The Almost Perfect Definition

Jason McGarvey
September 01, 1996

Everyone's known at least one perfectionist. The annoying kid in math class who complained about his A minus; the sister who spent hours in the bathroom getting ready for a date. My mother used to groan about her favorite couch pillows being out of place. I would ask her, "Why does everything have to be so perfect with you?"

But most of us set high standards in some part of our lives. Athletes and their sport. Doctors and their practice. Does this mean we're all perfectionists? Is it abnormal to want the best from ourselves?

I like to think that doing your best is something everyone should strive to do. But psychologists and counselors have generally treated perfectionism as a problem: Perfectionists, they say, are highly self-critical, and that leads to depression. For example, in a recent article called "The Destructiveness of Perfectionism," Yale psychiatrist Sidney Blatt discusses the case of Vincent Foster, former deputy counsel to President Clinton who committed suicide in July 1993. Blatt suggests that Foster's perfectionism was a factor in his death. He quotes one of his sources as saying, "Believing he was disgraced in Washington and perceived as a failure in Little Rock, Foster probably felt he had nowhere to go." Blatt, along with others in his profession, sees as the essence of perfectionism what he calls "self-critical depression." As he states in his article, he associates "intense perfectionism and severe self-criticism with a vulnerability to severe depression and a serious potential for suicide."

Now if you're a perfectionist, how does this make you feel? Would you say that your perfectionism makes you suicidal? I hope all those athletes and doctors don't feel that way. I definitely don't want to think that my mother has "a serious potential for suicide" just because she's a perfectionist.

This idea that perfectionism is a problem has skewed attempts to define the concept psychiatrically, according to Robert B. Slaney, a counseling psychologist in Penn State's College of Education. Definitions have focused on extreme or excessively high standards, treating perfectionism like a disorder rather than as a normal or positive attribute. For instance, when David Burns, a psychiatrist at Presbyterian Medical Center in Philadelphia, developed a scale in 1980 to measure perfectionism, he took as his beginning point a previous scale called the Dysfunctional Attitudes Scale, which measured "a number of self-defeating attitudes commonly seen in persons who suffer from clinical depression and anxiety." Paul Hewitt at the University of Winnipeg and Gordon Flett at York University wrote in a 1991 paper that there were three major dimensions of perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionists, who set high standards and use them to evaluate their own performance; other-oriented perfectionists, who set "unrealistic standards for significant others, place importance on other people being perfect, and stringently evaluate others; and socially-prescribed perfectionists, who believe that others "have unrealistic standards for them, evaluate them stringently, and exert pressure on them to be perfect." According to Slaney and Johnson, "Hewitt and Flett were quite clear in their belief that all three of these dimensions were pathological." Another group of researchers, headed by Randy Frost of Smith College, developed their Multi-dimensional Perfectionism Scale around scales measuring such pathological items as eating disorders, obsessionality, and items from Burn's scale.

Is there another dimension to perfectionism? Does a positive side exist?

Yes, according to Slaney, who is in the process of clarifying the definition of perfectionism. "I strongly agree with Hewitt and Flett, and Frost and his colleagues, that perfectionism is a multi-dimensional thing," Slaney explains. "There is a whole range of people who have very different ideas about what perfectionism is. The purpose of this work is to try and find what I think are the unique characteristics of perfectionism that are integral in defining it."

Why did Slaney, who had previously focused his research on career counseling and the way people make career decisions, switch to studying perfectionism? "I have a friend who says if you look at people's research topics, it's often embarrassing—because if they are involved in their work, they are usually studying issues that are of direct relevance to themselves," he says. "Another close associate tells me that I am trying to show there are positive, or productive aspects of perfectionism in order to justify myself."

When he first arrived at Penn State in 1986, Slaney observed several people (then being seen in counseling by doctoral students he was supervising on campus) whom he considered to be "perfectionists." However, there was, and still is, no generally agreed upon, formal definition of the term.

As the director of training of the counseling psychology program in the College of Education, Slaney saw this as a problem. A lack of a clear definition meant that different counselors used the term in different ways.

Slaney asked two graduate students who were counseling some of the "perfectionists" at a Penn State clinic if they would like to get involved in researching the problem. One of the students was Doug Johnson, who eventually did his doctoral dissertation on the topic. The aim of their research appeared simple. First, review previous definitions of perfectionism and accumulate the various characteristics associated with it. Next, develop a scale to measure those characteristics and see if they were closely associated or integral to perfectionism.

"What we found was little in the way of a formal, consensual definition of perfectionism," says Slaney. "Instead, definitions of the term seemed to be based on the anecdotal data provided in theoretical pieces." Four characteristics, however, were consistently said to be related to perfectionism: Perfectionists had trouble with interpersonal relationships; they had high personal standards and were orderly in their lives; they suffered extreme anxiety because of their inability to achieve their goals; and they tended to procrastinate or not follow through with their work.

Slaney and Johnson created a scale to measure these four variables and named it the Almost Perfect Scale. "The purpose of the Almost Perfect Scale was to focus less on the problematic aspects of perfectionism," explains Slaney, "but to focus on issues that might be brought to counseling."

They developed a questionnaire using several items to measure each variable—initially, it consisted of 62 questions—and gave it 1,425 graduate, undergraduate, and continuing education students at Penn State. Through a complex series of factor analyses using different parts of their sample, they narrowed the questions down to 32, in four categories or factors, each representing one of the variables found in the literature—Factor One was Standards and Order; Factor Two was Relationships; Factor Three was Anxiety; and Factor Four was Procrastination.

Slaney and Johnson then gave the 32-item version to two groups of identified perfectionists and non-perfectionists. These groups were identified by their responses to two questions. Did they think of themselves as perfectionists? And, Did people who knew them well think of them as perfectionists? Those who answered "no" to both questions were labeled non-perfectionists. Those who said "yes" to both were labeled perfectionists. There were 53 men and 53 women perfectionists and an equal number of non-perfectionists.

The results provided some interesting comparisons: Perfectionists were significantly higher in the ratings for Standards and Order, suggesting that this factor was indeed strongly associated with perfectionism, as Slaney and Johnson had expected. The scale measuring Interpersonal Relationships, however, did not show any statistically significant difference between the two groups. Factor Three's results, measuring Anxiety, were significant, suggesting that perfectionists were more anxious than non-perfectionists. However, this anxiety could be caused by any number things; it was not considered as unique and central to perfectionism. Finally, and most interestingly, Procrastination showed a moderate but negative difference between the groups. Perfectionists were less likely to procrastinate than non-perfectionists, a result that contradicted the anecdotal literature.

Yet the sample groups of these earlier studies had consisted mainly of perfectionists in counseling or therapy. Slaney and Johnson's sample consisted of university students not in counseling.

To better see how their conclusions compared to those reached by previous researchers, Slaney and Johnson decided to study a group of labeled perfectionists in counseling. They also incorporated three earlier scales: The Burns Perfectionism Scale (from 1980), The State Trait Anxiety Inventory (1970), and the Sandler-Hazari Scale (1960), which comes in versions for different personality types, an A type ("an exceedingly systematic, methodical, and thorough person who likes a well-ordered life"), and a B type (a person described as having "obsessional symptoms").

Participants in this study were enlisted by asking counselors to locate clients who thought of themselves as perfectionists, defined loosely as "having high standards for one's work or performance and this may include an orientation toward neatness, orderliness, and timeliness." Eventually, the sample was narrowed down to 51 male and female participants—26 for whom perfectionism was not seen as a problem by both the client and the counselor, and 25 for whom it was.

"As was expected," says Slaney, "we found that these perfectionists rated high on our Standards and Order scale just as they had in our first study. But the point of interest is that these variables did not differentiate people who thought of their condition as a problem, and people who did not consider their perfectionism problematic. The results of the Standards and Order scale suggested that what had been previously thought—that having high standards was the problematic aspect of perfectionism—was inaccurate."

Slaney and Johnson again found no statistically significant difference on the Interpersonal Relationships scale. With the Anxiety scale, they did find that the group for whom perfectionism was problematic was more anxious.

The Procrastination scale, however, did show a difference. Slaney and Johnson suggest, "It may be that when perfectionism is experienced as problematic, procrastination is a problem. This result seems consistent with the anecdotal literature, largely from clients, which suggests that procrastination is a problem for at least some perfectionists. It is inconsistent with the correlations in both studies suggesting that procrastination is negatively related to having high standards and order."

The results of this study suggested to Slaney that two major components of perfectionism exist: First, high standards and orderliness were not necessarily problematic; second, it appeared that anxiety may be the primary factor distinguishing perfectionists who experience their perfectionism as problematic from those who do not.

"This was an important step in the research," says Slaney. "These results showed that we needed to look for aspects of perfectionism that were problematic other than the ones previously thought."

To pinpoint this problematic aspect of perfectionism, Slaney and Jeff Ashby of the University of Northern Iowa studied 37 people who were labeled "for sure" perfectionists by themselves or by people who knew them well. These participants were asked a series of open-ended questions by one of six members of the "perfectionism research team" (Slaney, Ashby, Johnson, one other doctoral student and two masters' level counselors). The idea was to allow participants to define for themselves what was central to their perfectionism. The team used a basic set of questions, but members were encouraged to "follow leads and hypotheses" that might emerge during the interviews.

As with the previous studies, most people referred to high standards as being central to their perfectionism. But how did the participants evaluate their perfectionism? The responses bounced between positive and negative. For instance, one participant replied, "[It's] negative because it limits spontaneity . . . negative for time management, [I] may overdo things. But it also helps confidence when I do well . . . I get recognition from performance." On the other hand, when the participants were asked how much distress their perfectionism caused them, most answered "some" or "a considerable amount." The apparent inconsistency between the distress caused and the somewhat ambivalent feelings of many toward their perfectionism caused the research team to begin to ask the participants a different question.

"Basically, we asked the participants if they would give up their perfectionism if they could," says Slaney. "Surprisingly, none who were asked said they would give it up. Actually, several participants said they were quite happy with their perfectionism, and some said they would like to increase it." Yet, almost a third of the sample said that they had either been labeled as perfectionistic by a counselor or therapist, been given related labels such as having high standards, or had entered therapy because of their perfectionism.

To better separate the negative and positive aspects of perfectionism, the researchers asked, "One line of thinking about perfectionism suggests that they are neat, orderly, and take care of tasks efficiently. Another suggests there is a tendency to procrastinate or put things off until the last minute. How do these two views fit you?" The responses conflicted with Slaney and Johnson's earlier finding that procrastination and having high standards were not related. Although a few said they procrastinated but were not neat, orderly, and efficient, the number who said they were both seemed high. The researchers began to wonder what degree of procrastination is normal and what constitutes a problem?

Finally, the researchers asked, What is the core or essence of perfectionism? Most of the participants saw high standards, achievement, and performance as central to perfectionism. According to the study, "several participants, especially men, saw order or control as central, although most combined this with high standards. Women perceived the essence of perfectionism in psychological terms more frequently than did men."

For example, one woman said that at the core of perfectionism was "deep-seated insecurity—fear of failure, inadequacy." Another said that it was an "attempt to eliminate anxiety through trying to take control of things in the environment we can manipulate." A participant who seemed more optimistic said that the essence of perfectionism was "To demand what may never be attainable—the satisfaction of attaining the ultimate of one's ability."

Another man said that he no longer felt stress from his perfectionism because, although it used to control his life, he now controlled it. He described himself as a "rehabilitated perfectionist," saying it had been passed down from his grandparents who were "anal retentive."

In other interviews, people were very positive about their perfectionism. One woman said, "It works for me. I enjoy challenges." Another, "What I do, I do well." A man responded "Overall, it's a good attribute. I believe in doing the best I can." Many others said things like "It's fine with me" and I don't mind at all."

"Many people we interviewed came to us not knowing whether they were being diagnosed as having a problem, or being congratulated for having high standards," says Slaney. "We found a whole range of people who were happy with being perfectionists and people who were quite distressed by it. However, none of them were willing to give it up."

Searching their interviews for some hint suggesting a common problem, Slaney and Ashby found that many participants in their study associated distress with whether or not they felt that they were achieving their high standards. For example, one participant responded, "[I am] . . . very rarely satisfied with any task. It is never good enough . . . [I] evaluate in a continual way about how well I am doing on any work or even relationiships or measuring myself against people that I feel are really talented or good or that seem happy." Slaney and Ashby labeled this association the discrepancy factor.

This discrepancy factor is now a part of the Almost Perfect Scale-Revised, an updated version being investigated by Slaney, Ashby, Joseph Trippi of Landy Jacobs & Associates consulting firm, and Penn State doctoral student Michael Mobley. Through this study-in-progress, Slaney hopes to show that the discrepancy factor is indeed the problematic and unique aspect of perfectionism.

As Slaney explains, "What we have arrived at is that there are three basic elements of perfectionism: high standards, orderliness, and discrepancy. We believe that the amount of distress a person feels relates to his or her discrepancy. For example, if a person has high standards and a low discrepancy—if they feel they adequately meet their standards—then they are going to feel, and probably are, productive. If that person is also orderly, then they will most likely be even more productive. On the other hand, if a person has high standards and a high discrepancy, or they consistently feel that they fail to meet their own standards, then that person is going to feel unhappy, distressed, and not very productive. In fact, people who rate high on our discrepancy scale also rate high on scales measuring depression, shame, anxiety, and other negative psychological states."

What does the search for a multi-dimensional perfectionism mean to the perfectionists of the world? Why should people like my mom, my doctor, and the Vincent Fosters of the world sleep easier if there is the possibility that Blatt's ideas about perfectionism might be right?

One participant's response to a question in Slaney and Ashby's study says it well. When describing why he seemed willing to experience some distress but still chose not to give up his perfectionism, this man said, "Given the choice, I'd rather have it. It's a drive that pushes me to accomplish close to my ability level. Persons not perfectionistic may be happier, but not accomplish much."

In acknowledging that his perfectionism caused him distress, he said, "It causes some. Nobody's perfect."

Robert B. Slaney, PhD, is professor of counseling psychology in the College of Education, 314 Cedar Building, University Park PA 16802; 814-863-2412. Doug Johnson is Staff Psychologist at the Counseling Center, University of Maine. Johnson's dissertation, "Perfectionism: Scale Development and a Study of Perfectionistic Clients in Counseling," was published in The Journal of College Student Development, Jan./Feb. 1996. Graduate students who have worked, or are working, with Slaney on other aspects of perfectionism are: Barbara Suddarth; John Wade; Mary Anne McNally, Melora Braver, Jennifer Harp, Andrew Shea, Naomi Dogan, and Michael Mobley. Michael Johnson is currently a research assistant.

Last Updated September 01, 1996