It would be nice to be perfect. The idea that we’d never make a mistake, never be wrong, and never have to apologize has its appeal. For most of us, it’s just an appeal. For some of us, it is an expectation, and it’s one that leads us to a perpetual road of disappointment. Perfectionism: Theory, Research, and Treatment is a book about people who feel the need to be perfect – even with the understanding that no one can be perfect.
Striving for Excellence
Before breaking down perfection into types, it’s necessary to address the rather obvious tension that exists. On the one hand there, is achieving excellence – that is, the best possible outcome given the circumstances – and on the other hand, we must accept that we’ll fall short of perfectionism. It’s not bad to strive for excellence. Anders Ericsson explains in Peak that it takes a lot of work to reach the upper echelons of any endeavor. Steven Kotler explains in The Rise of Superman how many of these peak performances can look superhuman.
When we’re talking about perfection and the need to consider that perspective, it’s not all bad – not by a long shot. However, there are ways of pursuing perfection that are more – and those that are less – harmful.
It’s called maximization, and it’s a need to have the absolute best. It doesn’t allow that you made the best possible decision for the time. It’s being frustrated that the price of a television dropped weeks after you bought yours. The problem with maximization is that we know people who maximize in more areas of their life are less happy. (See The Paradox of Choice for more.) The good news is that none of us maximize in every aspect of our lives – we couldn’t, because we’d exhaust ourselves.
Instead, we choose a strategy called “satisficing.” This approach is a “good enough” approach. We spend a few minutes looking for reviews and clues about what the right answer is, and we make the decision without fear that the decision we’re making isn’t the absolute best solution possible. Instead, we’re weighing the tradeoffs in time and happiness of figuring out the perfect answer versus finding a good enough answer.
Perfectionists sometimes have other-focused perfectionism and that leads them to maximization strategies more frequently – approaching, but never reaching, all the time.
Self or Other
One key distinction in perfectionism is the dimension of self versus other. This operates along two dimensions. Where is the source of the perfectionism, and what is the object of the perfectionism? When we have other-oriented perfectionism, we maximize more. Other things and people need to be perfect for us to be okay. When we’ve got internal-oriented perfectionism, we expect only perfection out of ourselves, and we can ruminate on our foibles and failures.
When we have other-oriented perfectionism, we tend to place unrealistic demands on others; as a result, our relationships often suffer. We can’t help but to criticize, and, as John Gottman explains in The Science of Trust, that’s one of the four horsemen of the relational apocalypse. Instead of accepting people for who they are, we keep wanting more. (See How to Be an Adult in Relationships for more on acceptance.) The Secret Lives of Adults shares how the way that we were bonded to our parents, and this may be one of the factors that lead to other-oriented perfectionism.
Self-oriented perfectionism can have complicated and potentially corrosive effects on our self-esteem. When we expect only perfect, we can easily be let down as we find that our daily activities fall short of the standard. This can, and often does, lead to depression and negative mental health effects. However, it can also lead to greater resilience and a self-esteem that is based on positive accomplishments. Which happens is driven in part by the gap between our performance and perfect expectations. Just like the difference between PTSD and Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) are difficult to predict, the results of self-oriented perfectionism are difficult to predict. (See Transformed by Trauma for more on PTG.) Similarly, Nassim Taleb in Antifragile explains that it’s the degree and timing of challenges that differentiates between growth and collapse.
Sources of Perfectionism
The sources of perfectionism can be driven either externally or internally. When we see perfectionism as internally driven, it is more pliable and therefore more likely to be molded and adapted to result in positive outcomes. We can, for instance, relax our perfectionistic standards for our performance where necessary.
External, or social, perfectionism is more challenging. We perceive that others expect perfectionism from us, and therefore it’s harder to adjust standards to allow for normal and natural faults and flaws. In some cases, these expectations are real. Others do really expect the person to be perfect – either because of their other-oriented perfectionism or because of societal expectations. Alternatively, these may be misperceptions about others’ expectations. We may perceive that we need to be perfect to be loved – but that’s not really the case.
Resolving other-sourced perfectionism can be more challenging. There are three basic strategies:
- Negotiate – In the case of someone else’s perfectionistic expectations upon you, you can seek to negotiate them, including what reasonable levels of performance should be and what collectively should be done if they can’t be met.
- Refuse to Accept – If the perfectionism requirements are externally-driven, either through others or socially prescribed, you can refuse to take those on. This is easier said than done, because it may mean that a relationship or connection to culture must be lost; however, it’s still an option.
- Exit – This is a more direct version of refusing to accept. It means that you sever the relationships and move into a place where those external demands for perfectionism no longer apply.
None of these options are easy – but they are possible when you’re encountering external perfectionism expectations.
While I’ve been introducing perfectionism, I’ve ignored the fact that there are two different, multifactor assessments of perfectionism – and that my description doesn’t directly match either of them. The two instruments are Frost’s six-factor model and Hewitt and Flett’s three presentations model.
Frost’s model has six dimensions, four of which are self-focused and two are focused on parental demands as follows:
- High Personal Standards
- Doubts about Actions
- Concern over Mistakes
- Parental Demands
- High Parental Expectations
- Parental Criticism
The parental demands perspectives can linger long after someone is an adult. Those external voices often become internalized.
Hewett & Flett’s model more closely resembles the way I’ve described perfectionism above. The three presentations are:
- Self Oriented
- Other Oriented
- Socially Prescribed
Here, I’ve simplified the source, because from a response space, the responses to other and socially prescribed are fundamentally the same – though obviously one operates at a larger scale.
Healthy and Unhealthy
In the right degree and with the right makeup, perfectionism can be healthy and adaptive. It can help us become better humans. However, it can also be neurotic, causing us mental anguish and suffering. The real question about perfectionism is whether it’s productive, problematic, or pathological. Obviously, we want to keep the productive aspects of perfectionism while preventing the problematic and pathological.
The real question is whether the desire for perfectionism is reasonable and realistic. If you’re willing to adjust the expectations in the face of reality, it’s likely normal. Conversely, if you’re feeling a compulsion to meet excessively high standards, it may be that you’re operating in the land of neurotic perfectionism.
The Role of Time
One of the keys to the difference between the neurotic and the normal may be the dimension of time. It’s the difference between aiming for perfection and expecting it, seeking improvement rather than perfectionism right now. Another factor that needs to be accounted for is that there are variations in all things. Performance varies as does the felt need for perfection. If we want to make perfectionism healthy, adding a bit of time may help.
Pride or Hubris
Pride is experienced as a result of a specific action or behavior, whereas hubris is associated with beliefs about oneself. In Mindset, Carol Dweck explained how a growth mindset is focused on the effort put in and not one’s character. It’s the difference between pride and hubris. In Buddhism, there is a belief that being proud of others is positive emotion while pride for oneself is not. (See Destructive Emotions.) It may be that the goal is to avoid hubris.
Performance Based Love
One of the parenting factors that can influence perfectionism as adults is a tendency towards performance-based love. That is, rather than a child believing that they’re inherently loved, they’re conditioned to believe that they are loved for the things that they do. Love as a concept is important to humans as they develop, since we’re innately aware that we cannot survive alone. (See The Blank Slate.) If love is conditional, then our lack of perfection threatens our very survival. That’s too much stress to have every day. (See Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.)
Perfect People Don’t Get Hurt
Extending beyond parental performance-based love comes the idea that perfect people don’t get hurt. If you’ve been hurt before, and the person who hurt you made it seem like you’re fault, you may conclude that, if you want to avoid being hurt, you must be and remain perfect. While this seems like a far-fetched idea, many people make victims feel like the oppressor’s bad behavior is the victim’s fault – particularly children. Statements like, “I wouldn’t have hit you if you weren’t such a bad kid,” as distasteful as they may be, resonate and cause people to believe that it’s only through perfection that they can be safe.
High Performer Problems
For the most part, when we are thinking about those who would be suicidal, we expect them to match Thomas Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide (see Why People Die By Suicide). We expect them to be disconnected and feel like a burden. However, another sad possibility emerges. People who have perfectionistic tendencies tend to have cognitive rigidity and the same all-or-nothing thinking that leads too many people to consider suicide.
Instead of seeing the great things that they can do, they feel the weight – or burden – of the gap between their expectations and their performance. That weight may even lead to thoughts of hopelessness. Most people wouldn’t associate suicide with high performers – but because high performers have larger degrees of perfectionism, and perfectionism may lead to larger gaps between expectations and results, perhaps suicide is a risk for those who are perfectionistic.
Understanding Perfectionism may be the difference between happiness and death.