

This type is easy to spot because "they irritate people," said Gordon Flett, professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and Hewitt's long-time collaborator.

Self promoters are more prone to eating disorders such as anorexia. Flett said he and his colleagues are planning a simple, but novel, experiment to test for this trait: asking female subjects to be photographed without makeup.

"We predict that they're going to be very anxious. Especially if we tell them the photos will be evaluated," Flett said.

A second way that perfectionists reveal themselves is by shunning situations that could display their imperfection. They avoid making mistakes in public and hate letting people know about their failures. For example, they likely will turn down a golf invitation from the boss if they play poorly.

Flett said such tendencies are obvious even in young children. "Teachers know that perfectionistic kids only try things they're good at," he said. Perfectionists who practice such avoidance tend to form few relationships.

The third type of presentation is a person who keeps problems to himself, won't admit failure to others and conceals how hard he works on things. MacArthur's inability to concede defeat is one example. Another is the spouse who might have had a screw-up on the job but, when asked about his day at work, replies, "it was fine."

This person may have more relationships than those who evade situations but not deeply intimate relationships.

Perfectionism is not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the reference most commonly used in the United States for diagnosing mental disorders.

But Flett argues that extreme forms of it should be considered an illness - similar to narcissism, obsessive compulsiveness, dependent-personality disorder and other personality disorders listed in the manual. To qualify perfectionism as a clinical disorder, researchers would need to show that it stems from behavioral, psychological or biological dysfunction and that it causes distress or disability, among other things.

A 1994 experiment with 30 preschoolers at a computer camp in Toronto showed that even 4- and 5-year-olds possess marked traits for perfectionism. Interviewers asked the children five questions tapping perfectionism levels ("How would you like to be perfect?"). Then they gave the kids a computer task that was rigged to not work. The highly perfectionistic children showed signs of more extreme distress, such as elevated anger and anxiety, Flett said.

Hewitt said preliminary research indicates a possible genetic factor to perfectionism. Children of perfectionists tend to grow up to be perfectionists themselves, although Hewitt said much more study is needed to confirm this.

Hewitt is emphatic that perfectionism is never a good thing. He disagrees with an emerging view from other researchers that perfectionism may lead to positive results, such as higher self-esteem or better grades.

But others disagree: "Is relentless pursuit of perfection bad? How about making a really, really good car?" said Ken Rice, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida. "I don't see anything really wrong with people trying to be at the top of their game."

Rice agrees with Edward Chang of the University of Michigan, who argues that research by Hewitt and others have unfairly given perfectionism a bad name. Chang, a Korean-American associate professor of psychology, says cultural differences about perfectionism and striving have especially been overlooked. For instance, Asian Americans show greater levels of perfectionism than whites, Chang said. Yet Asian Americans are no more prone to considering suicide, which, Chang said, demonstrates that perfectionism is not as maladaptive for them.

"For some people, perfectionism will represent something bad and pathological. For other people, perfectionism will represent something good and inspiring, said Chang, who is writing a book called, "Positive and Negative Perfectionism."

Hewitt dismisses such views as differences over semantics. The so-called healthy perfectionists, in fact, are something else, Hewitt says. "I wouldn't call them perfectionists. I'd call them high achievers. There are no positive aspects to perfectionism."

Perfectionism is not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder and thus has no standard treatments. But these common-sense tips could help curb perfectionistic tendencies.
o Is it really that bad? Getting a B+ or a C or even a D instead of an A does not have to equal doom. Do a reality check: Does the event justify your reaction?
o Check the evidence. If you think others are smarter, prettier, happier or better than you, who are you comparing yourself against? Are you judging yourself against reasonable standards? Is a comparison even necessary?
o Relax the tyranny of the "shoulds." Avoid thinking in terms of "should" and "ought." Few things in life are absolute: You should not kill others. You should not harm children. But instead of saying, "I should run five miles," say, "I would prefer to run five miles, but my self worth does not depend on it."
o Forgive yourself. Humans are not perfect beings. If you grant that to those you love, don't hold yourself to higher standards.
o Lighten up. Set your sights just a bit lower and see how you like it. If you practice the piano for an hour every day, try taking a day off. Or play for 45 minutes one day instead of a full hour. Drop the all-or-all approach to life.

Canadian researchers have developed a 45-item questionnaire to identify the three types of perfectionists. Here are some sample questions.

Self-oriented perfectionism
Yes answers indicate that you have unrealistic standards and perfectionistic expectations of yourself.

_I demand nothing less than perfection of myself.
_I strive to be as perfect as I can be.

Other-oriented perfectionism
Yes answers indicate that you hold other people to unrealistically high standards.

_I cannot stand to see people close to me make mistakes.
_If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.

Socially prescribed perfectionism
Yes answers indicate that you believe that others expect you to be perfect.

_People expect nothing less than perfection from me.
_The better I do, the better I am expected to do.

Source: Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, Multi-Health Systems, Toronto.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
Perfectionists more prone to problems

Perfectionists more prone to emotional, physical and relationship problems
Tue Jun 1, 2004
Sheryl Ubelacker

TORONTO (CP) - Everyone knows the old adage that nobody's perfect. But that doesn't stop a lot of people from being perfectionists - a personality trait that Canadian researchers say can lead to multiple health problems.

Gordon Flett, a professor of psychology at Toronto's York University, says perfectionists are under constant stress, making them prone to a host of emotional, physical and relationship problems, including depression, eating disorders, chronic pain syndrome, marital discord and even suicide.

Flett, co-author of several studies on perfectionism, said perfectionists not only hold unrealistically high standards, but also judge themselves or others as always falling short.

"Perfectionism is the need to be - or to appear - perfect," says Flett. "Perfectionists are persistent, detailed and organized high achievers.

"Perfectionists vary in their behaviours: some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection. But all perfectionists have in common extremely high standards for themselves or for others."

Flett and fellow psychology professor Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia, a long-term research collaborator, have developed a 45-item questionnaire to identify the three types of perfectionists: self-oriented (expect perfection of themselves); other-oriented (demand perfection from others); and socially prescribed (think others expect perfection from them).

Called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, it is the first personality test that focuses specifically on the trait from a multi-dimensional perspective, Flett said in an interview Tuesday.

The scale was published this week by Toronto-based Multi-Health Systems Inc., which develops and delivers assessment and diagnostic products. It can be used by mental-health professionals, for example, to evaluate a person's level of perfectionism and whether it may be harmful. The scale could also be used by companies to profile potential employees and to steer them into jobs for which they are best-suited.

Flett said perfectionism can usually be traced to childhood and "could be a life-long pattern." In some cases, the trait arises from having a perfectionistic parent, with high expectations of themselves or others.

Today's children are particularly prone to perfectionism, in part because of societal and often parental pressure to be high achievers, he said. "But, of course, being in a culture where you're bombarded with images of the ideal person - whether it's in terms of behaviour or appearance - and picking up on those messages also plays a role."

And the trait can develop early, a 1994 experiment involving 30 preschoolers at a Toronto computer camp showed. The researchers asked the children, aged four and five, questions to try to determine perfectionism levels, then gave the kids a computer task that was rigged to not work.

The highly perfectionistic children identified in the group showed greater signs of extreme distress, such as elevated anger and anxiety, Flett said.

He suggests parents need to reassure children that they are liked or loved for themselves, not because of how well they perform a certain task.

For those who want to abandon perfectionism - recognizing that it's unhealthy - Flett suggests honestly assessing the behaviour and asking: "Is this working for me?"

But he said it's often difficult for perfectionists to change because the very behaviour that can be harmful to health can also "bring about big rewards" because it can lead to life and career accomplishments.

"Everybody acknowledges that nobody's perfect," Flett mused, "but still people are trying to be that one person."

Are you a perfectionist?
Gordon Flett, a Toronto psychology professor who specializes in studying perfectionism, has devised a list of telltale signs:

1. You can't stop thinking about a mistake you made.
2. You are intensely competitive and can't stand doing worse than others.
3. You either want to do something "just right" or not at all.
4. You demand perfection from other people.
5. You won't ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness.
6. You will persist at a task long after other people have quit.
7. You are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong.
8. You are highly aware of other people's demands and expectations.
9. You are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people.
10. You noticed the error in the headline.


I listened to my 15-year-old piano student playing Bach's Prelude in C Major and while holding back tears, I thought to myself: "How can she be so conscious of her mistakes, and so unaware how great she is?" Then I thought: "Well, maybe she knows she's great, and that's why she's so conscious of her mistakes. It doesn't make sense to her that someone so great would make so many mistakes."

All I know is that it has become difficult to find the words with which to criticize her constructively (and therefore actually *teach* her anything) when her reaction to my every comment is the fear that she is about to blow it completely. So I took it out of the realm of music instruction for a moment, and began to talk about perfectionism, seeing if I could identify, which was hard, since everything I've always done has been so entirely sloppy and sub-par. I'm not a perfectionist. ;-)

Anyway, the only progress that was made was that she lit up completely when I said: "People will tell you that perfectionism is all bad, but it's not. If you weren't a perfectionist, you wouldn't drive yourself so hard. You'd be lax. And your product wouldn't be as brilliant and as beautiful as it is."

That seemed to make her happy. Anyway, I'll go back to teaching music now, before I keep putting my foot in my mouth.

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
That's an excellent message to give her, stargazer. The key for her will be to learn how to balance it, when to just say, "That's okay, that's good enough" or even "That's good enough for now"...


She just finished with the Moonlight Sonata and is now working on the Promenade and "Great Gate of Kiev" from Pictures at an Exhibition, as well as the 2nd movement of the Pathetique. It seems strangely good to have challenged her, because she's progressing so rapidly, and she doesn't seem at all intimidated by the difficulty of these pieces. Once she became comfortable with the fact that her mistakes are a natural and expected part of the process, she has seemed able to relax with herself, while at the same time still practicing diligently.

My own perfectionism, however, is reaching new levels. I've been looking at the score to my musical, and realizing that, in my rush to get it all done, I'd allowed all kinds of substandard, sloppy work. So I just took three days to re-arrange one of the numbers. I know it's much better now, but the only way I was able to let go of it was by convincing myself that any further change would be arbitrary, and possibly even negative. So I'll attend to one of the other numbers now instead. Guess it's all part of the process.
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