Understanding Perfectionism

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Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. was Director of Mental Help Net from 1999 to 2011. Dr. Dombeck received his Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology in 1995 ...Read More

Here’s one for all you perfectionists out there. The latest Journal of Counseling Psychology contains an article by Mirela Aldea and Kenneth Rice, both of the Psychology Department at the University of Florida, titled "The Role of Emotional Dysregulation in Perfectionism and Psychological Distress" (October 2006 Vol. 53, No. 4, 498-510). This article follows in a line of articles exploring dimensions of what it means to be perfectionistic.

While all perfectionists by definition strive to become perfect in their actions and being it turns out that there are actually two different ways or styles of going about doing this. Some people practice what is referred to as a "Personal Standards" perfectionism, while others practice a "Self-Critical" perfectionism. Personal standards perfectionism involves holding yourself to high standards that you find motivating and which inspire you to perform. Self-critical perfectionism also involves setting high standards for performance, but at the same time being intensely aware of the gulf that exists between those standards and reality. Instead of finding high standards to be motivating, self-critical perfectionists find them to be intimidating and anxiety-provoking.


This is all fine and good in theory, but theory doesn’t mean much until it has been tested against reality. Drs. Aldea and Rice administered tests measuring perfectionism styles, capacity for distress, and a survey of coping strategies people use when stressed to a large group of college students at their university, and did the math necessary to figure out if their basic idea held water. It did. In the author’s words:

… we found important differences between the two perfectionism dimensions in terms of Psychological Distress and Emotion Dysregulation. Maladaptive Self-Critical Perfectionism does appear to have important implications for psychological difficulties, whereas adaptive Personal Standards Perfectionism appears to have inverse and significant associations with Psychological Distress, suggesting an adaptive element to high performance expectations. The same pattern was found with regard to the relationship between the two dimensions of Perfectionism and Emotional Dysregulation.

What the authors found was that student participants evidencing a high degree of personal standards perfectionism tended to report little emotional distress or use of maladaptive coping methods, while other students evidencing a self-critical perfectionism style reported far more incidence of distress, avoidance and other maladaptive coping mechanisms.

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As I read this article, I’m struck by how the the main difference between adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism (as measured by whether standards are found to be intimidating or motivating; distressing or exciting) seems to get down to different biases that individuals bring to the process of self-judgment. The self-critical perfectionists who are so troubled by their high standards see the gap between what they feel they must embody and what they actually embody and declare themselves a failure. Any deviation from perfection is grounds for self-condemnation to this sort of person. Contrast this to the personal standards sort of perfectionist who also measures herself (or himself) against standards, but manages to not harshly self-judge when standards are not fully met. This trick of not harshly self-judging makes all the difference in the world.

What is the source of this tendency to self-judge harshly? The authors suggest (but don’t know for sure) that it starts during development when attachment relationships with key caregivers (re: mom and dad or guardians) are troubled. When attachment to early caregivers is secure, people tend to self-judge less harshly. When early caregivers are erratic or overly harsh and judgmental themselves, attachments become insecure, and a tendency towards harsh self-judgment also arises. At the very same time, insecurely attached children are not comforted adequately by their caregivers, and thus do not learn how to self-comfort (or self-sooth – a vital adult coping skill). The combination of harsh self-judgment, difficulty knowing how to self-comfort when distressed, and a sense of urgency to be perfect lead up to the adult paralysis that a lot of self-described perfectionists will be familiar with.

I can’t help wondering if another facet that differentiates whether someone will find the process of striving for perfection to be anxiety-provoking or exciting and motivating has to do with whether that someone had the opportunity to self-choose the goals towards which he or she strives. When someone decides themselves to approach a goal, there is a voluntary quality to that striving. Contrast this with a situation where someone has a absolute goal towards which they must strive drilled into their heads from without (e.g., by parents, educators, etc.). When goal striving becomes a matter of "must" rather than "optional", the need to be perfect becomes much stronger, and the tolerance for failure much smaller. Also, when the goal is not self-chosen, there is no reward in pursuing the goal. All motivation comes from the desire to avoid punishment, which of course only adds to anxiety.

The take home lesson here is that if you are perfectionistic in the maladaptive "self-critical" way described here, you are likely to have one or more basic problems:

  1. You don’t actually like the standards to which you are aspiring towards. They were mandated, not chosen. If this is your case, consider revising your standards to ones that you like better.
  2. You are viewing and judging yourself from someone else’s perspective, rather than your own. Your standards may not be your own standards, but rather someone else’s standards that you were force-fed. If this is the case for you, you have an opportunity to decide whether you want to continue to pursue someone else’s standards or rather forge your own.
  3. You are all too ready to pounce on any deviation from perfection (e.g., you are biased to harshly self-judge). Try to recognize this if it is happening for you. Once you are able to recognize it, you will gain the capacity to decide whether to continue in this vein rather than just default into knee-jerk harsh self-judgment reaction.
  4. Your coping skills for managing distress are not well developed. If this is the case, look into improving your coping skills, including your self-soothing skills, and your task-management and time-management skills. Our Psychological Self-Tools Self-Help book is a good place to review this material.
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