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When perfectionism is a problem

by Toronto psychologist Kristine Laderoute

If you are someone who strives for perfection, or who needs things to be “just right”, you are not alone. In today’s society, we seem to be bombarded with ideas and images that insidiously have many of us aspiring to be the perfect parent, spouse, friend, child, sibling, student, boss, employee, and to have the perfect house, car, hair, clothes, body, appearance, career, phone, family - sometimes without even realizing it. While perfectionism can at times be a positive motivating force, there is also a maladaptive side of perfectionism that often goes undetected and overlooked and that can have serious consequences for our psychological well being.

Maladaptive perfectionism involves holding ourselves to unrealistically high standards. By definition, standards that are unrealistic are almost impossible to achieve – not because the person holding them is inadequate in some way and should be able to meet them, but because these standards are simply not possible to achieve under the given circumstances (or any circumstances). For example, expecting oneself to rise to the top of one’s profession in the first year of one’s career is likely unrealistic because this is usually a time to build skill and experience.

The link between perfectionism and psychological distress

Various dimensions of maladaptive perfectionism have been identified and studied in the psychological literature (e.g., Hewitt & Flett, 1991; Hewitt, Flett, et al., 2003). Perfectionism can involve expecting ourselves to be perfect, expecting others to be perfect, believing that others/society expect(s) us to be perfect, and/or feeling the need to appear to be perfect (even though we may secretly accept that we are not in fact perfect).

These dimensions of perfectionism have been linked to various forms of distress including depression and anxiety (e.g., see Flett & Hewitt, 2002; Laderoute, Flett, & Besser, 2007). In a recent study, Laderoute, Flett, and Besser (2007) found that participants who believed that others/society expected them to be perfect were apt to feel depressed and generally anxious. Participants were especially likely to be generally anxious if they also saw themselves as unable to meet others’/society’s expectations and were highly aware of this discrepancy. This study also found that participants who focused on covering up their flaws in order to appear perfect to others were apt to be socially anxious.

The findings of Laderoute and colleagues (2007) are among many others that have shown that people who strive for perfectionism are prone to distress. When working clinically with people who struggle with depression, anxiety or an eating disorder for example, it is not uncommon to discover during therapy that they aspire to meet excessively high perfectionistic standards. For many perfectionists, their inability to meet these standards has resulted in a feeling of failure and sense of lack of control, because they see themselves as falling short of meeting what they falsely perceive should be an attainable goal. In order to rid themselves of the feeling of failure/lack of control, they often continue to strive for these unattainable standards, which only perpetuates the cycle of negative thoughts/feelings when they remain unable to meet them.

What becomes important for these people in therapy is to help them identify their standards and recognize which ones are perfectionistic, and therefore unrealistic, in nature. Once these standards are identified, the next step is to work on making them more realistic (attainable) by:

1) Lowering the standard to a realistic level (e.g., make the goal of rising to the top of one’s profession more of a long-term goal and make realistic goals for the first year of one’s profession), or

2) Keeping the idealistic standard but developing an accompanying, more realistic standard that defines when one’s level of achievement is “good enough” under the given circumstances (e.g., keep the goal of rising to the top of one’s profession in the first year of one’s career, but decide that if this doesn’t happen, it will be good enough if one has achieved certain measures of success that are realistic for the first year of one’s career such as developing a solid client base).

The idea of “good enough” is a very important and often very foreign concept to perfectionists, who often see this concept as equivalent to the idea of being “less than”. On the contrary - being good enough means that we continue to do our best, but that we retain our value and sense of self-worth if we sometimes fall short of our best. Think of “good enough” as the safety net that catches us if we fall short of our best – it saves us from the harsh feelings of failure that await us if we were to hit the ground. Perfectionists usually lack this safety net, meaning that the only way they feel good about themselves is if they meet idealistic standards, but because these standards are often not achieved, the result is a feeling of failure, a loss of self-worth, and often, symptoms of depression, anxiety or other psychological difficulties. To this extent, helping perfectionists develop a sense of “good enough” is essential for helping them find ways to achieve and maintain self-acceptance, and alleviate psychological distress.

Some signs that you may be prone to perfectionism:

1. You often need things to be “just so” or “just right”

2. It takes you an abnormally long time to do things (e.g., write a report, get ready to go out, clean your house) because you are scrutinizing things in an effort to make them “just right”

3. You are exceptionally hard on yourself/others and have a tendency to focus on flaws

4. You often feel like you are falling short/not good enough

5. You are often dissatisfied with what you are able to achieve, what you have, how you look, etc.

Psychologists can help

Clinical psychologists are doctoral-level trained therapists who are highly knowledgeable when it comes to treating psychological distress. Dr. Kristine Laderoute is a clinical psychologist who studied the link between perfectionism and psychological distress for her doctoral research, and who works in private practice treating various kinds of psychological problems. As part of her work she regularly assesses for and treats maladaptive perfectionistic tendencies that may be contributing to her clients’ difficulties.

-- Dr. Kristine Laderoute, C.Psych., Registered Psychologist

References:

Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (Eds.). (2002). Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Dimensions of perfectionism in unipolar depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(1), 98-101.

Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., Sherry, S. B., Habke, M., Parkin, M., Lam, R. W., et al. (2003). The interpersonal expression of perfection: Perfectionistic self-presentation and psychological distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(6), 1303-1325.

Laderoute, K. T., Flett, G. L., & Besser, A. (2007). Perfectionism as a vulnerability factor for psychological distress: Exploring the roles of self-consciousness and perceived discrepancies. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Copyright © 2009 Dr. Kristine Laderoute

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