1st October 2014, I started my PhD path, and began to immerse myself in the literature around perfectionism. "That was perfect..."; "It just wasn't perfect"; "It wasn't good enough because it was perfect!" What does it mean to be a perfectionist? How can you tell if you are a perfectionist? And what do we know about the consequences of being a perfectionist?
Perfectionism is defined as, “the setting and maintaining of unrealistically high standards and expectations, and critical evaluations of performance” (Hewitt, Newton, Flett, & Callander, 1997, p.95). A perfectionist may be motivated through fear of failure. The fear that they can not achieve, fear of making a mistake, or fear of being criticized. Perfectionists will rarely find satisfaction in their performance as they feel "it just wasn't good enough". Perfectionists are highly critical of themselves and their self worth is often dependent on external factors e.g. results, feedback etc. Their debilitating cognitive and motivational processes lead to poor wellbeing.
Flett & Hewitt (1991) have categorized perfectionists into three types: Self-Orientated Perfectionists (SOP), Socially Prescribed Perfectionists (SPP) and Other-Orientated Perfectionists (OOP).
SOP strive to attain perfection, and respond to substandard performance with negative self-appraisal. They are likely to be overstrivers (Hall, 2006), and are motivated by fear of failure or avoidance motivation. Achievement is focused on protecting self-worth and failure can be debilitating (Hall, 2006). Although some parts of perfectionism have been said to be adaptive; SOP is debilitating (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, 2006)
A study with golfers showed that relatively successful SOP golfers was not maladaptive but SOP and less successful had negative thoughts and reactions to mistakes. SOP is expected to be debilitating to athletes due to evaluative nature and can lead to negative cognitions, affect and achievement behaviours to protect self-worth. SOP can lead to anxiety, depression, anger and guilt.
SPP’s believe that they are stringently evaluated by others and significant others impose unrealistic standards on them and withhold approval unless perfect standards are achieved. They are more likely to strive towards externally determined standards in attempt to please others. Their sense of control is reduced because their standards are determined by others and focus on external evaluation (Pieriasamy & Ashby, 2002). SPP are motivated by introjection which can lead to anxiety, pressure and guilt (Deci & Ryan, 1995). SPP is positively correlated with depression, neuroticism, negative affect, and goal instability. This can lead to helplessness, poor coping, procrastination and hopelessness (Hewitt, & Flett, 1991). SPP has the strongest debilitating outcomes such as schizoid, avoidant. SPP is negatively correlated with self esteem, extraversion, agreeableness, openness, positive affect and self concept clarity.
OOP demand unrealistic standards and perfection from others and stringently evaluate others performance. OOP are high in self-confidence, and can have desirable leadership qualities but with hostile and aggressive overtones (Hablke &Flynn, 2002). OOP’s can have a negative effect on group cohesion due to their rare satisfaction with the group. Research indicated that there is an associating with dominating others, lack of patience with others, dissocial behaviour, and other-directed blame and inter-competitiveness.
Why am I interested in learning about this?
According to the research, there are a lot of negative outcomes associated with perfectionist tendencies. Even though at times, perfectionists have reached success, this often comes with negative effects on psychological wellbeing. I have seen this in some of the athletes that I work with; being very hard on themselves even in times of performance accomplishments. I believe there are people who are achievement striving; those who strive to get better, to progress and are highly motivated. Nevertheless, a perfectionist is highly motivated, strives to get better, pursue success but that is accompanied by self criticism, and self doubt which in turn could lead to anxiety or depression.
Victoria Pendalton, who is a self-confessed perfectionist , said “I’m an insecure person. I am emotional. I am a self-critical perfectionist… I’m terrible. I beat myself up the whole time because I’m striving for something I’ll basically never achieve.”
Another perfectionist, Ronnie O'Sullivan said, “Anyone who knows me knows I’m a perfectionist.” He later added ,“Today I got so annoyed with myself that I lost my patience and walked away from a game that, with hindsight, I should have continued.”
As much as we want to have successful athletes, we want to have successful athletes who have positive psychological wellbeing. Those who enjoy their successes, and have a strong sense of self worth regardless of performance outcomes. I hope that my research will contribute to this, and help empower people to feel good about themselves, their performance, without beating themselves up.
Hewitt, P.L., Newton, J., Flett, G.L., & Callander, L. (1997). Perfectionism and suicide ideation in adolescent psychiatric patients. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 25, 2, 95-107.
Tracy Donachie, MSc in Performance Psychology.