Is It A Bad Thing To Be Perfectionistic?

Updated August 28, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Aaron Dutil

When it comes to completing tasks, some people pay more attention to details than others. The difference between giving attention to the most minute details and being a perfectionist lies in whether you choose to be happy with it anyway that it turns out or whether it results from some sort of internal or external pressure.

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To complicate matters even further, researchers aren’t even in agreement about the definition of perfectionism. They also have a variety of divergent opinions on whether having perfectionistic tendencies can be used for good or whether they’re always connected with some type of problems.

What the researchers have in common is that they all agree that perfectionists tend to avoid treatment, but when they’re willing to give it a try and they’re engaged in the process, it’s often quite effective.

Exploring The Viewpoints On Perfectionism

The conflicting results of studies on perfectionism indicate that researchers need to do additional studies to better understand whether perfectionism is an asset to achievement or a problem to be dealt with. The two main clinical viewpoints on the issue of perfectionism are maladaptive and adaptive.

From a maladaptive standpoint, some researchers believe that perfectionists tend to produce new problems and that their perfectionist tendencies may contribute to psychopathology.

On the other hand, from an adaptive standpoint, certain researchers support the argument that a person with perfectionist tendencies can adapt those tendencies and use them as an asset to help them reach their goals, even if their goals are highly ambitious.

A Theory That Perfectionism Isn’t Without Its Problems

Paul Hewitt Ph.D., a practicing psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, has teamed up with Gordon Flett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto and they’ve proven to be champion researchers for maladaptive perfectionism for over 20 years. The team’s research shows that perfectionism has a distinct correlation to unipolar depression, suicide, anxiety, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and other health problems.

Hewitt and Flett support the idea that there are many kinds of perfectionism and that each one brings its own problems. They also note that some problems are less severe than other problems. In considering the adaptive theory of perfectionism, Hewitt and Flett believe that the theory is too simplistic and that there’s a notable difference between the need to do well and the need to be perfect.

Dr. Hewitt provides an example from one of his clients. A university student that was diagnosed with depression was placing a lot of pressure on himself to get an A+ in one of his college courses. The student studied vigorously and did well in the class. When Dr. Hewitt saw the student after the class was over, he found him to be more depressed and suicidal than he’d been before. The student explained his feelings by stating that the A+ was proof that he was a failure. The student believed that if he were truly perfect, he could have gotten an A+ in the class without having to work so hard.

Aa Theory That Perfectionism Can be Adaptable To Goal-Setting and Achievement

Other researchers have taken the opposite view of perfectionism. They claim that people who are perfectionists can use their perfectionist tendencies to shoot for lofty goals in their lives. World-class athletes have extremely high standards for themselves. They work very hard to demonstrate that they’re the best in their fields. Some researchers argue that perfectionism is adaptive and that perfectionists have the ability to tap into it as needed to help them achieve the highest goals possible. Researchers that support the adaptive theory on perfectionism claim that we shouldn’t label people with perfectionist tendencies as pathological just because they’ve set highly challenging goals for themselves.

Does Context Play a Role Between Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism?

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Still, other researchers have a different take on perfectionism. Psychologist Kenneth Rice, Ph.D., and his colleagues support the philosophy that perfectionism can be either adaptive or maladaptive. Psychologist Randy Frost, Ph.D., a professor at Smith College, concurs with Rice. He clarifies his stance by saying that he doesn’t believe that the word adaptive is an appropriate way to refer to perfectionism.

Rice and his colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy (Vol. 17, No. 1). They concluded that perfectionists can have adaptive and maladaptive tendencies as well as having high personal standards. Their results indicate that it’s more stressful for maladaptive perfectionists than for adaptive perfectionists.

Frost favors considering the context of perfectionism before attempting to put it in a category of adaptive or maladaptive. He explains that a person’s high standards can be adaptive in one set of circumstances and maladaptive in another set of circumstances. He adds that some people are more inclined to have adaptive perfectionism and others have greater tendencies toward maladaptive perfectionism. Frost agrees that high standards play a role in perfectionism, but a person who merely sets high standards for himself doesn’t necessarily make him a perfectionist, and the perfectionist tendencies aren’t always related to pathology.

Is There a Connection Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology?

While the link to adaptive or maladaptive perfectionism is clear in many cases, specific types of perfectionism have been linked to depression, suicide, and other mental health issues. These types of perfectionism include socially prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and self-oriented perfectionism.

Socially prescribed perfectionism refers to someone’s inclination toward perfectionism for the purpose that others will value them if they are or appear to be perfect. Flett expands on this philosophy by stating that a person that’s subjected to socially prescribed perfectionism combines pressure with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. They often feel that the better they do at something the better others expect them to do.

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In the case of other-oriented perfectionism, the pressure to be perfect comes from friends, family, co-workers, or others. This type of pressure to perform can interfere with or damage relationships. Spouses that demand perfection from the other spouse will be highly critical of them and that is going to cause problems in the relationship.

Self-oriented perfectionism refers to an internal desire for someone to be perfect. Hewitt and his team of researchers make particular note that self-oriented perfectionism can lead to mental health problems and eating disorders. In particular, they cited a paper in Cognitive Therapy and Research (Vol. 26, No. 6), that links anorexia and perfectionism that’s self-oriented. Other studies haven’t supported this connection and Hewitt and Flett believe that it’s due to self-oriented perfectionism presenting as a risk factor or vulnerability for eating disorders rather than being a disorder in its own right.

As an example, Hewitt and Flett report that self-oriented perfectionists may do fine most of the time, but when the going gets tough, they’re likely to become depressed, anxious, or suicidal. Hewitt and Flett point to another of their studies where they found that minor interpersonal and achievement-related problems moderated symptoms of perfectionism on depression in students that are female. They published their results in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 50, No. 3).

In addition, psychologists Rory O’Connor, Ph.D., and Daryl B. O’Connor, Ph.D., both of England found that they could fairly accurately predict that the connection between perfectionism and coping to avoid stimuli would distress college students and make them feel hopeless. Among college student perfectionists that demonstrated positive coping styles, the students in their study weren’t any more depressed than the average student. They reported their results in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 50, No. 3) and they support the notion that perfectionism interacts with various other traits and life events to result in psychopathology.

Can Perfectionism Be Measured?

In the interest of measuring perfectionism, Hewitt and Flett developed a new scale called the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS). PSPS rates the following three distinctions of perfectionistic behavior:

  1. Advertising their own perfection
  2. Avoiding situations where they might appear to be imperfect
  3. Not disclosing situations where they’ve been imperfect

Using this scale, they’ve found that it predicts psychological distress above and beyond what their original tool, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale was able to find.

Hewitt notes that people that are afraid to make it known that they’re imperfect are difficult to treat because they are afraid to do the one thing they’ve been fighting against. Hewitt also notes that he’s found it beneficial to stay away from focusing on high personal standards when treating his perfectionist clients because they’re already tired of being told hundreds of times to lower their standards. He finds that helping them work on their need to be accepted and cared for is a more effective form of treatment than helping them see how perfectionistic behavior can help them achieve their life goals.

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So much of whether perfectionism is a good or bad thing is wrapped up in the circumstances and context of a situation. Because of the complexity of the issue of perfectionism, it’s difficult for many people to sort through their issues without the assistance of a licensed professional therapist. If you believe that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life, you may benefit from therapy sessions.


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