We speak to the experts about what it means to be a perfectionist, and how to ease the pressure if it’s causing you distress.
By Abi Millar
More often than not, perfectionism is viewed as a strength. After all, in a world where apathy rarely reaps rewards, it’s hard to see what could be wrong with holding yourself to high standards.
Unfortunately, as many a perfectionist will testify, the trait typically goes beyond striving for self-improvement. Perfectionism can prove a heavy cross to bear, leading people to berate themselves for the smallest mistakes. Worse, it appears to be linked to a range of mental – and even physical – health conditions.
So what is it about aiming for perfection that can prove so counterproductive? And if you’re a perfectionist (as 30 per cent of the population are thought to be), what can you do to ease the pressure on yourself? We speak to Professor Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and cognitive behaviour therapist Anna Albright to find out:
What is perfectionism?
In 1978, psychologist Don Hamachek drew a distinction between two types of perfectionists, ‘normal’ and ‘neurotic’.
🔹 Normal perfectionists: They set realistic standards for themselves, derive pleasure from their painstaking labours, and are capable of choosing to be less precise in certain situations.
🔹 Neurotic perfectionists: They demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance, experience their efforts as unsatisfactory, and are unable to relax their standards.
Neurotic perfectionists, in essence, don’t just have high standards – they have impossibly high standards. This can lead to obsessive self-critique, fear of failure and procrastination– a far cry from the successful, ‘together’ image a perfectionist most likely wants to project.
Neurotic perfectionists demand of themselves a usually unattainable level of performance.
There is some dispute, however, over whether these two categories of perfectionism are a realistic way of framing the issue.
‘We have seen people who have what seems to be adaptive perfectionism, but it doesn’t work for them when life is more stressful and things are less controllable,’ says Professor Flett. ‘Also, the perfectionism may work for them in one context (eg, performance situations) but if they exhibit these personality characteristics in their interpersonal relationships, it can create great upset for them and the people around them.’
At the more minor end of the spectrum, perfectionism can simply be an impediment to getting things done.
As therapist Anna Albright explains: ‘When your perfectionism is interfering with you achieving your goals, that’s when it becomes dysfunctional. For example, if you have a paper, and you’ve got to turn it on Wednesday, you might end up not turning it in till Thursday because you’re going for perfect results.’
When is perfectionism a problem?
As Flett sees it, perfectionism moves from dysfunctional to truly harmful when combined with other negative tendencies like self-criticism. At this point, it associated with a wide variety of problems, including eating disorders, anxiety and depression.
‘Perfectionists experience chronic stress, and stress is a mechanism that can cause or exacerbate various forms of psychological distress,’ he says. ‘Recent work has found a link between perfectionism and a host of stress-related heath problems. Other recent research suggests that perfectionism undermines the ability to cope with a chronic health problem (eg, Crohn’s/colitis, cardiac, cancer, etc).’
In its most severe form, perfectionism is now thought to be an overlooked risk factor for self-harm, and a number of recent studies have even drawn a link with suicide. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that perfectionists tend not to seek help.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that perfectionists tend not to seek help.
‘They are over-represented among those people who suffer in silence and they may engage in a self-presentational style where they put on a front and act as if they themselves and their lives are perfect,’ says Flett.
‘This is due to their sense of shame and anticipated stigma, but also their self-stigma and internalising the inaccurate belief that people who seek help are weak.’
What is more, because perfectionism is regarded as a personality trait – and tends to be relatively stable over time – many people see their perfectionist tendencies as core to their identity, and not something they are willing or able to modify.
How to manage perfectionism
If your perfectionism is causing you distress – and particularly if it’s causing you to isolate yourself from others – it may be wise to look into therapy.
As Anna Alright puts it: ‘When perfectionism is a trait of character it needs to be treated properly or else it will recur, so you need to learn to regulate it. Cognitive behavioural therapy is useful because it’s a very behaviourally based problem.’
Flett takes a different approach to the issue. His latest book (with colleagues Paul Hewitt and Samuel Mikail) describes a new, interpersonal approach to treatment.
If your perfectionism is causing you distress it may be wise to look into therapy.
‘A key emphasis should be showing the perfectionistic person that although striving for perfection might bring some rewards, it also comes along with potentially severe consequences and costs. Initial results suggest that interpersonal treatment is effective,’ he says.
And if you’re a perfectionist to the core, and always have been? Well, it may be possible to retain your high standards, while learning more healthy ways of dealing with failures and setbacks.
‘A key goal is to change the striving for perfection to a striving for excellence or “good enough”,’ says Flett. ‘The self-critical ways of perfectionists also need to be balanced by self-compassion – perfectionists typically see being kind to themselves as an excuse and a weakness. But they need to realise that they are not alone, and that many other people are struggling with the same issues.’