psychology professor Gordon Flett says that perfectionists are prone to health problems because they are under constant stress.
Flett and a team of Canadian researchers in a landmark study have developed a 45-item questionnaire to identify the three types of perfectionists: self-oriented perfectionists (expect perfection of themselves); other-oriented perfectionists (demand perfection from other people); and socially prescribed perfectionists (think others expect perfection from them). The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, as it is also known, was just published this week by Multi-Health Systems Inc., based in Toronto. It is the first published scale that focuses specifically on perfectionism from a multidimensional perspective.
According to Flett, who collaborated with UBC psychology Prof. Paul Hewitt, perfectionists are people who not only hold unrealistically high standards but also judge themselves or others as always falling short. “Perfectionism is the need to be – or to appear – perfect,” says Flett. “Perfectionists are persistent, detailed and organized high achievers. Perfectionists vary in their behaviors: some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection. But all perfectionists have in common extremely high standards for themselves or for others.”
Moreover, Flett, who is also Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health, adds that certain forms of perfectionism can be linked to a host of emotional, physical and relationship problems, including depression, eating disorders, marital discord and even suicide. “Perfectionism is not officially recognized as a psychiatric disorder. However extreme forms of perfectionism should be considered an illness similar to narcissism, obsessive compulsiveness, dependent-personality disorder and other personality disorders because of its links to distress and dysfunction.”
For instance, a 1994 experiment with 30 preschoolers at a computer camp in Toronto showed that even 4- and 5-year-olds possess marked traits for perfectionism. Interviewers asked the children five questions tapping perfectionism levels ("How would you like to be perfect?"). They then gave the kids a computer task that was rigged to not work. The highly perfectionistic children showed greater signs of extreme distress, such as elevated anger and anxiety, explains Flett.
He adds that perfectionists reveal themselves in three distinct ways: first, a "self-promotion" style, that involves attempts to impress others by bragging or displaying one's perfection (this type is easy to spot because they often irritate other people); second, by shunning situations in which they might display their imperfection (common even in young children); and third, a tendency to keep problems to oneself (including an inability to admit failure to others).