Dec 17, 2013 09:48AM ● Published by Cate Reynolds
Everyone has heard the truism that “nobody’s perfect,” but do we actually believe it? For many, being perfect is still the goal: perfect homes, perfect families, perfect health, perfect bodies. According to most experts, however, this compulsive drive for perfection can have serious consequences for our health and day-to-day happiness.
Perfectionism would seem to be a much-desired trait in an individual, a mark of success and excellence. Martin Antony, Ph.D., author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping With Perfectionism, writes that, “The world encourages people to be constantly improving, so perfectionism is understandable.”
But actual perfectionism is not the pursuit of excellence; it is the pursuit of perfection. Individuals who fit this description set extremely high goals and are never satisfied with less. Dr. Robert Sheeler, editor of Mayo Clinic Health Letter, explains that “perfectionists are often left with an empty feeling that nothing we do is good enough” and they develop a sense that “what we do and achieve is of greater value than who we are as individuals.”
Most psychologists feel that the pattern of perfectionism develops as a coping mechanism as we grow and seek validation and happiness. Tom Greenspon, Ph.D., author of Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism, describes this behavior as “the emotional conviction that, by being perfect, one can finally be acceptable as a person.”
Twenty years ago, Canadian psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett developed a perfectionism scale that separated the pattern into three categories:
• Self-oriented perfectionists—self-motivated individuals who set strict, high standards for themselves, are highly self-critical and determined to avoid failure.
• Other-oriented perfectionists—individuals who set unrealistic standards for significant others (spouses, children, coworkers) and place great importance on other people being perfect.
• Socially-prescribed perfectionists— individuals who feel external pressure to be perfect, believing that others have unrealistic, highly critical standards for them. A number of researchers prefer to make a distinction between adaptive perfectionism, which may lead to accomplishment and self-satisfaction, and maladaptive perfectionism, which may lead to frustration, procrastination, and self-loathing. Hewitt, however, has little patience with definitions of “good” and “bad” perfectionism. “People who are truly perfectionistic don’t really experience much satisfaction or happiness,” he says.
In 1990, Smith College professor Randy Frost developed a 35- question test to be used by therapists to measure tendencies toward perfectionism. The test covers six areas: Concern Over Mistakes, Doubts About Actions, Personal Standards, Parental Expectations,
Parental Criticism, and Organization. Known as the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS), it is available in print and from a variety of online sites. Out of the 35 items on the Frost Scale, nine deal with parent attitudes. “Overly demanding and critical parents put a lot of pressure on kids to achieve,” maintains Frost. “Our studies show that is associated with perfectionism.” Most experts agree that parental influence plays a key role in the development of this behavior. Parents are the first to deal with our urge to be accepted, our urge to be cared for. Hewitt calls these “the interpersonal needs that drive the perfectionistic behavior.” Parents who are perfectionists themselves may be overly concerned with a child’s mistakes and fail to recognize or reward accomplishment. A child’s report card may contain 10 “A’s” and one “B.” If questioning the “B” is the only parental response, a child may feel that acceptance and love are contingent on nothing less than perfection. Once parents set the bar this high, they may also be setting a child up for frustration, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, even suicide.
According to Hara Marano, author and editor-at-large of Psychology Today, parental praise should “reward the process and the effort, not the talent or the product.” She has observed that “kids praised for effort get energized in the face of difficulty,” and she believes that “to confine children to the pursuit of perfection is to trap them in an illusion.”
In addition to parental influence, psychologists have suggested other environmental triggers for perfectionism, such as childhood trauma, bullying, and even the highly competitive society in which we live. But some triggers may originate within us, not around us. A recent study by Jason Moser at the Michigan State University Twin Registry looked at aspects of perfectionism in 146 pairs of female twins, age 12–22. A comparison between identical twins (sharing 100 percent of their genetic makeup) and fraternal twins (sharing only 50 percent) found that identical twins had many more similarities in perfectionism and anxiety scores than their fraternal counterparts.
Experts suggest that individuals should seek counseling if perfectionism is making their lives more difficult and less satisfying. Most therapies deal with identifying the triggers and seeking a more realistic acceptance of our imperfect selves. To err is human. Embracing that humanity can enhance our self-awareness, selfacceptance, and self-esteem.
Not all cultures are obsessed with perfection. Navajo weavers, renowned for their magnificent blankets, include purposeful flaws in each piece, so that the soul can be free to escape. Equally well-regarded Amish quilters are said to include one piece of unmatched cloth, a humility square, because only God is perfect. They might be onto something.