Perfectionism: The Pressure to Perform

A recent meta-analysis of over 40,000 college students from North America and the United Kingdom found that perfectionism, whether self/socially/or other prescribed is on the rise, especially among our younger generations (Curran & Hill, 2019). Societal pressures are further compounded by professions with idealized standards imbedded in their culture, setting an unsustainably high bar for its members.

Simply described, perfectionism is the dogged pursuit of absolute flawlessness (Frost et al., 1990) and the driving force behind co-worker hostility.  Maladaptive perfectionism and particularly socially prescribed perfectionism can create toxically stressful environments for those who do not fit neatly into the status quo (Jahromi et al., 2012).  Current healthcare culture often promotes tendencies toward perfectionism; as a result, high levels of anxiety and depression are commonplace (Jahromi et al., 2012). 

Most of us will have experience with perfectionism, some may slip in and out of it in milder and more adaptive forms, while others will spend every waking hour driven by a compulsion to attain a standard that is unreasonably high.  In the more adaptive form, striving for perfection can benefit us as it motivates us to complete work and produce the best product (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018).  When in its more adaptive form, we keep our high standards to ourselves as opposed to socially prescribing our ideals onto others.  We are more likely to be self-motivated, goal oriented, more willing to adapt to obstacles that may delay achievements, and to find satisfaction from our accomplishments (Ellis, 2002).  The downside of perfectionism, evident in its maladaptive forms, is the natural inclination to hold others to the same idealistic standards, which can cause unreasonably high expectations (Melrose, 2011).  If we cannot meet these idealistic standards, detrimental mental health effects often result (Melrose, 2011).  These health effects often correlate with fears of criticism and failure and when left unaddressed can lead to moral injury, emotional exhaustion, and eventual burnout (Chang, 2012; Gould, Udry, Tuffey, & Loehr, 1996; Sevlever & Rice, 2010).

Two perfect doors.  There are two dimensions of perfectionism, ‘excellence-seeking,’ whereby we are driven to achieve high standards and ‘failure-avoiding,’ where we are driven to avoid shortcomings. Both versions are ultimately driven by the same core factors such as black and white thinking, a compulsive need to attain lofty standards, and self-worth evaluations contingent on one’s achievement of their idealized standard (Harari, Swider, Steed, & Breidenthal, 2018; Hewitt & Flett, 1993). 

Perfectionism spilling into the workplace. When mired in perfectionism, we are likely to dissociate from emotions, often ignoring and internalizing fears of worthlessness, shame, and failure (Petersson, Perseius, & Johnsson, 2014; Shafran, Cooper, & Fairburn, 2002).  Over time, this habitually defensive way of being will cause an overall lower tolerance for exposure to stress (Ellis, 2002; Petersson et al., 2014).  These maladaptive forms of perfectionism lead to self-destructive behaviours, which extend into prescribing the same unrealistic expectations onto others (a phenomenon called socially prescribed perfectionism).  Socially prescribed perfectionism uses shaming tactics to pressure others to live up to unrealistically high standards and when culturally reinforced, it has toxic effects on workplace morale, resulting in a chronic workplace stressor.

Perfectionism and sense of coherence (SOC) inversely link (Rennemark & Hagberg, 1997); those who have a low sense of coherence score have higher perfectionism scores; therefore, improving sense of coherence buffers us from extreme forms of perfectionism (Rennemark & Hagberg, 1997).