Your opinion of perfectionism may well depend on your age, sex and economic ‘success’ in life. To the comfortably off, professional middle class or recently retired age groups, working long and hard hours “never did anyone any harm”. If you’re in your twenties and early thirties, it may be a completely different story. This constant striving for the perfect body shape, home, family and career can be mentally destructive and lead to levels of stress that cause anxiety, panic attacks and even professional burn-out.
What is clinical perfectionism?
Perfectionism exists in several different forms, but is essentially an unhealthy combination of excessively high personal standards and overly critical self-evaluation. The Hewitt and Flett (1991) models include:
- Self-oriented perfectionism – individuals attach irrational importance to being perfect, hold unrealistic expectations of themselves, and are punitive in their self-evaluation. Self-oriented perfectionism leaves individuals vulnerable to low self-esteem and self-worth as their perception of themselves is linked to achievement, rather than accomplishment. In young people this means increases stress and more reported high blood pressure, depression, anorexia nervosa and early death.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism- individuals believe their social context is excessively demanding, that others judge them harshly, and that they must display perfection to secure approval. For young people this is experienced as excessive, uncontrolled and unfair expectations being placed upon them by others and can lead to the development of anxiety, depression and suicide ideation.
- Other-oriented – perfectionistic expectations are directed toward others, individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate others critically. Less is known about this type of perfectionism, and it manifests itself in antagonistic behaviour towards others including vindictiveness, hostility and a tendency to blame others if things go wrong. Altruism, compliance with societal norms and trust all declines in these individuals, they often crave attention and admiration from others, and they find it difficult to form intimate relationships.
Are levels of clinical perfectionism increasing?
Curran and Hill (2019) conducted a meta-analysis study1 that looked at data taken from over 40,000 college students in the USA, Canada and the UK between 1990 and 2015, which showed that levels of perfectionism are steadily increasing over time. These trends were not due to factors such as gender and in-country differences. All three sub-types of perfection increased, but most gains were seen in the socially prescribed type. Their findings indicated that recent generations of young people perceive that others are more demanding of them, are more demanding of others, and are more demanding of themselves.
Why have cases of perfectionism increased?
Professor Thomas Curran, maintains that, rather than directing the frustrations of modern life outwards, children, adolescents and young people internalise frustration. They are constantly told “You didn’t grind hard enough, or hustle hard enough.” In other words, our societies are mainstreaming perfectionism with our need for self-help, life coaches, positive thinking, study drugs, extreme physical exercise, personal trainers, cosmetic treatments and surgery. We have supercharged the “tyranny of the shoulds” – the pursuit of an elusive, idealised version of ourselves, first described in the 1950’s by Karen Horney but now embedded into our ultra-competitive lifestyle.
Research into the causes of perfectionism has shown that individuals can develop perfectionism when placed in particular family environments, especially due to high parental expectations placed upon children and developing adults. Historically there has been less research into the influence of culture and changes in society that will also impact the numbers of clients presenting with clinical perfectionism.
There is growing evidence that cultural change also can lead to perfectionism at an individual level 1. This is because changes in societal norms around family, schooling, religion, the economic and political climate all have an effect in shaping individual attitudes, values, beliefs and personalities. Young people across the developed economies are facing far tougher and more competitive social and economic conditions than their parents.
In their study looking at 27 college student cohorts over time in the United States, Canada and the UK, Curran and Hill concluded that people have responded to these societal, cultural trends of increased free market thinking and competitive individualism, by seeking to perfect both themselves and their lifestyles. They showed an increase in perfectionism in young people as they perceive that others are more demanding of them, they are more demanding of others and also more demanding of themselves.
They explain the increase in perfectionism due to 3 trends:
- The gradual increase in neoliberalism in these developed societies, so there is less progressive collectivism and collaborative problem solving and more emphasis on individuals competing against each other. This is because they found higher levels of narcissism, extroversion and self-confidence in younger generations than in their parents. There is less interest in group activities and more on individual activities to give youngsters a sense of personal achievement.
- The stronger link between competition and high social status. Youngsters in these societies experience status anxiety and use the acquisition of material wealth as evidence of higher self-worth. This can be seen in the greater proportion of their income spent on buying luxury good or designer labels than their parental generation.
- The increase in negative awareness of body-image and dissatisfaction as a result of increased exposure, especially on social media channels to others perfect self-representations. Body dysmorphia and eating disorders have increased by almost a third in late adolescent girls over this time period. The use of plastic surgery or other beauty treatments, with their promise of bodily perfection, has increased.
For many young people, this toxic combination of worry, fear of negative social evaluation, focussing on their deficiencies from the ‘ideal’ and being very sensitive to criticism and failure leads to a distorted, flawed view of self-identity and self-worth, hence the growth in clinical perfectionism as a coping mechanism for life. Because the majority of young people fail to realise societal expectations – for example in the setting of unrealistically high academic achievement – this leads to our observed increase in poor mental health.
Is perfectionism desirable in employees?
Perfectionism in employees has both benefits and consequences for their employer. In their meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace Harari, Swider, Steed and Breidenthal examine “Is perfect good?” 2 they found consistent relationships with factors relevant to employers but less correlation with individual job performance.
Our expectation is that perfectionistic individuals will have higher standards and be more exacting when they are completing work tasks but a persistent need to refine work or being inflexible and rigid about their standard of work could also lead to substantial demands and pressure which could impact the individuals’ wellbeing.
Job interview candidates clearly see the advantages of being seen as perfectionistic as the most common answer to “what’s your biggest weakness” is cited as being a perfectionist.
In their paper, the authors categorise different types of perfectionism:
- Excellence-seeking adaptive perfectionism – high standards of personal organisation and a compulsive tendency to achieve high standards. If these standards are not met, these individuals will reduce their own self-worth perception. Achieving a high standard will usually mean they set even higher standards for future performance.
- Failure-avoiding (Mal)adaptive perfectionism is the obsessive aversion to failing to reach a high standards, and where mistakes, discrepancies and self-doubt are caused by a perception that high standards are expected by them by others and the belief that others will view them as being of lower worth if high standards are not met.
Their review of all the research into perfectionism at work revealed that, overall, high levels of perfectionism, especially failure-avoiding perfectionism, is not likely to be constructive in the workplace as the advantages are outweighed by the disadvantages. In areas of motivation and employee engagement, perfectionism seems to be beneficial but the high correlation between perfectionism and overall mental health and wellbeing indicators such as stress and emotional stability, show an overall detrimental effect on the organisation as a whole. It’s important for employers to understand, consider and measure the balance between excellence-seeking and failure -voiding perfectionism in their employees.
The authors speculate about why this might happen. They put forward the idea that highly perfectionistic individuals may be driven to perfecting one task and direct a lot of time and energy towards that goal but then this has a negative effect on other tasks that the employee needs to accomplish because overall worktime and resources are limited.
How do we help those suffering from perfectionism?
There is a growing body of research literature (e.g. Ong et al. 2019) that supports the effectiveness of Commitment and Acceptance Therapy (ACT) because it can make a difference to clients who are making their lives miserable by demonising their own perfectionistic behaviours. Experiential exercises are key to clients understanding the language-based processes of overthinking, self-doubting and setting impossibly high standards.
To learn more about perfectionism, you may wish to join upcoming Contextual Consulting ACT workshops. For practitioners new to perfectionism there is an introductory level, 3 hour skills workshop with Dr Patricia Zurita Ona on 8th November “ ACT for perfectionistic , high-achieving and striving behaviours” or a more in-depth study of the topic over 8 hours “ Treating Perfectionism – practical approaches to unwinding unhelpful habits, fear of failure and relentless self-criticism” with Jennifer Kemp starting 9th May 2024.
- Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism Is Increasing over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145, 410-429.
- Harari, D., Swider, B. W., Steed, L.B., Breidenthal A.(2018). Is perfect good? A meta-analysis of perfectionism in the workplace. Journal of Applied Psychology,103, 1121-1144.
- TED talk, Thomas Curran https://www.ted.com/talks/thomas_curran_our_dangerous_obsession_with_perfectionism_is_getting_worse
- Curran, T. (2023). The Perfection trap book: The power of good enough in a world that always wants more. Cornerstone Press
- Guardian article 4th June 23, “The rise of perfectionism – and the harm it’s doing us all” https://www.theguardian.com/society/2023/jun/04/the-rise-of-perfectionism-and-the-harm-its-doing-us-all
- Ong, C. W., Lee, E. B., Krafft, J., Terry, C. L., Barrett, T. S., Levin, M. E., & Twohig, M. P. (2019). A randomized controlled trial of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinical perfectionism. Journal of Obsessive-Compulsive and Related Disorders, 22, 100444.