A psychologist's reflections on mental health studies for inspiration and hope
The Perfect Paradox: Chasing Perfection Makes You Feel Worse and Procrastinate More, Research Shows
The Perfect Paradox: Chasing Perfection Makes You Feel Worse and Procrastinate More, Research Shows

The Perfect Paradox: Chasing Perfection Makes You Feel Worse and Procrastinate More, Research Shows

When we feel self-inadequacy, we might try to do more as an attempt to feel better about ourselves. This, however, might result in a vicious cycle characterized by high self-standards that are difficult to live up to, which in turn contributes to even more self-inadequacy in the long run. We may strive to feel better by performing better, but the effects can be very short-lived and even detrimental to our mental health and productivity in the long run.

I have had the draft for his article for five years, but it is not until now that I finish it. Think about that. An article about perfectionism and procrastination, and I postpone it for five years!

This article unfolds what research tells us about perfectionism and mental health. I want to emphasize an Australian study, published in 2017 in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, called “The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta-Analysis” (Limburg and colleagues, 2017). It is a meta-analysis of 284 studies involving 2,047 effect sizes.

The authors write,

“… We aimed to test whether the literature supports the hypothesis that perfectionistic concerns can be considered a transdiagnostic process across disorders in clinical samples and psychopathology in non-clinical samples as proposed by (Egan et al., 2011), and whether perfectionistic strivings is associated with psychopathology … If perfectionism is found to be relevant across disorders (i.e., transdiagnostic), then it may be important to target in an attempt to reduce the symptoms of a range of disorders.”

The authors add,

“Our findings suggest that although perfectionism is not specific to a particular form of psychopathology, decreasing perfectionism through CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy) for perfectionism could be beneficial in the context of a variety of psychopathological outcomes … Current treatment approaches in CBT for perfectionism emphasize the reduction of perfectionistic concerns but not perfectionistic strivings. This approach appears to be supported … given the evidence we found for perfectionistic concerns having a stronger relationship with these disorders than perfectionistic strivings which had small or trivial associations.” (p. 27)

The authors conclude that,

“… There is nothing wrong with striving for standards in itself (i.e., perfectionistic strivings), but it is the concern over mistakes (i.e., perfectionistic concerns) and basing ones self-worth on striving and achievement that is problematic” (p. 27)

Research supports the idea of perfectionism as a transdiagnostic factor by demonstrating that both dimensions (perfectionistic strivings and concerns) are associated with various forms of psychopathology. More specifically, perfectionistic concerns are found to be related to clinical disorders, such as depression, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. A smaller number of studies show that perfectionistic strivings are related to depression, OCD and generalized anxiety disorder (reported in the meta-analysis).

In addition, research shows that perfectionism is strong maintaining factor in eating disorders. Individuals with eating disorders have significantly higher scores on perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns than controls. These studies are cross-sectional, meaning that they look at data at a single point in time – in contrast to longitudinal studies. Most studies about perfectionism are cross-sectional.

The authors still point to 10 longitudinal studies,

“A recent meta-analysis of 10 longitudinal studies of perfectionism and depression, where perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns had small, positive relationships with depressive symptoms at follow-up (p. 6).

Even in non-clinical populations, perfectionistic concerns are related to depressive symptoms and symptoms of anxiety.

In regard to non-clinical perfectionism, I want to emphasize some ideas that have been raised in another article “The psychology of perfectionism: Critical issues, open questions, and future directionsby Stoeber (2018). Perfectionism might be considered a strategy more than a personality trait.
The author writes,
“There are questions about the generality and stability of perfectionism. As already mentioned, only few perfectionists are perfectionistic across all domains of life. Instead, perfectionism is often domain-specific … Longitudinal studies have shown that perfectionism—while relatively stable—may show changes over fairly short periods of time … (p. 9)

The author highlights that perfectionism seems to decline with age,

“… comparing undergraduates of a sorority (mean age = 19.9 years) with alumnae of the same sorority (mean age = 33.7 years). They found that the alumnae showed significant lower levels of perfectionism regarding personal standards, concerns over mistakes, doubts about actions, and parental expectations suggesting that both perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns decline with age.”  (p 15).

Summing up the research, perfectionism seems to be detrimental to mental health, especially perfectionistic concerns (much more than perfectionistic strivings). Perfectionism is higher in clinical populations compared to non-clinical populations. However, perfectionism also seems to affect mental health in non-clinical populations.

Finally, an interesting idea is that perfectionism might be considered a strategy more than a personality trait. So, perfectionism is something we develop in order to cope with low feelings of self-worth. Perfectionism seems to decline over the years which supports the idea of a domain-specific perfectionism. In relation to treatment, evidence seems to support the idea that perfectionism can be a factor across different clinical syndromes.

A really important aspect of perfectionism is procrastination. We know that perfectionistic concerns (not perfectionistic strivings) are highly related to procrastination (Xie and colleagues, 2018).

A study of students examined the relationship between perfectionism, procrastination, and psychological distress,  across three time points within a college semester, and it was found that all constructs were related to each other and stable across the semester (Rice and colleagues, 2012).

Finally, a study of professors in psychology concluded that self-oriented perfectionism (i.e., demanding perfection of oneself) was negatively related to the total number of publications, number of first-authored publications, number of citations, and journal impact rating (Sherry and colleagues, 2010).

So, perfectionism does not only seem to affect our mental health but also our productivity.

How do we get out of the vicious perfectionistic cycle? We may choose to target the perfectionistic concerns at first by looking at the tendency to worry and ruminate whenever those high self-standards are not being met. You might want to seek professional help in, for example, CBT or Metacognitive therapy to get out of the vicious cycle.

I hope that this article inspired you somehow.

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