Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You're Just a Perfectionist
Posted On 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 L. 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.”