Is it a problem to be a perfectionist?
It is not necessarily a sin to want to make everything perfect, according to our filters. The problem is not knowing how to get it done without getting stressed out or anxious.
Setting high goals is good; the most difficult aspirations bring some of the best triumphs. The emotions that accompany achievement often include joy, pride and satisfaction. But when effort, diligence and meticulousness do not end up in something near perfect outcomes, there is often a dead path of anxiety, exhaustion and depression.
The bad news is that the influence of this personality trait –perfectionism- affects more and more people. The good news is that there are ways to detect and deactivate its insidious effect before it is too late.
Different types of perfectionism
Feel the need to do your job perfectly, to take a ten on an exam, to beat a personal record or to do any other task better than anyone is natural?
Everyone has experienced that feeling. It can be even fun and highly motivating. That is why it is very difficult to distinguish neurotic perfectionists from people who have a great dedication to a job or a relationship, or who are especially productive.
So how do we know if someone is a perfectionist?
These people are characterized by their predisposition to set unrealistic standards of excellence that are then not able to meet. Inevitably, unmet goals lead to anxiety, because perfectionists have the defect of directing their attention to errors rather than objectives.
Such behaviour becomes an inexhaustible source of shame and frustration and they have an exaggerated perception that their environment is very critical and demanding, which can damage their self-esteem.
In all of them, there is also an irrational belief that equates personal worth with productivity and achievement, so when they cannot produce as the wish, there is an immediate feeling of failure.
Continuous feelings of shame due to failure experienced by perfectionist people are different from strong corrections in errors committed while seeking reasonable ambitions, which will eventually be achieved if one is humble enough to learn from mistakes.
Psychologists use several tests to detect perfectionism, among which three stand out for their high level of validation.
One is the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which many researchers also resort to.
The test consists of 45 statements such as the more successful I have more is expected of me, I care little that those around me do not do the best they can and I cannot relax if everything is not perfect. Each one is scored from 1 to 7, with 7 totally agreeing and 1 totally disagreeing.
The score determines if someone can be a perfectionist, but also classifies these people into three types of perfectionism:
- The one oriented to others, which is characterized by a criticism of the environment. This type can cause the rejection of others.
- The author, in which one imposes work and social goals so unrealizable that, no matter how well you do things, your life becomes a carousel of failures and anxiety.
- The socially prescribed one, in which one feels that the world is very demanding, that it puts great pressure on us, which is usually a product of a wrong perception of reality.
They are not all equally pernicious. The problem is usually in the last two.
But if there is a clear way to distinguish a perfectionist is to analyze how he reacts to failure: He feels shame, frustration, anxiety, does not accept the possibility of failure and punishes himself.
Even when things go well, perfectionists don’t reward themselves for the effort or celebrate a good result. For a perfectionist, achievements are only the minimum result expected of them, and the goal can always and should be put a little further next time.
Paradoxically, it is common for his frantic career to nowhere to help them quickly stand out in the academic, labor and even sports fields. However, in the long term, depression and other psychopathologies end up making a dent in them, a problem that develops in silence until it explodes.
Perfection’s links to psychological problems
Nobody knows how many perfectionists risk their health in the pursuit of unattainable goals, but the available data is nothing flattering.
According to an analysis of the scores of more than 41,000 students from Canada and the United States who completed the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale between 1989 and 2016, the number of young people who were classified as perfectionists increased considerably in those three decades.
The biggest increase was in socially prescribed perfectionism: in 2016, almost two-thirds of young people scored above the average of 1989, according to the study that researchers from the universities of Bath and San Juan de York, in the United Kingdom, published in the journal Psychological Bulletin in 2017.
This boom of perfectionism seems to be a consequence of the social environment. There is more and more competitiveness, so people compare themselves more to others.
In social networks, we only show our best version. We put the happiest face, never the sad and discouraged one. The pressure to train us to stand out in the workplace, to achieve financial independence, the perfect match, the ideal home, the most incredible trips …
The psychological bill is too high. There is a lot of scientific evidence that shows that there is a relationship between perfectionism and anxiety, depression, anger, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anorexia and bulimia.
This personality trait is also related to high comorbidity, that is, with the possibility of having two or more disorders at the same time. It is a very serious problem and we do not realize how much it influences us, but if perfectionism is directly addressed with psychological treatment and it is reduced, psychopathology also decreases.
It can be done with cognitive behavioral therapy, an approach that provides scientific tools so that the patient can distinguish the origin of their problems and modify their behavior. It can also be stopped much earlier if we know how to identify and understand its influence.
Perfectionism is not necessarily a burden if you know how to handle it, and if it is part of the personality it is clear that there is no choice but to do so.
The first thing to do to keep it at bay is to work on flexibility. Experts recommend using the 80% rule, which consists of surrendering only to that percentage of intensity. The process is gradual and can reach 90% or 70%.
Lowering the pace costs them a lot but, when they do it, they realize that it is worth it. Perfectionists are even equally productive, and they are demystifying the irrational belief that if they do not give one hundred percent everything will be a failure.
Positive reinforcement also helps. Perfectionists are very much looking for the acceptance and admiration of others, but the reinforcement is much more powerful when you give it to yourself, much more than anyone can give you.
It is important to value your own effort as much as the results, which is what perfectionists often fail. It is also worth having some degree of permissiveness towards mistakes, and realizing that the enormous pressure that one can have from the environment is often unreal and self-imposed.
While it is true that it is worth reflecting on whether one can have perfectionist traits, the problem is that it is the perfectionists themselves who do not ask this question. Moreover, it is normal that they do not want to stop being a perfectionist.
When you ask a perfectionist if he would like to stop being one, not many would say no, they are very afraid because they think they would be a failure, that nobody would admire or respect them.
Then it is useful to ask them this question:
“Who are the people you most admire, love and respect in life?”
The reason is never the position in the company, the money they earn or academic achievements. Ironically, what they most admire in others is that they are people with values, human and imperfect.