In my search to understand the boundaries of human emotions I discovered more than I thought I would find. The best way for me to translate that research into relative terms is for me to dissect my own personality and emotional journey. One of my strongest personality traits is perfectionism. And, trust me, you don’t need to be a perfectionist to relate to what I’ve concluded. After studying some really great research that I didn’t always agree with or fully understand at times, I found that feelings exist on an emotional continuum. Polar opposites are on the ends of the continuum with varying degrees moving inward and a neutral zone or “happy medium” exists in the middle (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). Where does perfectionism exist on this continuum? Before that can be answered you must weigh the validity of the medical research that surrounds perfectionism. Some psychologists support the idea that having high standards or goals can be a healthy motivation. While other psychologists believe that perfectionists tend to develop maladaptive traits (Hewitt, PhD). Such as depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems. All of which can fall under the broader term of psychopathology. The cause for debate about the nature of perfectionism is due to the belief that it should be examined on a multidimensional scale (Hewitt and Flett). Not all psychologists support findings of research that equate perfection, in general, to maladjustment (American Psychological Association). A significant, yet lessor amount of research literature has been compiled to the contrary. Researchers have made the suggestion that there are aspects of perfectionism that can be adaptive. In particular, perfectionist personalities with high personal standards. It has been argued for example, that in the case of world-class athletes who undoubtedly have remarkably high standards, they shouldn’t be labeled pathological based solely on their high aspirations (APA). Paul Hewitt, PhD is a practicing psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia. Hewitt maintains that this is an oversimplification which combines two extremely different ideas into one. A clear distinction can be made between a desire to excel and a desire to be perfect (Hewitt, PhD).
“In the literature right now–this astounds me–people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive,” says Hewitt, “People will make that claim, and they’ll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it’s a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia and suicide.”
Since the early 90’s Hewitt and Gordon Flett, PhD, a professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, have defended their medical opinion that perfectionism has been displayed in different degrees. Within those varying degrees there are individual adversities associated with each level of perfectionism. Both Hewitt and Flett uphold that no form of perfectionism exists absolutely problem-free. It is their belief that these problems for some may be more or less severe than for others (Hewitt and Flett). As I began to understand the issues at the heart of the debate that multidimensional perspective became, ironically, less complex. The core issue lies within the lack of consensus over definitive medical definitions–what is the precise meaning of the words “adaptive” and “perfectionism” (APA). There are researchers that have found a resolution to the debate by simply classifying perfectionists as adaptive or maladaptive. Psychologist Kenneth Rice, PhD, and his colleagues used that approach in a recent study, the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy Vol. 17, No. 1. What they concluded really isn’t too different than the more detailed multidimensional scale. The study proved that high personal standards exist for adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists. When a maladaptive perfectionist falls short of those standards they experience more stress than an adaptive perfectionist would (Rice, PhD). It was very interesting to evaluate both sides of this psychological debate. Perhaps those psychologists who favor dissecting the perfectionist mind are suffering from a bit of perfection themselves… At any rate, it is quite apparent that there is a healthy dose of dissension amongst medical researchers where perfectionism is concerned. The argument stands that such a generic distinction is not an acceptable solution (APA).
“I think it’s unfortunate that we have evolved into a language in which we talk about perfectionism as ‘adaptive,'” says psychologist Randy Frost, PhD. “That might not be a productive way of thinking about it.”
In particular, talk of adaptiveness often ignores the role of context in determining whether a particular attitude or behavior is adaptive, says Frost, a professor at Smith College. High standards might be adaptive in one situation but not another, or for certain people but not others, he says. Furthermore, while high standards are a part of perfectionism, they alone are not enough to make a person a perfectionist.
“One thing that’s clear is that the setting of high standards for oneself isn’t always related to pathology,” says Frost.
For me, this is the point in my personal discovery of the emotional process where I made the connection between personality traits and emotions. It seems pretty clear that the concept of perfection carries with it emotional baggage. Debate over the adaptiveness of perfectionism rages on and in the midst of the discussion, research and understanding has become clearer about how perfectionism can be a catalyst to psychopathology (APA). After having learned all of this information and then trying to apply perfectionism to an emotional continuum it would seem likely that many perfectionist personalities have been diagnosed bipolar. In regard to myself, every clinical specialists that I’ve seen has completely ruled out bipolar syndrome. So it turns out that there is good cause to approach perfectionism multidimensionally and even further in depth. Which basically encompasses identifying significant mental and behavioral clusters. Next is the delicate issue of treatment, typically concerning the maladaptive perfectionist personality. Surrounding treatment facilitation, an individual’s need to strive for flawlessness has serious consequences for psychopathology. Understand that psychopathology is both the scientific study of mental disorders and a term used to characterize behaviors or experiences symptomatic of mental illness, although those symptoms may not amount to a formal diagnosis. A new scale was recently formulated by Hewitt, Flett and their colleagues, the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS), to measure against. Based on the many years of research from clinical studies Hewitt and Flett have outlined three dominating perfectionist personalities, socially prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and self-oriented perfectionism. The PSPS rates three aspects of perfectionistic self-presentation: advertising one’s own perfection, avoiding situations in which one might appear to be imperfect and failing to disclose situations in which one has been imperfect. Socially prescribed perfectionism–believing that others will value you only if you are perfect—can be considered maladaptive and is associated with depression and other problems such as suicide (APA).
“I think the reason for that is that socially prescribed perfectionism has an element of pressure combined with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness,” explains Flett. Socially prescribed perfectionists, he notes, tend to feel that “the better I do, the better I’m expected to do.”
There are also clear problems with other-oriented perfectionism, the tendency to demand perfection from friends, family, co-workers and others. It can be particularly damaging for intimate relationships, says Hewitt.
“If you require your spouse to be perfect, and you’re critical of that spouse, you can tell right away that there’s going to be relationship problems,” says Hewitt.
For self-oriented perfectionism–an internally motivated desire to be perfect—there is a lack of transparency. Perfectionist personalities are so varied that even once identified the link to psychopathology for self-oriented perfectionism is less outstanding (APA). This is the category that I identify with most, self-oriented perfectionism. If I were to display any characteristics of socially prescribed perfectionism it would be a small trace. I can attribute this to my religious upbringing as a Christian. My parents also instilled in me beliefs and personal standards that helped me to always remain confident and independent. What is comical about other-oriented perfectionism for me is that I am very humble and accepting. I try not to be judgmental or critical of others…..but, if there is one thing I can’t tolerate it is ignorance. Which brings me to the reason I started on this journey of understanding. I spoke about how I try to be mindful of others feelings and circumstances, my empathy for others. Over the last five or ten years I have come to realize that I have developed what is being referred to as “extreme-empathy”. Based on my personal knowledge and experience with perfectionism I had good reason to believe that personal high standards were affecting my ability to regulate my sense of empathy. Imagine my surprise when I learned that there were message boards on websites full of people wondering the same questions as me. Is there a connection between empathy and depression? Can or does empathy cause depression? Does anyone else feel this way? The answer is yes. Certain types of depression can stem from cognitive dissonance (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). Cognitive dissonance is essentially a conflict within. Whenever a person’s actions are in disagreement with their view of themselves the conscience feels uncomfortable (Psychology Today). Coupled with the denial of your own feelings, negative or positive, the cognitive dissonance can fester into depression (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). A positive reflection of our mental health comes from our resolution of the dissonance and discomfort. Cognitive dissonance should be used as an opportunity for personal growth (Psychology Today). For someone like myself who is a self-proclaimed perfectionist, I hope you can appreciate how I might struggle to find balance between negative and positive emotions. I believe that as adults much of our cognitive behavior is automated by our subconscious. How can you properly address negative or positive emotions that you don’t necessarily know exist? Depression is a process that originates from denying or refusing to acknowledge painful and difficult feelings, often triggered by significant trauma or reoccurring trauma. Depressive symptoms progress over time, and never as a sudden onset. When there is a consistency in denying painful and difficult feelings it leads to a significant difficulty in the ability to identify pleasant and positive feelings (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). Go figure. My perfectionism comes from my own drive and personal desire. It appears that I have basically become an expert at filing away deep rooted feelings, unbeknownst to myself. What I do know is that the issue that I want to acknowledge and address is extreme-empathy.
My extreme-empathy causes me to feel sad and helpless about the average experiences of those that I care about deeply. It has become very apparent that there is an abnormal emphasis on their suffering. Being empathetic towards others is a matter of mentally placing yourself in the position of another person and imagining what your feelings in the position of that other person would be (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). If the beginning of that definition is focused on without consideration of the latter portion, which is how I think most sum up empathy, what is left is a narrow understanding of empathy. It suggests that a person can express empathy without largely involving their own emotions. Clearly empathy equally involves your own personal emotions as well as your understanding of another person’s emotions. This is a key point for me because the extreme-empathy that I feel is not proportionate to the experiences of others. In other words, the feelings that I manifest are usually far from what another person has felt or how I would feel in the same situation as that person. In my mind it is now clear that my intention is to show empathy but in the process I can lose focus of simply understanding where a person is coming from. I do not have a clear intent to imagine what I would feel if I were in the same position as another person. If I did there would be no logical reason to feel such despair in the way that I often do for others. I realize now that my extreme-empathy is more about me than it is about the other person. It is about my perfectionism, my personal high standards which I can admit in this instance are unrealistic. As I said before, you don’t have to be a perfectionist to relate to this information. Excluding the perfectionist personality there is still a connection for the average person between empathy and depression. What exactly is the connection between the two? Anyone who has gone a number of years avoiding their own feelings cannot adequately practice the concept of empathy. This is true even if they have an intellectual understanding of empathy and how to be empathetic. As a person falls deeper and deeper into depression they get better at denying their negative feelings which consequently leads to getting better at denying the positive opposites of their negative feelings (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.). Which totally makes sense. If your emotions are all jumbled together and mixed up from depression or depressive symptoms you couldn’t expect yourself to empathize effectively. The end result of this behavioral pattern of emotional denial is a significant difficulty in being cognizant of any feelings (Ugo Uche, M.S., L.P.C.).
Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting excessively high performance standards, accompanied by overly critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations. It is best conceptualized as a multidimensional characteristic, as psychologists agree that there are many positive and negative aspects. In its maladaptive form, perfectionism drives people to attempt to achieve an unattainable ideal, and their adaptive perfectionism can sometimes motivate them to reach their goals. In the end, they derive pleasure from doing so. When perfectionists do not reach their goals, they often fall into depression. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_%28psychology%29
In psychology, the Big Five personality traits are five broad domains or dimensions of personality that are used to describe human personality. The theory based on the Big Five factors is called the Five Factor Model (FFM). The Big Five factors are openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. Acronyms commonly used to refer to the five traits collectively are OCEAN, NEOAC, or CANOE. Beneath each global factor, a cluster of correlated and more specific primary factors are found; for example, extraversion includes such related qualities as gregariousness, assertiveness, excitement seeking, warmth, activity, and positive emotions.
The Big Five model is able to account for different traits in personality without overlapping. During studies, the Big Five personality traits show consistency in interviews, self-descriptions and observations. Moreover, this five-factor structure seems to be found across a wide range of participants of different ages and of different cultures. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_Five_personality_traits
I’m glad that I took the time to research this particular aspect of psychology. I honestly feel that I learned a lot about myself as well as others. Thankfully, my extreme-empathy has not progressed to a “critical” stage but I do have a lot of emotional growing to do. The best part of sharing my experience is that I believe others can grow from my candid approach along with the medical research I referenced. I have found and taken a comprehensive personality test which others can definitely benefit from too. This personality test was taken after I had compiled my research and had a sufficient understanding of that. I encourage others to take this universal personality test, anyone interested can take this fairly simple and quick test at the link posted. Five Factor Personality Test: http://www.personalitytest.org.uk/