Researchers have been studying the impact of perfectionism on a range of outcomes. Previous research has found that individuals with higher levels of perfectionism, who experienced stress are significantly more likely to experience emotional distress. This study wanted to see how people cope with perfectionism and stress.
This research briefing was sent to members in 2017
Perfectionism is a condition whereby the individual sets high personal standards for their own behaviour and actions and can sometimes set the same expectations for others. Perfectionists tend to want or expect things to be flawless.
There are generally considered to be two dimensions of perfectionism:
- Perfectionistic striving
- Perfectionistic concerns
Perfectionistic striving refers to the individual themselves, whereby the person attempts or endeavours not to make mistakes and does their best to be as good as possible at whatever activity is in hand.
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Perfectionistic relate to the individual’s level of worry or anxiety about making mistakes, doubts about their own actions, feelings that there is a discrepancy between their own standards and their own performance or actions, worries that others will negatively judge them for mistakes or failures to be perfect, or a negative emotional reaction to situations that do not meet their exacting demands.
Healthy perfectionists tend to score high in perfectionistic striving and low perfectionistic concerns. Unhealthy perfectionists tend to score high in both perfectionistic striving and concerns.
The three types of perfectionism
Additionally there are considered to be three types of perfectionism:
- Adaptive perfectionism: this is associated with high personal standards in which the individual adapts or is flexible about those standards in response to changes in the environment. In effect, adaptive perfectionists tend not to take themselves too seriously.
- Maladaptive perfectionism: this is where the individual tends to berate themselves or have intense self deprecation when they don’t meet their own standards. Maladaptive perfectionism has been consistently linked to depression, anxiety and increased levels of stress. Maladaptive perfectionists realise that the world doesn’t meet their exacting demands and find this stressful.
- Non-perfectionists: these tend to be individuals who have few pre-stated expectations either of themselves, of others or of situations.
Higher levels of maladaptive perfectionism have been consistently associated with higher levels of emotional distress in individuals.
The study looked at 323 participants across a wide range of cultural backgrounds and measured them against three standard instruments; the revised almost perfect scale (APS – R), the Coping Inventory for Stressful Situations (CISS), and the Perceived Stress Scale (PSS). Using a range of statistical methods, the researchers were able to find a series of significant correlations.
Perfectionism and stress
Adaptive perfectionists suffer significantly less stress
Firstly, the study confirmed that maladaptive perfectionists suffer from significantly more stress than adaptive perfectionists.
The study found that adaptive perfectionists, when faced with failure or a situation where they didn’t meet their standards, will tend to initially be disappointed however they will quickly regroup and move onto the next task. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, tend to be much more self-critical and tend to dwell on both their own lack of performance and the lack of standards of others.
The study found that adaptive perfectionists have significantly less stress than both maladaptive perfectionists and non-perfectionists. They also found that maladaptive perfectionists have significantly more stress than both adaptive perfectionists and non-perfectionists.
Different coping strategies for different types of perfectionism
The second set of findings were around how the three types of perfectionist (adaptive, maladaptive and non-perfectionist) cope with stressful situations.
Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists tend to use different coping strategies…
There are considered to be four kinds of coping strategies:
- Task oriented coping – this is problem-focused. It involves taking direct action to alter the situation itself to reduce the amount of stress experienced. The individual assumes that the situation can be changed.
- Emotion oriented coping strategies – tend to be based on trying to reduce negative emotions, largely by avoidance of the situation or by denial of the existence of the issue, or by just giving up hope and assuming that the situation cannot be rectified.
- Distraction – this form of coping strategy involves engaging in other issues and not confronting the actual problem. Usually the cognitive assumption made here is that the situation cannot be rectified, or they are just avoiding the issue.
- Social diversion – this strategy is based on either seeking diversion from the issue by recourse to others or trying to get others to assist or deal with the issue.
Adaptive perfectionists tend to use significantly more task oriented coping strategies than either the maladaptive perfectionists or the number of perfectionists. Whereas maladaptive perfectionists (with the highest stress rates) tended to resort to emotion oriented or avoidance based coping strategies, whilst the adaptive perfectionists were least likely to use emotion oriented coping strategies.
Additionally, it was found that adaptive perfectionists tend to have greater recourse to social diversion strategies in situations where they have little or no control compared to the other two types of perfectionist.
Coping with perfectionism
It appears from this study that the coping style that we use when faced with difficult situations greatly contributes to the outcome we experience. Making the assumption that we can create change and have some control over situations tends to mean that the individual looks towards engaging with and solving the problem. This tends to lead to less stress over time and a greater sense of self-efficacy or belief in one’s own ability to be able to succeed.
However, people with lower levels of self-efficacy tend to engage in avoidance or distraction forms of avoidance and, as a result, tend to suffer from greater levels of stress in difficult situations.
It would appear that it is these mind-sets (the belief in one’s ability to affect change or not, and the ability to be able to adapt to change) that sit behind the difference between adaptive perfectionism, maladaptive perfectionism and non-perfectionism and the levels of stress they each experience.
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