Tuesday, December 4, 2007


Today in a NY Times article entitled "Unhappy? Self-Critical? Maybe You're Just a Perfectionist", there is a great description of 3 different types of perfectionists. The first one sounds quite similar to being an overachiever, although I don't think our primary risk is "self-critical depression", but rather stress, imbalance, and burnout.

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.”

The article goes on to say that perfectionists may suffer mental health problems because they can't handle when things aren't completely in order or under their control. In a study mentioned in the article, researchers forced perfectionists to slack off to prove that the world would continue and they'd even be happier if they lightened up a bit.

I'm not sure that it warranted research, but it would have been interesting to monitor the stress levels they felt when something wasn't getting done perfectly. I bet the perfectionists in the study may have said they were happier after the fact, but they probably were less happy (more stressed and anxious) during the experiment. Which poses a bit of a catch-22: happiness to a perfectionist is perfection, happiness to an overachiever is achievement. I guess the wisdom is that we shouldn't drive ourselves crazy going after it.

Since being a perfectionist is seen as a good thing in many circles (especially at work), it's difficult to acknowledge it as a problem, or "dysfunctional" as the article suggests. I think for most of us, our tendency to strive for perfection isn't dysfunctional or debilitating, but it's important to be aware that it can impact our mental health even on a small scale.

  • Do you identify with any of the "perfectionist" descriptions in the article?
  • When have your perfectionist characteristics had a negative impact, even just on a small scale?
Please comment!


foo said...

This article resonated with me -- I often recognize this when I'm planning something. I spend much more time than the situation warrants on making sure I've made the best choice. Sometimes I enjoy the process, but sometimes I think of what I could have done with that time instead.

brei said...

check out the book "the paradox of choice" by barry schwartz, professor at swarthmore. book on behavioral psychology & economics. looks at "optimizers" (=perfectionists) and "maximizers". very relevant to your blog entry and a great read.