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People often think of perfectionism as a good thing, but it’s more than just a strong desire to do something well, and it can actually be a risk factor for several clinical disorders.

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Sources:
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[♩INTRO].

If you’ve ever prepared for a job interview or have heard anything about them there’s a good chance you’ve come across this famously tough question:. What's your biggest weakness?

Come on, really?! Generally, interviewers ask it because they want to see if you have some self-awareness. But hey, you're at a job interview — you're supposed to be selling yourself!

To get around the question, a lot of people choose to say that their biggest weakness is being a perfectionist, something that I have never claimed. But depending on the person you’re talking to, you might actually be sending a different message than you think you are. People often think of perfectionism as a good thing, and consider it this strong desire to do something well.

But when psychologists talk about it, they're referring to a risk factor for clinical disorders. For them, there are healthy and unhealthy levels of wanting to succeed. And the distinction is really important for someone’s mental health.

Usually, when someone casually says that they’re “such a perfectionist,” they mean that they have high standards, or that they’re motivated to achieve ambitious goals. And generally, that's okay. It's great to be conscientious and want to do a good job, especially if you can regroup and move on when you screw up.

A review in 2006 even showed that, according to a few studies, people with these traits might have higher subjective well-beings. Some researchers call this attitude "positive strivings” or “functional perfectionism” but they’re often pretty careful about their wording. Because when most psychologists talk about perfectionism, they mean something different than what people typically think.

For them, perfectionism in the clinical sense takes the desire to do a good job one step too far. There are a few types of it, but to get the general idea, imagine a person who just got an A on a test. Someone who's just conscientious would be okay with that overall, even if they missed a few questions.

But a true perfectionist would feel like a failure just from those few mistakes. And even if they got 100% on the next test, they would move those goalposts again maybe by saying the test was too easy, or that the class wasn’t challenging enough. Often, these perfectionists believe their self-worth is tied to never making a mistake, or that people will think less of them if they do.

Which is not healthy. One common framework scientists use to study perfectionism divides it into three different dimensions: self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented. Self-oriented perfectionism is maybe the most well-known kind.

It means that you have an unattainably high standard for yourself and get frustrated if you don’t meet it. Socially-prescribed perfectionism is similar, but it’s what happens when that high standard is coming from your friends and family. In other words, you're more worried about letting them down than yourself.

Living under that kind of pressure isn’t helpful for anyone, and both of these types of perfectionism have been associated with mental health trouble, from general anxiety disorder and social anxiety to eating disorders and suicidal thoughts. They also seem to make symptoms of depression worse over time, and can make the symptoms of obsessive compulsive disorder harder to treat. The third kind of perfectionism in this framework is called others-oriented, and while it’s a little different, it’s still not good for you.

It’s where someone applies their unattainably high standard to everyone around them instead of themselves. If you’ve ever had this boss, I apologize on their behalf. This isn’t as well-studied as the other types, but it seems to be a risk factor for things like narcissistic personality disorder, and can also create a tendency to blame others for problems.

Which isn’t necessarily a clinical thing, but it is still not great for relationships. And unfortunately, it seems like all three kinds of perfectionism have been increasing, according to some research. One study that showed this was published in 2017 in Psychological Bulletin, and it looked at college students in the US, Canada, and the UK between 1989 and 2016.

Specifically, it looked at surveys these students had taken, which measured those three kinds of perfectionism. And the results showed that the more recent generations of students have reported more perfectionism than older cohorts did at their age. That means this isn’t something to just brush off.

But the nice thing is, perfectionism can totally be treated. In some cases, it can be done by treating psychological disorders, since perfectionism is linked to so many of them. For example, in a 2007 study published in Depression and Anxiety, about 100 patients with social anxiety disorder were treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, or CBT.

This is a therapy that tries to change the way people feel by targeting their beliefs and automatic thoughts, and it normally works pretty well for social anxieties. It worked this time, too, but it also lowered people's reported measures of perfectionism specifically, their worries about being seen making mistakes. On the flip side, some therapies have been designed to target perfectionism specifically.

So even if someone isn’t dealing with a disorder, there are options. In 2007, a study from the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy tested whether CBT could do this. The researchers had people do various behavioral experiments, like intentionally making mistakes in public.

Or they tried to restructure some beliefs, like always needing to be busy. In the end, out of 20 participants who got the treatment, 15 showed improvement — which is pretty promising. A more recent paper from 2018 even showed you might not need the therapist for this method to work.

In the study, 120 people completed a short online self-help course based on cognitive therapy for perfectionism. And afterward, they all had much lower levels of perfectionism on average again, especially worries about being seen making mistakes. So the good news is, if you’re starting to think all this “clinical perfectionism” stuff might sound like you, it seems like professional treatment can help.

Because while it feels really great to succeed, it’s not worth sacrificing your mental health to do it. Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow, and special thanks to all our patrons on Patreon. We’re really excited to make content like this, and to have your support while we do it.

If you want to help us keep making free online psychology content, go on over to patreon.com/scishow. [♩OUTRO].