On Aging and the Perils of Perfectionism

“I was not quite 40 but felt, in many ways, older. My hair, once as heroically thick as the David’s, had begun to thin visibly, and I felt sad about this, and I also considered my sadness to be its own failure, because I wanted to be the kind of person who didn’t care about superficial, middle-age things….

“My youthful pursuit of David-like perfection had gone, shall we say, not terribly well. I had turned out to be a strange person, not anything like an ideal. My life was littered with awkwardnesses, estrangements, mutual disillusionments, abandoned projects….

“Perfection, it turns out, is no way to try to live. It is a child’s idea, a cartoon — this desire not to be merely good, not to do merely well, but to be faultless, to transcend everything, including the limits of yourself. It is less heroic than neurotic, and it doesn’t take much analysis to get to its ugly side: a lust for control, pseudofascist purity, self-destruction. Perfection makes you flinch at yourself, flinch at the world, flinch at any contact between the two. Soon what you want, above all, is escape: to be gone, elsewhere, annihilated.”

Sam Anderson, “David’s Ankles,” NY Times, August 17, 2016

perfectionism, happiness, time perspectives

Cultivate: setting goals, taking risks, being organized, self-actualizing
De-emphasize: worrying about regrets and how you are perceived
Takeaway: Build self-regard and internal measures of achievement

[Psychologist Robert W. Hill of Appalachian State University] argues that perfectionistic traits can be either adaptive or maladaptive. It depends upon whether they are forward- or backward-looking, emotionally positive or negative, and motivated from an inner urge or an outside push.

In a paper just published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, Hill and two colleagues describe an experiment that illustrates the importance of distinguishing between types of perfectionism. They surveyed 216 psychology students to assess their perfectionistic tendencies, as well as their psychological well-being and satisfaction with life.

Adaptive perfectionism was determined by combining the students’ self-reported scores in four areas: striving for excellence, organizational skills, tendency to plan ahead and holding others to high standards. Maladaptive perfectionism was measured by the sum of four other scores: concern over mistakes, need for approval, tendency to ruminate over past performances and perceived parental pressure.

“We found that adaptive perfectionism was associated with indicators of positive psychological outcomes,” Hill reports. “The more an individual was prone to striving for excellence, planning ahead, being organized, they typically had a high level of psychological well-being, life satisfaction and positive mood. The inverse was true for maladaptive perfectionism.”

Hill found a “wide distribution” of these traits in the test subjects, suggesting that most people have some combination of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism….

“Adaptive perfectionism is an internal standard for achievement,” he notes. “Maladaptive perfectionism is an external concern – wondering what other people are going to think. It’s kind of a thinking habit: ‘I made a mistake there.’ ‘Someone will notice I didn’t do that right.’ We know from a number of studies that cognitive behavioral therapy can change or reduce those kinds of thoughts.”

—Tom Jacobs, “The Two Faces of Perfectionism,” Miller-McCune, January 28, 2010