In Your Head

When perfectionism becomes a problem

By Carey Goldberg
Globe Staff / March 2, 2009
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By the time Jared Kant was 12, he had to stop doing his homework with a pencil because the eraser was too tempting.

If he made a mistake on one word, he would feel compelled to erase a whole sentence. If one letter was not shaped and spaced just so, the whole word had to go. He would sometimes erase right through homework papers. The same with tests.

Kant, now 26 and working as a research coordinator in Boston, learned firsthand what a growing body of psychological research has recently begun to document: The line between admirably high standards and painful pathology can be exceedingly thin. "The dividing line," says Kant, "is distress."

From Tiger Woods to Michael Jordan, tales abound of athletes, musicians, and others whose dedicated striving elevated them to new heights of achievement. Such a drive for excellence is not what concerns psychologists; they applaud it. But in recent years, they have begun to focus more on perfectionism as a distinct personality problem, one that may often do far more harm than good, even in cases much less dramatic than Kant's erasing.

"Perfectionism is a phobia of mistake-making," said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, which is based in Boston. "It is the feeling that 'If I make a mistake, it will be catastrophic.' "

Striving for perfection is fine, said Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a leading researcher on perfectionism. The issue is how you interpret your own inevitable mistakes and failings. Do they make you feel bad about yourself in a global sense? Does a missed shot in tennis make you slam your racket to the ground? Do you think anything less than 100 percent might as well be zero?

Perfectionist types have surely been around for millennia, but it is only in the last decade or two that psychologists have begun to research the trait systematically - and to devise specific treatments for perfectionists who want to change.

Much of the initial work has explored the overlap between perfectionism and mental illness. The list is long. Perfectionism is linked to depression, to anxiety disorders, to anorexia, to obsessive-compulsive disorder (Jared Kant's diagnosis), to insomnia. Studies have also linked perfectionism to relationship problems and sexual dissatisfaction.

Counter-intuitive as it may seem, some research also suggests that in people who are too hard on themselves, perfectionism may actually hinder performance in school and sports, and on the job.

Its origins are believed to be complex, but perfectionism seems to stem at least in part from parenting. In studies, perfectionists tend to report that their parents were demanding and critical.

No one knows exactly how prevalent perfectionism is, said Martin Antony, a psychology professor at Ryerson University and coauthor of "When Perfect Isn't Good Enough." Researchers have also not determined whether perfectionism causes mental illness or vice versa.

But just in the last couple of years, he said, studies have begun to demonstrate the effectiveness of perfectionism treatment strategies that have been partly borrowed from therapy for anxiety and depression. They have found that for the typical patient, treatment significantly reduces the central symptoms of perfectionism, such as self-doubt, exaggerated concern over mistakes, and excessively high personal standards, as measured by standardized psychological tests.

The data, Antony said, support a plan roughly like this, preferably followed with a therapist but possibly alone:

  • Get to know your perfectionism: become more aware of your perfectionistic patterns of thinking and behavior, and their effects on your life and those around you. What are your triggers?

  • Challenge your thinking and question your beliefs: Is it really so important for every book on your shelf to be placed even with the one next to it? What would happen if they were uneven? Do you know anyone with uneven books? What are the costs and benefits of spending time making everything "just so"?

  • Change your behavior by exposing yourself to what you fear: Practice making mistakes, though not if they will lead to terrible consequences. Send a letter to a friend with typos in it. Burn dessert a bit at a party.

    Even with treatment options developing, it is often a battle to persuade perfectionists that change is worthwhile, said Szymanski, who ran a therapy group for extreme perfectionists at McLean Hospital's OCD Institute in Belmont for seven years.

    Members tended to come to the group because their perfectionism had led to being fired or divorced, he said, or to tremendous stress and suffering. And yet, many feared that if they lowered the bar for themselves, they would turn into someone like Homer Simpson - "careless, lazy, incompetent."

    Szymanski would affirm the members' strivings for excellence, he said, but question their strategies for achieving it. And he would try to help them set priorities instead of seeking to do their very best at everything all the time.

    One analogy he used was the carwash: Say you pay $2 for five minutes at a do-it-yourself carwash, and clean away about 80 percent of your car's dirt. That makes sense. Then you pay another $2 for a second round, and clean away another 10 percent. Your returns are diminishing. Then another $2, which yields only about 5 percent more. At some point, though having a clean car is a fine goal, you are clearly wasting your time and money.

    Among the most interesting recent research findings, Frost said, are studies that have pinpointed key attributes of perfectionism that are particularly linked with serious distress.

    One, he said, is "concealment," the need to hide mistakes and imperfections. The other is "contingent self-worth," the feeling that "in order to be a worthwhile person, I have to perform in such and such a manner, I have to behave perfectly."

    Those findings suggest that treatment should include ways to help perfectionists open up about their mistakes, and help them realize that others will not condemn them. In fact, research suggests many mistakes are endearingly humanizing.

    For Kant, who wrote a book about his experiences with obsessive-compulsive disorder called "The Thought That Counts," part of getting better involved coming to understand that much as he wanted to be perfect, he needed to stay within the realm of the possible.

    These days, he said, when friends and family try to organize a "perfect" birthday party for him, he gives them a little speech: "I don't really need the perfect birthday," he says. "I just want to have a nice day."

    Carey Goldberg can be reached at

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