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Toxic Habits: Perfectionism

This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen covers 3 types of perfectionism and the 8 problems that flourish wherever perfectionism takes root.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #65

The 8 Signs of a Perfectionist

Sign #1: Dichotomous thinking.  "Dichotomous thinking" is the technical term, but it also means all-or-nothing thinking or black-and-white thinking.  No matter how you label it, it means believing that something is either perfect or a complete failure.  There's little room for error in dichotomous thinking: if you don’t set a personal record, you may as well be crawling across the finish line in last place.

Sign #2: Doubt.  Folks with perfectionism often doubt their own performance.  Even if the audience gives them a standing ovation, they worry they’ve tanked.  And doubts aren’t limited to big arenas—perfectionists worry about whether they phrased that email the exact right way, whether everyone really had a fabulous time at the dinner party, or whether that was the perfect birthday present.

Sign #3: Equating worth and achievement.  This is self-explanatory.  When a perfectionist fails to live up to his or her own unattainable standards, they think it makes them a bad person.  “I suck at this, therefore, I suck,” is a common refrain.

Sign #4: Procrastination. Perfectionists rightfully worry they can never meet their own standards.  Without any wiggle room, any task becomes difficult and unpleasant, which means it gets put off, and put off, and put off.

See also: How to Stop Procrastinating

 

Sign #5: Abandoning projects.  This goes hand in hand with procrastination.  Sometimes, perfectionists would rather abandon ship than face the possibility of falling short.

Sign #6: Feeling overwhelmed. Perfectionists often feel like a deer in the headlights.  Particularly for socially-prescribed perfectionists, the prospect of having to perform to imagined standards, plus the prediction that others will only shake their heads and yawn, makes tasks totally overwhelming.

Sign #7: Correcting others.  Other-oriented perfectionists in particular often try to revise or improve others.  Whether it’s their grammar, their clothing choices, or their driving route, perfectionists always have a better way.

Sign #8: Workaholism.  Workaholism can be boiled down to a math problem:

High Involvement/Investment in Work + Low Enjoyment = High Stress

This is very different than those who work hard but love what they do, a group called "work enthusiasts." The equation here is High Involvement + High Enjoyment = Low Stress.  A 1992 study, unsurprisingly, found that workaholics are much more likely to be perfectionists than work enthusiasts.

Many mental health challenges have been linked to perfectionism.  One is social anxiety, where people believe others will judge them for less than perfect social performance.  Another is OCD, where folks need things to be exactly right or 100% certain.  OCPD, a personality disorder we covered in episode 61, has perfectionism at its heart.  But the disorder with the strongest link to perfectionism is anorexia.

For example, a 2014 study asked two groups of women—some with anorexia, some without—to do two tasks.  In the first task, they were asked to copy a passage of text and a complex geometric figure.  They were given paper, pencils, an eraser, a ruler, a protractor, and a compass and asked to work as neatly and accurately as possible.  

What happened?  As a whole, the anorexics’ work was judged to be significantly better than the control group, but they also took much longer to complete the task.  In addition, within the anorexic group, the longer each person took, the better their copy, a phenomenon not seen in the control group.  

In the second task, the two groups were given one minute to sort 40 beads of 8 different colors into bottles.  After the minute was up, participants were given the option, but were not required, to double-check their work.  Overall, more anorexics chose to check their work and spent much longer doing so.

So what does this tell us?  As a group, anorexics showed greater attention to detail, were more thorough, checked their work, and yielded more impressive results, all of which tap into an underlying drive for perfection.

In sum, while it’s always good to have high standards and work hard, you don’t have to be perfect.  Even better, as former first lady Rosalynn Carter, a powerful mental health advocate, has said, “Once you accept the fact that you’re not perfect, then you develop some confidence.”

Refrences

Lloyd, S., Yiend, J., Schmidt, U., & Tchanturia, K. (2014).  Perfectionism in anorexia nervosa: Novel performance based evidence.  PLoS ONE, 9, 1-7.

Shafran, R. & Mansell, W. (2001).  Perfectionism and psychopathology: A review of research and treatment.  Clinical Psychology Review, 21, 879-906.

Spence & Robbins.  (1992).  Workaholism: Definition, measurement, and preliminary results.  Journal of Personality Assessment, 58, 160-178.

Perfectionism roadblock image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.