Although the vernacular often sees us wanting to “make everything perfect,” perfectionism itself gets a generally bad reception. For example, for school children there’s research suggesting that three in 10 kids have some maladaptive form of perfectionism. And that’s predicated on the idea that there are adaptive forms of perfectionism…
Like many psychological concepts, a lot depends on how we define something – is having relatively high standards equivalent to being a perfectionist? — and then how we measure it. Psychologists Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt have been studying, and assessing, perfectionism since the early 1990s, and they have edited a new special issue of the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment that takes a comprehensive look at the history and the future of measuring perfectionism. The issue includes a deeper analysis at how perfectionism affects students in particular, and differentiates between striving for excellence and striving for perfection.
“Although the perfectionism field as a whole continues to expand exponentially,” Flett and Hewitt write in an introductory article that kicks off the issue, “one glaring omission in the published literature is the lack of consistent focus on how perfectionism is assessed and measured.”
The special issue, “Advances in the Assessment of Perfectionism,” is the first to focus specifically on the assessment of perfectionism and begins with two papers by research teams, one led by Randy Frost and one by Hewitt and Flett that transformed the field in the early 1990s by introducing the idea that perfectionism has multiple dimensions. (In fact, both teams introduced their own measure of perfectionism – the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale – separately but almost simultaneously.)
In addition, Flett explains, several new measures are themselves introduced in the issue. “Arguably, these state-of-the-art papers represent the work of the most established researchers in the field, including Randy Frost and Joachim Stoeber, among others.”
“Our overarching hope is that this special issue will serve as a catalyst for an expanded focus on measurement issues in the perfectionism field,” Flett and Hewitt write. “Basic and complex issues merit investigation as we work toward the goal of having perfectionism measures that are not perfect but are as good as they could be and should be.”
We asked Gordon Flett more about perfectionism studies and on this special issue specifically.
How did you get involved in studying this issue?
I got involved through interactions with university students who came from counseling when I served as the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Psychology at York University in Toronto. Paul Hewitt became involved earlier on, with his master’s and doctoral work on perfectionism. He then teamed with me to create our well-known measure published in 1991 — the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale. This work has been informed by Paul Hewitt’s clinical training and clinical intervention work in private practice.
Why is perfectionism something to be concerned about?
There is mounting evidence that perfectionism has significant costs associated with it, including links with anxiety, depression, burnout, and suicide. Other research has established an association with health problems, with one longitudinal study linking perfectionism with early mortality.
A related concern is mounting evidence of its prevalence among young people. Recent data suggest that at least three in 10 adolescents have some form of maladaptive perfectionism. An earlier paper using a well-known measure of problems among adolescents found that the pressure of having to be perfect was among the top 10 problems from among 105 problems rated by adolescents from 24 countries. These data point to the growing importance of measuring perfectionism in children and adolescents.
Regarding the assessment of perfectionism in young people, the article by Flett et al. on the Child-Adolescent Perfectionism Scale makes this measure publicly available for the first time. It is the most widely used multidimensional measure of perfectionism in young people.
Please describe the different types of perfectionism
Perfectionism usually comes in two types — neurotic perfectionists with extreme standards who are focused on how they usually fall short of these standards, and narcissistic perfectionists with grandiose standards fueled by a belief that they can achieve these standards. The new measure described by Smith, Saklofske and colleagues (“The Big Three Perfectionism Scale: A New Measure of Perfectionism”) describes the first measure developed specifically to identify narcissistic perfectionists and help distinguish them from neurotic perfectionists. It is timely given suggestions that some perfectionists have “a dark side” that is fuelled by their narcissism, underlying hostility, and their hypercompetitiveness in the pursuit of grandiose goals.
Some authors discuss “dissatisfied perfectionists.” These people can be highly accomplished but are never satisfied with their accomplishments due to their sense that they can always do better. The paper “How Should Discrepancy Be Assessed in Perfectionism Research? A Psychometric Analysis and Proposed Refinement of the Almost Perfect Scale–Revised” identifies a new subscale that taps this dissatisfaction.
Collectively, the papers illustrate that there are many different perfectionism dimensions and the special issue introduces several new scales that can be used widely in research and in applied settings.
What therapeutic avenues do these point toward?
There is a need to further develop therapeutic interventions to reduce levels of perfectionism as well as the importance of perfectionism and the adjustment problems associated with it. The measures developed in the special issue should be sensitive to change when people are exposed to interventions and they will be particularly useful in evaluating the success of therapeutic interventions
Collectively, our results across the various papers illustrate that the perfectionism construct is complex and has many facets and interventions must address these various components.