Problematizing Perfectionism: A Closer Look at the Perfectionism Construct
by Brit Lizabeth Lippman
Over the past few decades, researchers have adopted an increasingly dimensional perspective on perfectionism that has resulted in various classifications of the construct. The multidimensional measure of perfectionism, established by Frost et al. (1990), acknowledged five different dimensions of the construct, including Personal Standards, Concern Over Mistakes, Parental Expectations, Doubting of Actions, and Organization. According to Frost’s model, perfectionists are individuals who set high and often unrealistic standards for themselves and evaluate themselves harshly if they do not meet those standards. They believe that their parents will judge them stringently for mistakes and they tend to equate these mistakes with failure. Perfectionists may also feel unconditionally dissatisfied with tasks they complete, and can be preoccupied with order and organization (Frost et al., 1990). Frost et al.’s (1990) breakdown of these different components of perfectionist thinking served as an important initial step to understanding the cognition underlying perfectionism. In addition to its individual components, perfectionism is also discussed in terms of its origin and directionality. The literature cites three main types: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Self-oriented perfectionism, as its name suggests, focuses entirely on the self; perfectionists who are self-oriented set specific personal standards and evaluate themselves based on these high standards. If and when their expectations are not met, self-blame ensues. In contrast, other-oriented perfectionism is a display of perfectionist standards directed towards another individual. The other-oriented perfectionist holds others to unrealistically high standards, and harshly evaluates the person to whom the perfectionist behavior is directed. Unlike the other types of perfectionism, socially prescribed perfectionism is externally derived; these perfectionists believe that the important people in their lives will judge them strictly, and consequently bear the burden of measuring up to the expectations of others (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Thus, the pressure that perfectionists feel to succeed differs for each individual and can manifest in many different ways. However, it is important to consider that labeling the dimensions and types of perfectionists serves to further pathologize perfectionism rather than addressing the larger societal pressures that might be linked to the prevalence of such behavior. In other words, it merely describes the problem without addressing its source.
Interestingly, perfectionism is not always considered problematic, and it has been conceptualized in both a positive and a negative light in the literature. One of the first scholars to acknowledge a difference between healthy and unhealthy forms of perfectionism was Hamachek (1978), who differentiated between “normal” and “neurotic” perfectionists. In his seminal work, Hamachek (1978) asserted that all perfectionists are individuals who hold high standards for themselves, but that neurotic perfectionists are unique in that they never feel satisfied despite their successes. According to Hamachek (1978), these normal perfectionists were considered to be adaptive, while neurotic perfectionists displayed a maladaptive form of perfectionism.
Later, Slade and Owens (1998) proposed a dual process model that followed a similar ideology to that of Hamachek and other previous theorists, coining the terms positive and negative perfectionism. They asserted that the former was driven by a desire for success and achievement of goals, while the latter was driven by negative reinforcement and the avoidance of failure. In Slade and Owens’ (1998) theory, the concept of possible selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986) seemed to play an integral role in gauging the detrimental nature of perfectionism: positive perfectionists are motivated by the future possible selves that they hope to become, while negative perfectionists strive to avoid the possible selves they fear becoming. Along the same vein, Turner and Turner (2011) contended that higher levels of shame and guilt, and lower levels of pride mark an important difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionists. Their findings align with those of many fellow researchers who believe that the desire to be perfect should not necessarily be pathologized in all cases. Nonetheless, the dichotomization of perfectionism begs the question: what are the larger external factors that serve to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionists?
The notion that perfectionism carries any potential to be positive has not remained entirely free from criticism. Some theorists express skepticism toward Slade and Owen’s dual model— or any model that suggests a positive side to perfectionism—with concern that it reinforces the image of perfection as a socially acceptable and desirable ideal (Flett & Hewitt, 2006). In fact, researchers raise the controversial question as to whether perfectionism is ever truly a positive quality, emphasizing the danger of “equating perfectionism with high levels of conscientiousness” (Flett & Hewitt, 2006, p. 476). Flett and Hewitt (2002; 2006) argue that it is both possible and preferable to be achievementoriented and conscientious without necessarily being a perfectionist. Interestingly, this controversy demonstrates the ways in which Western cultural values of high standards and excellence convolute the dialogue surrounding perfectionism and serve as a mechanism to promote perfectionist behavior by encouraging people to strive for the best (Bieling et al., 2004). Thus, it is possible that the idea of a beneficial perfectionism is actually linked to Western values that foster not only independence, but also a desire to surpass others in achievement.
The concern that perfectionism may be harmful stems from links that were found between perfectionism and psychopathology. For instance, Bieling et al. (2004) found that both adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionisms are correlated with higher levels of depression, anxiety, stress, and test-taking anxiety, although maladaptive perfectionism alone was found to be a predictor of psychopathology. In particular, the literature has linked perfectionism to both depression and eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia (Blatt, 1995; Shafran & Mansell, 2001). In fact, Blatt (1995) referred to the “destructiveness of perfectionism” and addressed the troubling link between perfectionism and suicidal depression. Some scholars suggest that the relationship between these constructs is closely related to locus of control (Blatt, 1995; Periasamy & Ashby, 2002). For instance, one study showed that adaptive perfectionists were found to have a greater external locus of control when compared to adaptive perfectionists, meaning that their motivation for achievement is externally derived and their sense of self-worth is thus dependent on the evaluation of others (Periasamy & Ashby, 2002). Since perfectionists are likely to avoid failure and criticism at all costs, they are also more likely to be depressed when they do not have the control to escape criticism from others (Blatt, 1995). Additionally, with the upcoming DSM-V currently underway, there is a recent push for perfectionism to be emphasized in terms of its relation to several Axis II personality disorders, beyond its current link to Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (Ayearst, Flett, & Hewitt, 2012). Links between mental health problems and perfectionism raise the question: what marks the difference between those who develop this pathology and those who do not? Further, considering the prevalence of perfectionist thinking in cases of depression and eating disorders, why do some scholars continue to assert that perfectionism can be healthy?
Overall, the literature surrounding perfectionism provides us with mixed ideas as to whether perfectionism is psychologically healthy or solely harmful. Researchers continue to divide the construct into multiple categories of good and bad, of healthy and unhealthy. In making these classifications, researchers tend to focus on the specific character traits associated with perfectionists. However, they fail to consider the cultural and societal context from which perfectionist traits are born. In doing so, they perpetuate the cycle of pathologizing individuals rather than seeking out the societal ills that sparked the problem in the first place. Furthermore, the literature demonstrates the contradictory nature of Western cultural views of perfectionism. On the one hand, striving for perfection is encouraged, but when it results in a psychiatric disorder, the individual receives diagnosis and is classified as an “unhealthy perfectionist.” Future researchers must consider looking beyond individual pathology in order to identify the larger social factors that breed perfectionism.
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Brit Lizabeth Lippman is a senior in the Applied Psychology Undergraduate Program. Currently, she works with Dr. Niobe Way studying the experience of adolescents in Delhi, India. She is also a research assistant to Drs. Alisha Ali and Randy Mowry, exploring means of empowerment for victims of domestic violence. Brit's research interests include mental health of people with disabilities, therapeutic interventions for people with psychotic disorders, and the phenomenon of gender socialization among adolescents. She looks forward to beginning a doctoral program in Clinical Psychology at Hofstra University this fall.