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Perfectionism: Gift or Curse?

The following is a term paper I wrote for a psychology class in 2005, as a Yale undergrad. My topic of choice roots back to my suffering the pains of pefectionism at the time. Thankfully, I’ve learned to control it… 

One of the most generally accepted definitions of perfectionism is “the tendency to set extremely high standards of personal performance.” (Dunn, 1440) Most prominent theorists view perfectionism as a “multidimensional construct”, which can be divided into “intrapersonal and interpersonal components.” (Dunn, 1440)

The intrapersonal components refer to individuals who set extremely high standards for themselves while the interpersonal components refer to individuals who either feel the pressure of the high standards set by the society or set extremely high standards for the people around them. The two most popular perfectionism tests are Frost’s Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS) and Hewitt’s MPS. Currently, there is great debate about how perfectionism should be conceptualized. There are two clashing approaches to perfectionism: the global approach and the domain-specific approach. Both MPS have acquired the global approach to perfectionism. However, there are many researchers who believe that “perfectionism may only apply to select areas of peoples’ lives.” (Dunn, 1440) In addition, research regarding other traits, such as anxiety, has proven that specifying the domain leads to better predictions. For instance, an individual’s level of anxiety can be predicted more accurately if the researcher focuses on test anxiety or public speaking anxiety, instead of focusing on global anxiety.

John G.H. Dunn et al. have conducted a study on 133 highly competitive male and 108 highly competitive female varsity athletes to determine whether their levels of perfectionism differ when two different domains, namely sports and academics, are considered separately. The athletes were asked to complete three versions of Hewitt’s MPS, the original one, a version that measured perfectionism in the domain of academics and a version that measured perfectionism in the domain of sports. All three tests had three subtests, which measured Self-oriented Perfectionism (SOP), Socially Prescribed Perfectionism (SPP) and Other-Oriented Perfectionism (OOP). SOP is the state when the individual imposes extremely high standards on himself; SPP is the state when the individual feels the pressure of the high standards set by the society, and OOP is the state when the individual imposes extremely high standards on others. Dunn et al. found that there were “significant gender differences” (Dunn, 1444) on two of the nine subtests. Taking these differences into account, Dunn et al. reached the conclusion that “Males and females had significantly higher mean subscale (subtest) scores on the Sport-MPS in comparison to both the Hewitt-MPS and the School-MPS. Males had significantly higher Hewitt-MPS means for SOP and OOP in comparison to the same dimensions in the School-MPS, and females had higher OOP mean scores on the Hewitt-MPS in comparison to the School-MPS.” The researchers concluded that “self-reported levels of perfectionism appear to be influenced by the situational context.” (Dunn, 1444) However, there might have been certain sources of error that might have interfered with the study. All of the members of the sample of people were varsity athletes competing for highly ambitious sports teams. These athletes who had been recruited to this highly competitive team might think that they are more competent in sports than in academics. Combining with the effects of the school community’s expectations from a competitive athlete, “perceived competence” (Dunn, 1446) might have caused the dramatic difference between the level of perfectionism involved in the two domains.

Another interesting finding of this study is that gender differences among college students do exist. Even though numerous studies have shown no difference in global perfectionism, by looking at specific domains, Dunn et al. has shown that gender differences do exist. Ryska (2003) has reported that, for men, succeeding in sports is a greater measure of success in life, than it is for women. Such differences in characteristics are not being taken into account when researchers approach perfectionism from a global perspective. Therefore, the domain-specific approach to perfectionism may lead to more accurate predictions.

What causes perfectionism? Is it triggered by something within the individual or is it caused by parents’ influence? Or is it both? As a child, a perfectionist might have believed that others appreciate him according to his achievements. If the child chews on this conception for too long he might start regarding it as the truth. In order to be appreciated as much as possible the perfectionist individual may develop obsessive compulsive tendencies, which may finally lead to perfectionism. McArdle and Duda made a study on 132 young athletes. The participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire, which measures each participant’s level of interpersonal and intrapersonal perfectionism, achievement orientations, motivational regulations, perceived family goal orientations and family flexibility. McArdle and Duda concluded that “perceptions of parental criticism was significantly positively correlated with doubts about actions and concerns about mistakes… Perceptions of parental task goal endorsement was significantly correlated with intrinsic motivation and negatively correlated with amotivation.” (McArdle and Duda, 774) Even though these conclusions do not indicate that maladaptive perfectionism is caused by critical parents and an inflexible family environment, they certainly imply that critical parents and an inflexible family environment may be two factors that have an influence of maladaptive perfectionism.

Is perfectionism always maladaptive? Hamacheck divides perfectionism into two groups: “the normal and the neurotic.” Normal Perfectionism encourages the individual to achieve self-actualization by setting high standards. It does not encourage individuals to punish themselves whenever they fail to reach the extremely high, even impossible standards. Consequently, normal perfectionists manage to derive satisfaction even if they do not meet the ambitious criteria they had set initially. Silverman thinks that this kind of perfectionism is an essential part of giftedness. On the other hand, Neurotic (maladaptive) Perfectionism includes a punishing attitude. Whenever the individual fails to achieve the high standards, which is most of the time, the individual feels dissatisfied. Neurotic perfectionists measure their self worth according to their success in reaching their extremely high sets of standards. This frequent feeling of dissatisfaction leads to disorders, such as depression, anorexia nervosa etc. In college, neurotic perfectionism can cause under achievement in students. Such students share the following: “procrastination, fear of failure, the all-or-nothing mindset and workaholism.” (Peters) Procrastination is a widely shared characteristic among Yalies. Yale Perfectionists fear the failure of not reaching perfection. Consequently, they leave their work to the last minute just to further the timing of their “failure”. Tardiness can be closely associated with perfectionism as well. Perfectionists find it extremely difficult to make the “perfect” choice. Even after they make a choice, they spend a prolonged period of time meticulously performing the duties of their choice. As a result, they usually are late for meetings, events and classes.

Most humans are capable of keeping Neurotic perfectionism under control. Perfectionism can be managed by paying close attention to prioritization, not expecting others to live up to your standards, setting realistic goals and stricter time limits. Prioritization is very important, since it puts the perfectionist’s tasks in an order. By prioritizing the tasks, the perfectionist can complete the most important tasks on time. However, before prioritizing the perfectionist must be convinced that the completed task really is the most important one; otherwise, he would feel dissatisfaction once again. Setting realistic goals and stricter time limits can help the perfectionist complete as many tasks as possible. Perfectionists do not only have problems within themselves, they also have conflicts with the people around them. They find it difficult to appreciate those people, because perfectionists generally have a tendency to judge those people according to their own extremely high standards. Learning to keep their criteria for themselves can aid perfectionists significantly in expanding their social circle and thereby achieving the social success they strive for.

It may be very challenging to manage one’s perfectionism through the aforementioned methods. Sometimes professional counseling is necessary in order to transform this neurotic state into a gift that enables continuous progress.


Dunn, John G. H., J. K. Gotwals, J. C. Dunn. “An Examination of the Domain Specificity of Perfectionism Among Intercollegiate Student-Athletes.” Personality and Individual Differences 38 (6): 1439-1448 APR 2005.

McArdle, S., J. L. Duda. “Exploring Social-contextual Correlates of Perfectionism in Adolescents: A Multivariate Perspective.” Cognitive Therapy and Research 28 (6):   765-788 DEC 2004.

Peters, Carole C. “Perfectionism.” 20 April 2005  <;.

The University of Texas at Austin Counseling and Mental Health Center. “Perfectionism: a Double-edged Sword” 18 April 2005 <;.