Mindfulness and Perfectionism

By Anna Handorf
2012, Vol. 8 No. 2 | pg. 2/4 |

In addition to mindfulness, perfectionism is a key concept that will be addressed in this study. Perfectionism is defined as an individual’s wish for the highest performance combined with critical evaluations of performance (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). While this definition does capture the basis of perfectionism, perfectionism can be more complicated to describe, as it is a multidimensional construct (Besser, Flett & Hewitt, 2010). Various attempts to define this multidimensional nature have been made by different researchers in order to measure perfectionism. While different dimensions have been created, they all focus on several basic facets of perfectionism, namely personal aspects of perfectionism and aspects of perfectionism relating to others (Besser, Flett & Hewitt, 2010). The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS) defined the multidimensional nature of perfectionism using five dimensionsconcerns over making mistakes, setting personal standards for performance, the perceived expectations imposed on individuals by parents, the tendency to doubt the quality of one’s performance, and organizational skills. These dimensions help capture the various aspects of perfectionism that leads to the tendency to have high expectations for oneself, while critically evaluating one’s ability to achieve those expectations (Frost et al, 1993).

While setting high standards is associated with success and competency, the critical evaluations of one’s behavior can be detrimental. As such, perfectionism can be a debilitating disorder and has been linked with various psychological and physical problems such as alcoholism, erectile dysfunction, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, anorexia, abdominal pain and writer’s block (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). Moreover, high levels of perfectionism are common in individuals with various psychological disorders, including social anxiety disorder (Juster et al., 1996; Lundh & Ost, 1996), panic disorder with agoraphobia (Saboonchi, Lundh, & Ost, 1999) and obsessivecompulsive disorder (Frost & Steketee, 1997).

Many cognitive theories regarding OCD have suggested that perfectionist tendencies contribute to the obsessions and compulsions typical of OCD individuals (Antony et al 1998). Obsessions are associated with maladaptive cognitions and intrusive thoughts that individuals are unable to forget about. By using thought control strategies intended to alleviate these maladaptive thoughts, individuals actually focus more on the thoughts, which furthers the development of obsessions (Fergus & Wu, 2010).

Several studies have confirmed the suggested correlation between perfectionism and OCD. In a study comparing perfectionism across clinical samples of individuals with OCD, panic disorder and non-anxious volunteers, patients with OCD had higher overall perfectionism scores than did non-anxious volunteers and had a higher “doubts about actions” score than did the individuals with panic disorder (Frost & Steketee, 1997). Moreover, another study found that five of the six subscales of the FMPS (all but Organizational) were significantly correlated with a measure of OCD severity, the Padua inventory (Rheaume et al, 1995). A separate study further found that the subscales “concern over mistakes” and “doubts about actions” were significantly correlated with compulsive indecisiveness, one of the dimensions of OCD (Frost & Shows, 1993). Furthermore, in a study comparing perfectionism across various anxiety disorders, OCD was found to have elevated total perfectionism scores on two separate multidimensional perfectionism scales (Antony et al, 1998).

In addition to being correlated with anxiety disorders, perfectionism is also correlated with high levels of worry, particularly in college student populations (Chang et al., 2007; Stober & Joormann, 2001). Worry is defined as an attempt to solve an issue with an uncertain outcome, but which has the possibility of multiple negative outcomes. While worry is often thought of as beneficial because it is a “problem-solving” process, it actually is a form of cognitive avoidance and hinders an individual’s ability to process events emotionally (Fergus & Wu, 2010). Individuals high in worry become stuck in the problem-solving process and focus on the possibility of all of the negative outcomes, and are unable to focus and process what is happening during the present moment. A study examining the relationship between worry, procrastination and perfectionism found that worry is significantly correlated with both procrastination and perfectionism. More specifically, higher correlations between worry and the perfectionism subscales CM and DA indicate that the perfectionist tendencies to be concerned about mistakes and doubt their actions may lead to high worry (Stober & Joormann, 2001). Additionally, a different study examining the relationship between perfectionism and domains of worry concluded that in addition to worry being highly associated with CM and DA, it is also associated with PC and PS. Thus, the effects of parental criticism and setting high personal standards for performance may further the relationship between perfectionism and worry (Chang et al, 2007).

Individuals high in perfectionism have also been associated with various coping methods, including ruminative brooding, a maladaptive form of coping (Blankstein & Lumley, 2008). Ruminative brooding, or rumination, is defined as a method of coping in which individuals focus their attention on negative mood including distress symptoms and negative emotions. In addition to being associated with perfectionism, many studies have shown that rumination is also associated with increased depressive symptoms as well as increased anxiety (Blankstein & Lumley, 2008). A study examining the extent to which dimensions of perfectionism are associated with rumination found a strong positive correlation between several dimensions of perfectionism and rumination. Though not explicitly found, this finding implies that perfectionist individuals characterized by ruminative thoughts may be more vulnerable to recalling and focusing on negative events (Flett et al, 2002).

Because all three conditions involve focusing on maladaptive cognitions or potential future outcomes, individuals high in worry, OCD and rumination may have a hard time focusing on the present moment. In particular, OCD compulsions and obsessions consume individuals thought processes and may prevent individuals from being able to focus on the present moment. Furthermore, individuals high in worry are focused on the potential negative outcomes that may result from the decision-making process. Thus, individuals high in worry may struggle to let go of their premonitions and achieve mindfulness in the present moment. Similarly, individuals who use rumination as a coping method may be unable to stop making negative judgments and fully accept the events going on in the present moment.

As previously discussed, individuals high in perfectionism are correlated with having symptoms of OCD, worry and rumination, and thus may struggle to focus on the present moment and achieve mindfulness. This correlation was, in fact, found in a recent study. While perfectionism has been strongly correlated with individuals high in anxiety and worry, it has been correlated with low levels of mindfulness (Perolini, 2012). As previously mentioned, an important dimension of mindfulness is acceptance. Ironically, acceptance also plays an important role in perfectionism. Perfectionism is an individual’s wish for the highest performance combined with critical evaluations of performance; in other words, perfectionism is striving for highest performance, with an inability to accept not achieving those standards (Lundh, 2004).

There are several versions of acceptance that perfectionist individuals may struggle with—self-acceptance, other-acceptance and experiential acceptance. Self-acceptance involves unconditionally accepting oneself as is and has been correlated with personal adjustment and well-being. Other-acceptance is a person’s ability to accept other people as they are; it has been strongly associated with parenting behavior. Finally, experiential acceptance is a person’s ability to accept thoughts, feelings and emotions without trying to suppress or control them. Experiential acceptance is most highly correlated with mindfulness; mindfulness techniques focus on non-judgmentally focusing on the present moment, and accepting all emotions, thoughts, experiences, etc, that occur (Lundh, 2004).

Many studies have found that individuals high in perfectionism have a difficult time unconditionally accepting themselves, which may lead to an inability to accept other people (Flett et al, 2003). In addition to being correlated with perfectionism, low levels of self-acceptance have also been associated with depression, anxiety, and low levels of self-esteem, happiness and life satisfaction. Moreover, in a study examining the relationship between perfectionism and self-esteem with a focus on differences in self-acceptance, found that dimensions of perfectionism related to the self and others were all found to be correlated with lower levels of selfacceptance (Flett et al, 2003).

Individuals who struggle with acceptance may tend to avoid situations and experiences. In a study regarding the role of experiential avoidance in the relationship between maladaptive perfectionism and worry, researchers found that perfectionism and experiential avoidance are highly correlated. Furthermore, experiential avoidance was found to be a partial mediator of the relationship between perfectionism and worry (Santanello & Gardner, 2006). Because perfectionists are unable to accept failure, they may adapt by developing tendencies to avoid accepting their failures. Furthermore, perfectionists may begin avoiding certain tasks in the future if they know they are unattainable, so as to avoid failure. By avoiding these situations, perfectionists no longer have to worry about the potential failure, and thus do not worry as much (Santanello & Gardner, 2006).

Individuals high in perfectionism strive for unrealistically high standards in all aspects of their life, including in therapeutic processes, which may actually impede successful treatment (Lundh, 2004). Because perfectionists see many benefits with perfectionism, they may be resistant to recognizing that perfectionist tendencies may actually be detrimental to their wellbeing. In order to help perfectionists, therapists must focus on distinguishing perfectionistic strivings from perfectionistic demands – perfectionistic strivings can be healthy and help individuals be successful, but it is important that individuals are able to accept falling short of perfection. While some individuals will be able to finally understand the difference between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic demands, other individuals high in perfectionism may transfer their energy toward achieving perfect acceptance. This further complicates therapy and may be an ongoing dilemma for individuals with perfectionism (Lundh, 2004).

Because mindfulness involves accepting the present moment and one’s emotions and feelings, and perfectionism is correlated with low levels of acceptance, individuals high in perfectionism may struggle to take a mindful approach to life and to practice meditation. Furthermore, because mindfulness meditation involves taking a non-judgment approach and perfectionism involves high levels of critical self-evaluation, we hypothesize that perfectionism will predict pre-post change in positive and negative affect and anxiety in individuals who learn mindful meditation. More specifically, we predict that higher perfectionism will predict smaller pre-post changes. Furthermore, we hypothesize that perfectionism will not predict changes in pre-post scores in the above states for individuals who undergo present-moment joy training.

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