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Perfectionism Paradox

by Emma Kornberg

art by Jillian Smith

We have all heard of, been around, or known people who are perfectionists. Maybe we look at them and think: how do they do it? How do they accomplish so much with seemingly endless energy and motivation all the time? It may come as a surprise then, that research suggests drawbacks to these perfectionistic tendencies, including a higher risk for mental health issues. Because society highly values productivity and high achievement, emphasized on mediums like social media, the cyclical validation of perfectionism is, unfortunately, perpetuated.

Certain people are extreme perfectionists, but most only exhibit some perfectionistic tendencies. Wherever a person falls on this spectrum, it is helpful to practice more adaptive strategies that embrace the positive aspects of perfectionism, such as internal motivation and goal setting, while avoiding more negative qualities such as extreme self-criticism.


Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism

Perfectionism is characterized by aiming for an unrealistically flawless level of performance even if it is beyond what the situation actually requires [1]. The trait is divided into two categories: adaptive and maladaptive [2]. The two types differ

based on motivations to succeed, how mistakes are viewed, and goal-achieving processes.

Adaptive perfectionists tend to be self-oriented, or internally motivated by a desire to succeed [3]. Because of this, they have a higher sense of personal control over their actions, allowing them to selectively put effort into tasks they choose to prioritize, rather than overworking themselves. This internal feeling of control also applies to their handling of failure, as adaptive perfectionists allow more room for error, allowing instances of failure to guide future directions [3]. Consequently, these individuals build more adaptive and intuitive strategies, such as reframing a negative situation to look at the positives [3, 4]. This also means that adaptive perfectionists enjoy higher self-confidence since they are able to acknowledge their past successes in the face of failure, rather than focusing solely on their short-comings [3]. Because of this heightened confidence, adaptive perfectionists are able to recognize their own limitations without seeing them as failures, leading them to set more attainable goals for themselves [5].

Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, are usually motivated by external factors, such as societal or parental pressure, and are mainly driven by a fear of failure, which can be far more harmful to mental health [6]. This type of socially-prescribed perfectionism can feel incredibly isolating. Fearing that the outside world will harshly scrutinize their flaws, individuals can become consumed with negative self-talk and plagued by an inability to move past mistakes. This societal pressure may also cause individuals to exhibit other-oriented perfectionism [6]. Because maladaptive perfectionists perceive the world as intensely judgemental, they also place heavy expectations on others, contributing to an overall sense of societal disconnect and isolation [7]. To illustrate this difference, we can consider both maladaptive and adaptive responses to receiving a poor grade. An adaptive perfectionist might still feel proud of their efforts and be able to move forward. They will likely be able to reflect on what went well and what could have gone better without much self-criticism. However, a maladaptive perfectionist will likely take this grade as an indication that they are personally a failure and will be judged by the rest of the world. They hide this grade from others and heavily self-criticize, spending a lot of time thinking about this unacceptable and shameful imperfection [8].

There is an overlap between maladaptive and adaptive perfectionism, as different situations can give rise to different kinds of responses. Adaptive perfectionists can react with more harmful responses if under pressure or incorrectly thinking that an unhealthy coping strategy would be helpful [9]. Thus, both maladaptive and adaptive perfectionists can face consequences, although adaptive individuals may have a clearer pattern of healthy coping. Further, both types face the risk of taking repeated failures very personally, thinking that they are the core problem [9]. Being aware of which strategies are generally healthier and more useful for an individual with perfectionistic tendencies is important to help avoid intense self-criticism, low self-esteem, and poorer mental health [10].

Perfectionism is related to brain regions involved in cognitive and emotional processes, specifically the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) [11]. This area has connections to the limbic system, brain regions associated with emotional regulation, and the prefrontal cortex, which is linked to cognitive processes. The ACC is crucial in the ability to regulate negative emotions, which we do without realizing all the time [11]. For example, when receiving bad news right before an exam, we are generally able to use strategies such as suppression, emotionally distancing ourselves from the news, or distraction, so that we can focus on the exam. Afterward, we can turn our attention toward our feelings about the news and process them.

The ACC is activated by reward and emotional stimulation, so activities such as cognitive control, error detection, fear-related judgment, and emotional conflict regulation would likely excite this region [11]. Perfectionists tend to experience some fear of failure and external judgment, which can incite complicated and possibly negative emotions [11]. Thus, we can see how this brain area might be implicated in perfectionistic strategies. In fact, some sub-dimensions of perfectionism (concern over mistakes and doubts about actions), which are associated with anxiety and depression, are positively correlated with grey matter volume in the ACC [12]. Grey matter is the outermost layer of the brain and is crucial for daily operation, so changes in its volume can have a profound effect on the level of functioning [13].


Self Efficacy and Imposter Phenomenon (IP)

Adaptive perfectionists express higher levels of self-efficacy, or a person’s belief in their capability to complete tasks successfully, than maladaptive perfectionists [3]. It is crucial in achieving goals because people with a higher sense of self-efficacy are more likely to be patient when facing obstacles, believing they have the skills to overcome them [14].

High self-efficacy is associated with a positive effect on academic performance [15]. For example, a student with high self-efficacy confidently relies on problem-solving skills and tends to put more effort towards understanding the material in front of them. They believe they have the necessary tools to put in hard work, knowing that they will eventually learn the information. Additionally, because they do not view failure as a reflection of personal ability, they feel motivated to move forward. One idea as to why this is the case is that students who experience positive emotions as they learn (as opposed to anxious and self-critical ones) are able to engage more deeply with the material and act more flexibly [14]. We tend to feel more comfortable asking questions to fill in the gaps and understand the topic deeply when we resonate with it. Instead of being distracted by feelings of panic and anxiety about being inadequate, we can view learning as positive and meaningful.

Going into a learning experience with low self-efficacy creates more negative feelings surrounding the experience, causing one to avoid engaging deeply with the material [14]. Lower self-efficacy manifests in avoidance and procrastination, which can in turn lead to worse performance. Individuals may fear that a task is too difficult, causing them to give up easily. When faced with failure, they take it more personally, believing that it highlights a lack of personal ability instead of effort [14].

Low self-efficacy is also associated with the imposter phenomenon (IP), which was first described in 1978 as an internal feeling of inadequacy and low self-confidence about one’s abilities despite evidence suggesting otherwise [16]. The concept has since evolved to include feelings that one is undeserving of

their successes, falsely believing that these successes are the product of good luck as opposed to conscious hard work and effort [17]. The final aspect of this phenomenon is the fear of being exposed as an “imposter,” which can lead to anxiety about having tricked others into overestimating their abilities [17].

IP is especially prevalent in rigorous academic and professional contexts, such as medical school. Franchi and Russell-Sewell at the University of Sheffield found that up to 65% of medical students in their study had experienced scenarios in which they felt they were an “imposter,” despite being highly accomplished [18]. They found that this was more prevalent in women and that social comparison, which can be higher in people with IP, likely played a contributing role [18].

Another example is found in minority first-generation college students, who

tend to experience IP more often than non-first-generation students [19]. This could be due to a lack of substantial institutional resources for minority students, intense family pressure, or limited family support. Because these students are the first in their families to pursue higher education, they may sustain more self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy as they undertake a completely new challenge differently than non-first-gen students [20].


Social Media as a Medium of Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism

On average, young people spend 4.8 hours a day on social media. On these platforms, comparison to others is unavoidable and can contribute to the sense of isolation associated with socially-prescribed perfectionism [21]. Research has shown that more time spent on social media is correlated with higher levels of loneliness, even when adjusted for age, employment, concerns over health issues, and living with a partner [22].

On social media, users see “perfectly” productive days, “perfectly”-shaped bodies, and “perfect” relationships. This leaves viewers to examine their own lives, which seem flawed in comparison, and wonder how to “fix” everything to make their lives more perfect. We know that this probably won’t make us happy, but we admire the people on social media, and maybe we want to appear flawless to others too!

For many perfectionists, this experience can feel more intense, as they may set particularly unrealistic and unattainable expectations based on social media. Overusing social media has been linked to high academic burnout and other harmful aspects of perfectionism, such as self-criticism or intense rumination over mistakes [23]. It can also increase the sense of socially-prescribed perfectionism, exposing people to “flaws” they didn’t even know existed and increasing self-consciousness of these presumed flaws [24].

Some studies have shown that social media comparison can lead to increased dissatisfaction with appearance and weight, as well as decreased confidence. Specifically, common features of maladaptive perfectionism, such as rumination (an intense focus on critical thoughts) and catastrophizing (fixating on an anticipated negative event, magnifying the outcome, and underestimating coping ability), can amplify the effects of this comparison [25, 26]. These coping mechanisms have been found to decrease self-esteem levels, explaining the increased negative effect of social media comparison [27]. On the other hand, adaptive coping strategies such as positive refocusing can actually lessen the impact of perfectionism on one’s confidence [28]. Positive refocusing is used to reframe stress-inducing events as somehow beneficial or having a bright side [29, 30]. For example, a person nervous about failing their driving test may tell themself: “Even if I fail, that does not mean that I am a failure. This event can highlight some of my weaknesses, which I can improve over time. Thus, this is a valuable experience where I get to learn the extent of my abilities.”

Because comparison on social media can enhance perfectionist qualities, especially relating to physical appearance, it is important to be mindful of the risks that this environment poses, especially for younger adults and teens. Studies have found that younger adults express higher levels of perfectionistic traits than older adults [9]. In children and adolescents, perfectionism is directly correlated with eating disorder symptoms [31]. This may be because those who tend to express greater perfectionism in the area of self-appearance experience more self-dis- satisfaction and lower confidence than those who express it less [28].

These findings suggest an overall vulnerability in young people that social

media and societal expectations unfortunately perpetuate. Interestingly, in one study, participants concluded that despite reporting increased self-dissatisfaction and lower self-confidence, they did not feel that they were negatively affected by comparing themselves to individuals on social media [28]. This highlights a lack of awareness about the impacts of social media comparison on mental health, and perhaps an integration of socially-prescribed perfectionism into what may convincingly appear as self-oriented. Thus, it is important to be conscious of the comparisons that social media compels us to make and how they affect us.


Maladaptive Perfectionism and Drug Abuse

Because perfectionism inherently poses a constant source of stress and pressure, it can result in low self-esteem and frustration about always falling short of high expectations. An inability to cope with stressful situations or simply a lack of the proper coping tools, both features of maladaptive perfectionism, is a risk factor in the onset of drug abuse [5]. This is especially important to be aware of due to possible comorbidities, or the possibility of multiple disorders being present in an individual. For example, 50% of individuals with eating disorders, which implicates perfectionistic traits, also use alcohol or illegal drugs [32]. In fact, one in five individuals with an eating disorder will develop a substance abuse disorder sometime during their life [33]. Interestingly, studies suggest that aspects of adaptive perfectionism can help to prevent substance abuse, while traits of maladaptive perfectionism can increase the risk of an earlier onset of substance abuse [5, 10]. Specifically, the self-blame and low self-esteem found in maladaptive perfectionism can cause heightened feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction, which can result in leaning toward substance abuse as a possible coping mechanism [10].

Maladaptive coping strategies include prioritizing negative emotion over problem-solving, possibly leading to social withdrawal or living in denial [5]. These perfectionists feel ashamed of their mistakes and judged by the rest of society, leading to unhealthy behaviors that perpetuate a cycle of anxious and depressive symptoms. Because avoidance can feel less painful than the negative feelings associated with falling short, maladaptive perfectionists may be at a higher risk of turning to substances than others [5]. In fact, severe alcohol use disorder is associated with greater self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism as compared to healthy control participants [7]. Thus, it is crucial to practice healthier coping strategies that are more com- monly associated with adaptive perfectionists,

such as adopting a problem-solving mindset, practicing cognitive flexibility to view the environment as less threatening, and viewing failure as a learning experience instead of a personal shortcoming [5].

Perfectionists may fear mistakes and flaws, even though these are recognized as typical aspects of life—after all, to err is human. Failure is a difficult experience for most people, and for perfectionistic individuals who are predisposed to feeling some degree of imposter syndrome, external as well as internal judgment or shame can be amplified. This can lead to isolation and pressure, which contribute to long-term mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, or burnout, among others [12]. While there is no perfect way to be a perfectionist, practicing healthier strategies and increasing awareness regarding the downsides of portraying perfectionism as a purely positive trait may be beneficial.


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