What is perfectionism as a psychological condition?

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Perfectionism is defined as the need to be perfect or appear to be perfect. Having this personality trait often brings disappointment and can be related to many types of mental disorders, such as depression and eating disorders.

Overview

The desire to excel is not the same as the need to be perfect. Aspiring to excel can motivate individuals to work harder, but seeking perfection is self-defeating. Perfectionists find failure stressful.

Perfectionism roots individuals in negativity and anxiety that consume their attention. By constantly evaluating themselves, perfectionists build frustration into every action, may become obsessed with fears of failure, and inevitably devote all their attention to negative thoughts. Such individuals may be said to "choke under pressure."

Psychologist Randy O. Frost has defined several aspects of perfectionists:

  • Concern over mistakes (mistakes equal failure)
  • Excessively high personal standards
  • High parental expectations and criticism
  • Self-doubt
  • Organization (a high need for order)

These traits and situations do not necessarily translate to perfectionism, but self-doubt and excessive concern about making mistakes form the blueprint of this personality trait.

Effects of Perfectionism

Individuals suffer when they tie perfection to self-worth. Individuals who believe they will be valued by others only if they are perfect often develop mental illnesses and may even attempt suicide. They may feel that any improvement in performance is just another indication that they will never be good enough—they believe others expect them to always do better. This is known as socially prescribed perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionism, or an internal desire to be perfect, has been linked to eating disorders. Researchers disagree as to whether it is a causal factor or is simply related to other psychological disorders.

Perfectionists often defeat themselves through procrastination. Because these individuals realize that perfection is an unrealistic goal, they are likely to be paralyzed by fear and may be unable to work on a project or even begin it. Perfectionists realize that failure is a very likely outcome, and they may choose to avoid a project for as long as possible.

Some perfectionists are mired in doubt. They may find it difficult to complete a project because they repeat actions, never sure when it's finished or if it's good enough. This uncertainty may translate to obsessive compulsive disorder.

The overwhelming compulsion to look within often brings a host of problems. Such self-absorption stifles one's ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Such isolation may contribute to an individual's low self-esteem and become a barrier to realistically measuring one's performance.

The Roots of Perfectionism

Researchers say people are not born to be perfectionists. The trait usually develops in early childhood, often as a result of parental pressure, when children come to believe that love is conditional. They may learn to think so when a parent responds to imperfection with anger, annoyance, or simply a sigh.

Parental self-esteem also plays a role. Parents increasingly measure their own self-worth using their children's success. Children may interpret pressure to succeed as a criticism of failure. They may avoid challenging themselves due to fears of failing and the expectation of criticism. Perfectionism reduces adaptivity because it prevents individuals from taking risks. It stifles creativity and the ability to try new ways of doing things.

Researchers at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, have found that children develop perfectionism due to both parental concern with mistakes and parents' separation anxiety. Parents who worry about a child's developing independence may withhold approval when a child displays independence. This may make the child feel guilty. Such parents often are unhappy with their adult relationships and seek to maintain extremely close ties with their children at the expense of youngsters' development.

Parents need not avoid discussing a child's performance. However, the conversation should involve questions to help the child evaluate his or her efforts and outcome. Is the child happy with the experience and result? Did the child gain any understanding or skill from it? Would the child do anything differently in the future? Such directed questions help the child to consider other possibilities for future experiences. Parents should recognize the work the child put into the project rather than the end result. They should be specific with praise—rather than praising intelligence, parents should praise some aspect of the work, such as the child's ability to think through problems.

Overcoming Perfectionism

To avoid the self-defeating despair of falling short of perfection, individuals might begin a project with a plan that is adequate and work toward an adequate result. By reminding themselves that plans and outcomes can always be reconsidered, they give themselves permission to seek assistance. The bar may be raised as the project proceeds.

Therapy may focus on improving feelings of self-worth rather than on finding ways for individuals to lower their standards. Increased self-esteem may help individuals separate achievement from value. Therapists might also help individuals understand their hunger for acceptance.

Many perfectionists hide failures—they are unable to admit making a mistake and fear the judgment of others. Such deception prevents them from learning from mistakes through feedback—for example, hearing suggestions of ways to do better in the future. Feedback should not focus on failure; rather, it should emphasize the value of learning from mistakes.

Individuals might also retrain their thinking. For example, the individual might do something enjoyable that is not connected to his or her efforts—such as eating a favorite food or watching a movie—and concentrate on the feelings of pleasure the experience brings. The person might then do something that brings out the perfectionist in him or her and evaluate how much pleasure this activity provides. The person might try making a mistake on purpose—deliberately driving a golf ball into a water trap, for example—and ask him- or herself if it really matters. Such comparisons may help an individual learn to accept the inevitability and potential value of making mistakes and unlink it from one's self-worth.

Bibliography

Benson, Etienne. "The Many Faces of Perfectionism." Monitor on Psychology 34.10 (Nov. 2003): 18. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx

Marano, Hara Estroff. "Pitfalls of Perfectionism." Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC. 1 Mar. 2008. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200802/pitfalls-perfectionism

Ullrich, James. "Perfectionism as a Roadblock to Productivity." Psychology Today. The Modern Time Crunch (blog). Sussex Publishers, LLC. 26 Sep. 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-modern-time-crunch/201309/perfectionism-roadblock-productivity