When does conscientiousness become perfectionism?
Traits, self-presentation styles, and cognitions suggest a persistent psychopathology.
Mr. C is a 50-year-old professional writer who recently made a serious suicide attempt. At his initial session, Mr. C was hesitant to discuss his situation and reason for attending. He did, however, bring a copy of his résumé so the therapist could “get to know him quickly.”
He said he had been depressed for a long time, especially since he found an error in one of his published works. His confidence and writing abilities seemed to decline after this discovery, his career took a downturn, and ultimately he was fired from his position. He described often being at odds with his supervisors at work, whom he saw as critical and condescending. He was mortified by his job loss and did not inform his wife or friends of his firing.
Mr. C had always been a bit of a loner, and after losing his job he further distanced himself from others. He began drinking heavily to avoid the pain of “letting everyone down.” His wife, family, and friends were shocked at the suicide attempt and expressed dismay that Mr. C had not confided in anyone.
Mr. C describes himself as being perfectionistic throughout his life and never being quite good enough in any of his pursuits. This leads to self-recriminations and persistent feelings of shame.
Far from being a positive attribute, perfectionism is a neurotic personality style that can result in serious psychopathology, including relationship problems, depression, anorexia nervosa, and suicide. Determining a patient’s perfectionistic traits is essential when evaluating those who seek treatment specifically for this distressing behavior as well as patients in treatment for other issues who may have a perfectionistic personality. Accurately assessing perfectionism can help you predict and forestall noncompliance, assess suicide risk, determine appropriate treatment and identify circumstances under which a patient might be particularly vulnerable to relapse.
This article describes:
- 3 traits of perfectionism
- 3 dimensions of perfectionistic self-presentation
- perfectionistic cognitions
- useful self-report tools for clinical practice
- effective treatments.
Characteristics of perfectionism
Although perfectionism initially was viewed as self-related cognitions, recent models suggest it incorporates intrapersonal and interpersonal dimensions.1 A person with perfectionism has a marked need for absolute perfection for the self and/or others in many—if not all—pursuits that is strongly rooted in his or her intrapersonal and interpersonal worlds. Other characteristics of perfectionism include:
- equating self-worth or esteem with performance
- self-punishment in failure and a lack of satisfaction in success
- maintaining and needing to strive for unrealistic expectations
- unrealistic criteria for success and broad criteria for failure.
Some clinicians have suggested that perfectionism may be adaptive,2 but “adaptive perfectionism” is more likely a reflection of conscientiousness or achievement striving (Table 1). Although perfectionism can involve rumination, it is much broader than simply having an obsessional cognitive style.
We define perfectionism as a neurotic personality style involving perfectionist traits, self-presentation styles, and cognitions that is a core vulnerability factor for a variety of psychological, physical, achievement, and relationship problems (Table 2).1,3
3 traits. Three traits of perfectionism reflect the desire for the self or others to be perfect:
- self-oriented perfectionism—a requirement for the self to be perfect
- other-oriented perfectionism—a requirement for others to be perfect
- socially prescribed perfectionism—a perception that others require perfection of oneself.
Each of these traits is associated with different Axis I and Axis II disorders, which we outline below.4 In addition to these traits, perfectionism includes interpersonal and intrapersonal expressions.
3 self-presentational dimensions. The interpersonal expression of perfectionism is perfectionistic self-presentation. In our model, the 3 facets of perfectionistic self-presentation are:
- perfectionistic self-promotion—overt displays and statements of one’s supposed “perfection”
- nondisplay of imperfections—hiding any imperfections
- nondisclosure of imperfections—avoiding disclosure or discussion of any imperfection.3
Perfectionistic cognitions. The intrapersonal expression of perfectionism is perfectionistic information processing and ruminative thoughts regarding the need for perfection for the self or others.5 This state component reflects the self-related inner dialogue of the patient’s requirement for perfection, recriminations, etc. Perfectionistic cognitions are associated with state levels of distress and symptom severity.
How perfectionism differs from conscientiousness
Receives no satisfaction from any performance
Experiences satisfaction with good performance
Experiences no rewards from any performance
Rewards self or others for good performance
Maintains expectations in the face of failure
Alters expectations in the face of failure
Is motivated by fear of failure
Is motivated by desire for success
Shows poor organization
Focuses on flaws as indication of self-worth
Focuses less on flaws
Psychopathologies associated with perfectionism
Requires self to be perfect
Unipolar depression, anorexia nervosa
Requires others to be perfect
Personality disorders (PDs), relationship problems
Socially prescribed perfectionism
Perceives that others require one to be perfect
Suicidal behavior, general distress
Perfectionistic self-presentational styles
Overtly promotes one’s ‘perfection’
Narcissistic PD, other dramatic cluster PDs
Nondisplay of imperfections
Avoids demonstrating one’s imperfection
Poor help seeking, treatment nonadherence, anxiety in assessment and therapy
Nondisclosure of imperfections
Hides perceived imperfections from others
Poor therapy alliance, relationship problems
Inner dialogue regarding requirement to be perfect
General distress, severity of depression, anxiety
Traits tied to psychopathology
Each of the 3 traits of perfectionism in our model has been associated with psychopathology in multiple studies.
Self-oriented perfectionism is often involved in Axis I disorders, including unipolar depression. This trait is elevated among adults and children diagnosed with major depressive disorder and may be pernicious in the presence of stressors, particularly achievement-related ones.6 In other words, self-oriented perfectionism appears to be a risk factor for unipolar depression.7,8
It also is elevated in women with anorexia nervosa compared with normal and psychiatric controls.9 Individuals with anorexia nervosa appear to have the highest levels of self-oriented perfectionism among clinical groups.
Other-oriented perfectionism is associated with antisocial and narcissistic personality disorders.10,11 It also is related to interpersonal problems and difficulties with marriage and intimate relationships.12
Socially prescribed perfectionism is highly elevated in patients with social phobia13 and narcissistic11 or borderline personality disorder.10 It also is associated with severity of depression, anxiety, and symptoms of hostility.7
Perhaps most important, determining a patient’s level of socially prescribed perfectionism can aid in assessing suicide risk. Socially prescribed perfectionism has been shown to be highly relevant in suicide ideation, ratings of suicide risk, and moderate- to high-intent suicide attempts in adults,14 adolescents, and children.15 Socially prescribed perfectionism has been found to be a unique predictor of suicide behaviors even after controlling for common predictors such as depression severity and hopelessness.
Self-presentation. Fewer studies have evaluated a potential link between perfectionistic self-presentation and psychopathology. However, levels of all 3 dimensions of this style—self-promotion of perfection, non-display of imperfection, and nondisclosure of imperfection—appear to be higher in patients with anorexia nervosa than in normal and psychiatric controls.9
In addition, perfectionistic self-presentation appears to impair patients’ ability to access and benefit from treatment. Researchers (Hewitt PL, Lee-Baggley D, Sherry SB, et al., unpublished data, 2007) have found that the various dimensions of perfectionistic self-presentation are associated with:
- difficulty in seeking help for psychological problems
- increased distress in clinical interviews
- fears of psychotherapy and psychotherapists
- early termination of treatment.
Assessing perfectionistic behavior
A variety of brief self-report measures of perfectionism components—and at least one interview measure—can aid your assessment. These are brief instruments and take only a few minutes to complete. Each self-report measure assesses different aspects of perfectionism, such as traits, self-presentational styles, or cognitions (Table 3). The interview can be used as an alternative to the self-report tools.
Mr. C’s scores on several of these measures appear in Table 4. Interpretive information is available from the authors (see Related Resources). Empirical evidence supports the reliability and validity of these measures in clinical samples of both adults and children/adolescents.
Perfectionism self-report assessment tools
Traits or trait components
Hewitt and Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (for adults)
Flett and Hewitt Child and Adolescent Perfectionism Scale
Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (for adults)
Hewitt and Flett Perfectionistic Self Presentation Scale (for adults)
Hewitt and Flett Perfectionistic Self Presentation Scale Junior (for children and adolescents)
Flett and Hewitt Perfectionism Cognitions Inventory (for adults)
Dysfunctional Attitude Scale (one subscale measures perfectionism; for adults)
Interpreting scores on perfectionism self-reports
Mr. C’s score
MPS: Self-oriented perfectionism
2 SD above normative mean
MPS: Other-oriented perfectionism
0.5 SD above normative mean
MPS: Socially prescribed perfectionism
1 SD above normative mean
PSPS: Perfectionist self-promotion
1.5 SD above normative mean
PSPS: Nondisplay of imperfection
1.5 SD above normative mean
PSPS: Nondisclosure of imperfection
2 SD above normative mean
Withdrawal from others, nondisclosure
PCI: Perfectionistic cognitions
.75 above normative mean
MPS: Hewitt and Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale; PCI: Hewitt and Flett Perfectionism Cognitions Inventory; PSPS: Hewitt and Flett Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale; SD: standard deviation
Limited data on treatments
Few treatments for perfectionistic behavior have been systematically evaluated. Numerous studies have attempted to assess changes in perfectionism as the result of treatment for a specific Axis I disorder, but few have addressed treatment for perfectionism as a clinical entity.
Overall, it seems reasonable to expect that because perfectionism is a personality style, improvement would require fairly intensive, long-term treatment that explicitly emphasizes reducing dimensions of perfectionism.
Psychodynamic treatments focus on perfectionism’s underlying mechanisms and attempt to alter the patient’s personality structure. Studies suggest that intensive psychotherapy is most appropriate.
One of the first treatment evaluations from a reanalysis of Menninger Clinic data found the greatest improvements in patients receiving intensive psychoanalytically oriented treatment, compared with short-term psychotherapy or other treatments.16 More recent evaluations suggest that highly perfectionistic individuals can be treated effectively only with intensive, long-term psychodynamically oriented treatment17 and short-term interpersonal, cognitive, and medication therapies do little to alter perfectionistic behavior.
In our experience [PLH] perfectionistic individuals can improve significantly with long-term intensive treatment. On the other hand, we recently completed a study of the efficacy of a short-term, intensive psychodynamic/interpersonal group approach for treating perfectionism and its sequelae.
In this study,18 we focused on treating the interpersonal precursors or causes of perfectionism, such as attachment styles; interpersonal needs for respect, caring, acceptance, and belonging; and need to avoid rejection, abandonment, and humiliation. In 70 patients with high levels of perfectionism, this treatment significantly decreased perfectionism, symptoms of depression and anxiety, and interpersonal problems. These symptoms continued to be reduced from baseline 6 months later.
Cognitive-behavioral approaches. Several researchers’ findings suggest that cognitive restructuring, bibliotherapy, role-playing, coping strategies, homework assignments, and relaxation may help reduce the cognitive component of perfectionism.19,20 Other work indicates that cognitive interventions can reduce perfectionism. One study linked reductions in socially prescribed perfectionism to concomitant reductions in depression.21
Yet other data show that patients with perfectionism traits experience residual depression even when treatment reduces perfectionism.22 This is consistent with findings that patients with social phobia who did not respond to treatment had slightly diminished but still relatively high perfectionism levels.23
Cognitive interventions can reduce perfectionistic concerns about mistakes and doubting actions, but other aspects of perfectionism—such as perceived parental unrealistic standards and criticisms—remain elevated and appear more treatment-resistant.24
Collectively, these data suggest that some treated patients may be at risk for relapse because persistent perfectionism contributes to a vulnerability to distress.
Medication. No studies have specifically assessed whether medications might reduce perfectionism. Imipramine did not have a significant effect on perfectionistic attitudes when used in the medication protocol of the National Institute of Mental Health Collaborative Study on Depression.17 Amitriptyline has alleviated some dysfunctional attitudes in depressed patients but not perfectionism.25
Research is needed to evaluate the efficacy of various treatments. At this early stage, it appears that: