Unhappy? Self-critical? Maybe you're just a perfectionist
By Benedict Carey
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Just about any sports movie, airport paperback or motivational tape delivers a few boilerplate rules for success. Believe in yourself. Don't take no for an answer. Never quit. Don't accept second best.
Above all, be true to yourself.
It's hard to argue with those maxims. They seem self-evident — if not written into the Constitution, then at least part of the cultural water supply that irrigates everything from halftime speeches to corporate lectures to SAT coaching classes.
Yet several recent studies stand as a warning against taking the platitudes of achievement too seriously. The new research focuses on a familiar type, perfectionists, who panic or blow a fuse when things don't turn out just so. The findings not only confirm that such purists are often at risk for mental distress — as Freud, Alfred Adler and countless exasperated parents have long predicted — but also suggest that perfectionism is a valuable lens through which to understand a variety of seemingly unrelated mental difficulties, from depression to compulsive behavior to addiction.
Some researchers divide perfectionists into three types, based on answers to standardized questionnaires: Self-oriented strivers who struggle to live up to their high standards and appear to be at risk of self-critical depression; outwardly focused zealots who expect perfection from others, often ruining relationships; and those desperate to live up to an ideal they're convinced others expect of them, a risk factor for suicidal thinking and eating disorders.
"It's natural for people to want to be perfect in a few things, say in their job — being a good editor or surgeon depends on not making mistakes," said Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University and an author of many of the studies. "It's when it generalizes to other areas of life, home life, appearance, hobbies, that you begin to see real problems."
Unlike people given psychiatric labels, however, perfectionists neither battle stigma nor consider themselves to be somehow dysfunctional. On the contrary, said Alice Provost, an employee assistance counselor at the University of California, Davis, who recently ran group therapy for staff members struggling with perfectionist impulses. "They're very proud of it," she said. "And the culture highly values and reinforces their attitudes."
Consider a recent study by psychologists at Curtin University of Technology in Australia, who found that the level of "all or nothing" thinking predicted how well perfectionists navigated their lives. The researchers had 252 participants fill out questionnaires rating their level of agreement with 16 statements like "I think of myself as either in control or out of control" and "I either get on very well with people or not at all."
The more strongly participants in the study thought in this either-or fashion, the more likely they were to display the kind of extreme perfectionism that can lead to mental health problems.
In short, these are people who not only swallow many of the maxims for success but take them as absolutes. At some level they know that it's possible to succeed after falling short (build on your mistakes: another boilerplate rule). The trouble is that falling short still reeks of mediocrity; for them, to say otherwise is to spin the result.
Never accept second best. Always be true to yourself.
The burden of perfectionist expectations is all too familiar to anyone who has struggled to kick a bad habit. Break down just once — have one smoke, one single drink — and at best it's a "slip." At worst it's a relapse, and more often it's a fall off the wagon: failure. And if you've already fallen, well, may as well pour yourself two or three more.
This is why experts have long debated the wisdom of insisting on abstinence as necessary in treating substance abuse. Most rehab clinics are based on this principle: Either you're clean or you're not; there's no safe level of use. This approach has unquestionably worked for millions of addicts, but if the studies of perfectionists are any guide it has undermined the efforts of many others.
Provost said those in her program at UC Davis often displayed symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder — another risk for perfectionists. They couldn't bear a messy desk.. They found it nearly impossible to leave a job half-done, to do the next day. Some put in ludicrously long hours redoing tasks, chasing an ideal only they could see.
As an experiment, Provost had members of the group slack off on purpose, against their every instinct. "This was mostly in the context of work," she said, "and they seem like small things, because what some of them considered failure was what most people would consider no big deal."
Leave work on time. Don't arrive early. Take all the breaks allowed. Leave the desk a mess. Allow yourself a set number of tries to finish a job; then turn in what you have.
"And then ask: Did you get punished? Did the university continue to function? Are you happier?" Provost said. "They were surprised that yes, everything continued to function, and the things they were so worried about weren't that crucial."
The British have a saying that encourages people to show their skills while mocking the universal fear of failure: Do your worst.
If you can't tolerate your worst, at least once in a while, how true to yourself can you be?