Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Perfectionism is manifestation of personality disorder

Case vignette

Mr. R., working as pharmacist in a Government hospital, experiences ‘mental tension’ whenever he sees things at home or at the pharmacy in a disorderly fashion. He wants everything in orderly way and neat and tidy condition. He often scolds his only son studying in the higher secondary class for not keeping his books in neat and tidy manner. He did his daily exercise to keep himself fit but his son never bothered to do exercise. He couldn’t gather why he is all the time worried and dissatisfied. He was constantly disappointed with his wife and son who, according to him, never rose to his standards. He has been pointing out their faults, lecturing them about their duties and warning them about how their future would be doomed unless they changed their easygoing nature. His wife and son are becoming more and more detached and irresponsible, quite contrary to what he wanted. They seemed to be purposely not following his instructions. They avoided him even to the extent of refusing to sit together to have a meal. Obviously, they found his constant blaming and advising unacceptable.  He concluded: “Doctor, I am a perfectionist. But my wife and son are not. That is why I am worried about them. What should I do to correct them?”

Perfectionism is a personality disorder

Mr. R. was absolutely correct when he said that he was a perfectionist. But perfectionist is, as William Shakespeare said in King Lear, “striving to be better, oft mar what's well”. Perfectionism is the manifestation of a personality disorder called obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. In the international classification of diseases it is designated as ‘anancastic personality disorder.’ It is characterized by the following:
  1. feelings of excessive doubt and caution;
  2. preoccupation with details, rules, lists, order, organization or schedule;
  3. perfectionism that interferes with task completion;
  4. excessive conscientiousness, scrupulousness, and undue preoccupation with productivity to the exclusion of pleasure and interpersonal relationships;
  5. excessive pedantry and adherence to social conventions;
  6. rigidity and stubbornness;
  7. unreasonable insistence by the patient that others submit to exactly his or her way of doing things, or unreasonable reluctance to allow others to do things;
  8. intrusion of insistent and unwelcome thoughts or impulses.

Perfectionists may be mistaken for high achievers, but there are some key differences between them. How to identify a perfectionist? Following are the telltale traits of perfectionist:

All-or-nothing thinking:

Perfectionists, like high achievers, tend to set high goals and work hard toward them. However, a high achiever becomes satisfied with doing a great job and achieving excellence or something close to it. They are not tense even if their very high goals aren’t completely met. Perfectionists will accept nothing less than perfection. Even “almost perfect” is considered as failure by perfectionists. This kind of evaluation of achievements is due to their “all-or-nothing thinking’. This type of thinking is a cognitive distortion. They see everything in black or white. Therefore this type of thinking is also called black-and-white thinking.

Harsh self-criticism:

Perfectionists are far more critical of themselves than are high achievers. While high achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, perfectionists tend to spot tiny mistakes and imperfections in their own work, as well as in others work.

Perfectionists are pushed by fear:

High achievers tend to be pulled toward their goals by a desire to achieve them, and are happy with any steps made in the right direction. Perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be pushed toward their goals by a fear of not reaching them. They see anything less than a perfectly met goal as a failure.

Unrealistic goals:

A perfectionist’s goals aren’t always reasonable. While high achievers can set their goals high, perhaps enjoying the fun of going a little further once goals are reached, perfectionists often set their initial goals out of reach. Because of this, high achievers tend to be not only happier, but more successful than perfectionists in the pursuit of their goals.

No result orientation:

High achievers can enjoy the process of chasing a goal. Perfectionists see the goal and nothing else. They’re so concerned about meeting the goal and avoiding the dreaded failure that they can’t enjoy the process of growing and striving.

Depressed by unmet goals:

While high achievers are able to bounce back fairly easily from disappointment, perfectionists tend to beat themselves up much more and wallow in negative feelings when their high expectations go unmet. This leads to depression.

Afraid to fail:

Perfectionists are also much more afraid to fail than are high achievers. Failure becomes a very scary prospect. And, since anything less than perfection is seen as ‘failure’, this can lead to procrastination.


Procrastination is deferring an action to a later time. Perfectionism and procrastination do tend to go hand in hand. This is because, fearing failure as they do, perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something imperfectly that they become immobilized and fail to do anything at all! This leads to more feelings of failure, and a vicious cycle is thus perpetuated.


Because a less-than-perfect performance is so painful and scary to perfectionists, they tend to take constructive criticism defensively, while high achievers can see criticism as valuable information to help their future performance.

Low self esteem:

High achievers tend to have high esteem of themselves; not so with perfectionists. They tend to be very self-critical and unhappy, and suffer from low self-esteem. They can also be lonely or isolated, as their critical nature and rigidity can push others away as well. This can lead to lower self-esteem.

Get rid of perfectionism

Perfectionism can rob you of your peace of mind, enjoyment of life, and self esteem. Though it’s a process that may take a little time, shedding the burden of perfectionism can greatly decrease the level of stress you feel on a daily basis.

Recognizing that a change may be needed is a very important first step toward creating a more easygoing nature and achieving the inner peace and real success that comes from overcoming perfectionism and being able to say that ‘almost perfect’ or ‘less than perfect’ is also a job well done.
A restructuring of cognition or mindset and personality is needed to get rid of perfectionism; here are some important steps you can take to maintain a healthier attitude:

Make a cost-benefit analysis:

Take a closer look at your perfectionist traits. You may think you’re more effective because of them. Many researchers have proved that this isn’t true. Perfectionism has many negative consequences, and you may be experiencing several of them right now. Make a list of all the ways perfectionism is hurting you (and those around you), and you’ll be more motivated to shed these tendencies.

Self-awareness of your tendencies:

By becoming more aware of your patterns, you’re in a better position to alter them. It is better to record your perfectionist thoughts as they pop into your mind. If it is impractical for you to write down thoughts as they come, try to go over your day each night and remember the times when you felt you’d failed, and write down what you thought at the time. This will help you become more aware of perfectionist thoughts as they come to you in the future.

See the positive:

Try to stop spotting mistakes. It may be difficult to just stop. But you can soften your tendency to notice the bad by making a conscious effort to notice all that is good with your work and the achievements of others. If you notice something you don’t like about yourself or your work, for example, look for five other qualities that you do like. This will balance out your critical focus and become a positive new habit.

Change your self-talk:

A perfectionist always engages in negative self-talk like ‘my work isn’t good enough’, ‘I am not trying hard enough’, and ‘they are not good enough’. Negative self talk can perpetuate unhealthy behaviors and wreak havoc on your self esteem; by altering your self-talk, you can go a long way toward enjoying life more and gaining an increased appreciation for yourself and your work. 

Set realistic goal

Perfectionists tend to set goals of unreasonable excellence. These goals tend to be unrealistic and cause problems by being so rigidly demanding and leaving little room for error. Instead, you can reduce a lot of stress by changing your goals.

Enjoy the process:

You may be used to focusing on results, and getting depressed if your results are less than perfect. One important way to recover from perfectionism is to begin focusing more on the process of reaching toward a goal, rather than just focusing on the goal itself. You can also enjoy the process of reaching a goal by getting involved with a group who is also trying to achieve the same goal you’re after. If you find you don’t achieve perfection, you can then reflect back and see all that you’ve gained in just working toward a worthy goal, assessing and appreciating the gains you did make in the process.

Learn to handle criticism:

Do not look at criticism as an attack and react defensively. Constructive criticism can give you important clues on how to improve your performance, making your less-than-perfect performances into useful stepping stones that lead to excellence. If the criticism you’re receiving is harsh, just remind others and yourself that mistakes are a great way to learn.

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