Where does perfectionism come from? What can it lead to?
Some psychologists have determined that perfectionism is a personality type. Raymond Cattell, a renowned British psychologist, created the “16 Personality Factors Model” in which he identifies perfectionism as one of the “factors.” Those with high perfectionist scores on Cattell's “16 Personality Factors” test tend to be “perfectionistic, organized, compulsive, self-disciplined, socially precise, exacting will power, control, and self-sentimental.”
However, Strassburger disagrees: “Perfectionism is a behavioral pattern where there's some reinforcement of the habit. I wouldn't think of it as a personality type because it can happen to anyone,” she says.
Girls who suffer from perfectionism are more likely to also suffer from OCD, depression, and eating disorders. According to Strassburger, perfectionism is a subtype of OCD; the constant anxiety and lack of satisfaction consistent with perfectionists can often lead to depression; and the cycle of releasing tension over food and body image by starving or bingeing and purging mirrors the perfectionist cycle of positive reinforcement. However, it is important to note that not all perfectionists develop these disorders; by the same token, not all girls who struggle with these disorders are perfectionists.
Are you a perfectionist?
There’s a line between liking to proofread your papers three times and being such a perfectionist that it ultimately becomes destructive. If you're not sure whether or not you have these traits, see if any of Strassburger's warning signs apply to you:
- Do your perfectionistic urges take up a significant amount of time?
- Can you resist the urge to be perfectionistic? If you aren't able to complete a task to a certain degree, does that make you feel anxious?
- Most importantly, do you feel that your perfectionism is negatively affecting your life?
How can you cope with stress?
When Andrea was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis, her doctor explained that the only way to get rid of the condition would be to lower her stress. Seems impossible, right? Not quite. Berlin and Strassburger share a few of their best tips to break free from your inner perfectionist:
- “On your next quiz, leave an answer blank. Answer a question wrong on purpose. Write messily on purpose. When you expose yourself to things that make you uncomfortable often enough, the anxiety just dissipates,” says Strassburger.
- Strassburger recommends seeing a therapist. Your school likely has mental health services that are used to dealing with things like this.
- “Be realistic. If you're going to work out, work out in ways that are healthy and enjoyable. Set your sights on grades that are awesome by doing what you love. Don't be critical of yourself if you're not living up to the ideals of other people,” says Berlin.
At its worst, perfectionism is about more than just freaking out about the occasional grade. Ultimately, it can cross the line and become dangerous. The desire to succeed isn't harmful in itself, but it's not worth sacrificing your physical, mental, or emotional health in order to do so. Berlin reminds us, “Perfection is just an illusion.” So don't worry about being perfect – just be the very best you that you can be!
Andrea, Western Michigan University '10
Jessica, College of William & Mary '12
Chrissy Callahan, Brandeis University ‘10
Jeanne Strassburger, PhD, Cambridge Health Alliance
Ali Berlin, www.aliberlin.com
Traits of Perfectionists
Raymond Cattell's 16 Personality Factors
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