The many faces of perfectionism

The need for perfection comes in different flavors, each associated with its own set of problems, researchers say.

Monitor staff

Paul Hewitt, PhD, does not have much patience with researchers who argue that perfectionism–the need to be or appear perfect–can sometimes serve as a healthy motivation for reaching ambitious goals. “I don’t think needing to be perfect is in any way adaptive,” he says.

Hewitt should know. In more than 20 years of research, he and his colleagues–particularly psychologist Gordon Flett, PhD–have found that perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. This summer, several new studies were published that help explain how perfectionism can contribute to psychopathology.

“In the literature right now–this astounds me–people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive,” says Hewitt, a practicing psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia. “People will make that claim, and they’ll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it’s a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia and suicide.”

The question of adaptiveness

Since the early 1990s, Hewitt and Flett, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto have championed the idea that perfectionism comes in different flavors, each associated with different kinds of problems. Some of those problems may be less severe than others, they argue, but no form of perfectionism is completely problem-free.

Other researchers, however, have suggested that some forms of perfectionism–particularly those that involve high personal standards–can be adaptive. World-class athletes, they argue, have extraordinarily high standards; they shouldn’t be labeled pathological just because they aim high.

That’s an oversimplification, says Hewitt, one that conflates two very different things: the desire to excel and the desire to be perfect.