Perfectionism. According to the Free Dictionary, perfectionism is 1) a propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards; and 2) a belief in certain religions that moral or spiritual perfection can be achieved before the soul has passed into the afterlife. So we want to be perfect, and can’t–or we already are? Sounds like a fuzzy dichotomy to me.
As a psychologist, I’ve tended to subscribe to the view that perfectionism is a) a bad thing, and b) unobtainable and unrealistic. With b) explaining a). In my book, Even June Cleaver Would Forget the Juice Box: Cut Yourself Some Slack (and Still Raise Great Kids) in the Age of Extreme Parenting, I challenged moms to let go of that drive to be perfect parents producing perfect kids living perfect lives. “Perfectly good mothering” is the healthy alternative I propose in the book, i.e., defining the best mom you can be, given your personal mix of strengths and weaknesses.
Research has shown that there are, in fact, different types of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists (SOPs) have strict standards for themselves and are keenly motivated to attain perfection and avoid failure. SOPs critically evaluate their successes and failures, not letting themselves off the hook. Other-oriented perfectionists (OOPs) set unrealistic standards for others (e.g., partners, children, co-workers), and are likely to stringently evaluate how others measure up against those standards. This pattern of expecting others to perform doesn’t make relationships with OOPs very easy, and so would be considered maladaptive. Socially-prescribed perfectionists (SPPs) think others expect unrealistic performance from them. Certain that they can’t live up to the high standards they believe others hold, i.e., what a friend of mine dubbed “the magazine life.” SPPs worry that others evaluate them critically.
Whether perfectionism is maladaptive or adaptive in our lives may come down to two broad research dimensions of perfectionism:: positive strivings and maladaptive evaluation concerns. SOPs may not worry about how they are evaluated, but instead focus on the positive striving angle. This, in turn, leads them to great achievements. That the demands of OOPs foster tension in relationships is self-evident, and could fill a whole post. SPPs are definitely driven by worries that they will be evaluated poorly, and likely miss positive feedback, feeling never good enough.
Research backs up the idea that the drive to perfectionism in our daily lives is counter to mental health. Recently, new moms most at risk of developing postpartum depression and anxiety were those who suffered from socially-prescribed perfectionism. In other words, these women believed others expected them to be perfect: house clean, children and selves well-groomed and well-dressed. Sucked up into showing this perfect image to the world, and certain that they would fail, these women exhausted themselves given the realities of life with an infant.
As for one aspect of this fuzzy dichotomy, perfectionism seems to be adaptive only when it leads us to strive in positive ways, so that we set achievable standards for ourselves. If others expect–or we think others expect–too much from us, disappointment, negative evaluation, and even depression and anxiety can result. In the next post, I’ll explore more about the fuzz implied by part 2 of the definition in the first paragraph. Maybe this whole discussion is moot, because we are–and everything about the world in which we live is-already perfect.