Mindfulness and Perfectionism

By Anna Handorf
2012, Vol. 8 No. 2 | pg. 1/4 |


Perfectionism is an individual’s wish for the highest performance combined with critical evaluations of performance (Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). High levels of perfectionism are correlated with various disorders, including social anxiety disorder (Juster et al., 1996; Lundh & Ost, 1996), obsessive-compulsive disorder (Frost & Steketee, 1997), panic disorder with agoraphobia (Saboonchi, Lundh, & Ost, 1999), high levels of worry (Chang et al., 2007; Stober & Joormann, 2001) and low levels of mindfulness (Perolini, 2012).

Mindfulness involves purposefully attending to the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 1994) and can be learned through meditation and presentmoment joy training (Borkovec, 2002). While both meditation and presentmoment joy techniques decrease levels of worry (Bishop, 2002; Borkovec, 2002), they have different approaches to increasing present-moment focus.

Because mindfulness involves taking a non-judgmental approach and perfectionism involves critical self-evaluation, individuals high in perfectionism may struggle to achieve mindfulness and to practice meditation. We hypothesize that higher perfectionism will predict smaller pre-post change in positive and negative affect and anxiety in individuals who learn mindful meditation. 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.

Undergraduate students completed questionnaires regarding anxiety, worry and attention, listened to a pre-recorded dialogue that explained either mindful meditation or present-moment joy training, and completed questionnaires again. In both conditions, significant preto postchange was found on the State Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults (STAI-S) and Positive and Negative Affect Scale (PANAS) in Negative Affect, no significant preto postchanges were found on the PANAS in Positive Affect. Perfectionism and the paradigm were not found to significantly affect these pre-topost changes.

Mindfulness is defined as purposefully attending to the present moment without making judgments (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Moreover, mindfulness has been closely related to the concept of “acceptance” and “awareness” (Block-Lerner, Salters-Pedneault & Tull, 2005; Cardaciotto et al, 2008). Although closely related, acceptance and awareness have different nuances and connotations that help explain and capture the concept of mindfulness. Acceptance is often defined as allowing oneself to be open to reality, and to experience events to the fullest in the present moment. Conversely, awareness is behaviorally based and involves continuously being conscious of all aspects of experience (Cardaciotto et al, 2008).

Independently, awareness and acceptance have been associated with various disorders. Heightened awareness has been associated with positive experiences including higher ratings of pleasure during increased periods of attention and decreases in negative affect while focusing on positive aspects of the self. However, awareness has also been associated with more negative experiences including increased anger and hostility when focusing on the emotions affiliated with rejection and chronic negative affect that contributes to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and psychopathy (Cardaciotto et al, 2008).

As previously stated, acceptance involves being open to reality and experiencing events to the fullest in the present moment. Thus, individuals who struggle with acceptance may tend to avoid situations and experiences. Experiential avoidance has been associated with various psychological symptoms including increased panic symptoms, fear, depression, and anxiety (Cardaciotto et al, 2008). Furthermore, not accepting one’s thoughts can lead to various phenomena such as heightened pain, more distress, increased anxiety and decreased quality of sleep. Such thought suppression has also been associated with depression, generalized anxiety disorder, specific phobia, posttraumatic stress disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder (Cardaciotto et al, 2008).

Individually, acceptance and awareness can have detrimental psychological affects; however, combining these concepts to help achieve mindfulness has been shown to reduce anxiety, increase positive affect (Davidson et al, 2003), reduce stress and stress-related medical symptoms and enhance positive emotions and quality of life (Greenson 2008). Several interventions have been developed that involve taking a mindful approach, such as mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), mindfulnessbased cognitive therapy (MBCT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) (Block-Lerner, Salters-Pedneault & Tull, 2005; Cardaciotto et al, 2008) and Mindfulness-Based Eating Awareness Training (MB-EAT) (Greeson, 2008). One of the benefits of therapies that include a mindfulness component is that the mindful perspective can be applied to all of one’s thoughts, not just psychological conditions that are targeted in other cognitive therapies (Block-Lerner, Salters-Pedneault & Tull, 2005). Moreover, these techniques have been shown to effectively treat psychological conditions including various anxiety disorders, recurrent major depression, chronic pain, borderline personality disorder and binge eating disorder (Greeson, 2008).

Both meditation and present-moment joy techniques have been shown to decrease levels of anxiety (Bishop, 2002; Borkovec, 2002); however, the two techniques have different approaches to increasing presentmoment focus. Mindfulness meditation emphasizes the importance of accepting one’s thoughts and emotions, whereas present-moment joy training emphasizes finding joy and intrinsic meaning in everyday tasks.

Mindful meditation is the practice of “non-doing”it involves focusing on the present moment without imposing outside judgments. Moreover, meditation involves accepting reality and the present moment as perfect, not trying to do things perfectly or make things perfect (Kabat-Zinn, 1994). Mindfulness meditation has been associated with lower levels of anxiety, depression, anger and worry (Greeson, 2008).

Various studies have looked at the effects of mindfulness meditation on the mind and body. Researchers found that individuals who spent more time on formal meditation practices during an 8-week intervention period showed increased mindfulness (Carmody & Baer, 2008). In a separate 8-week period study, researchers found that mindfulness meditation training significantly reduced ruminative thinking in person with a history of depression (Ramel et al, 2004). Moreover, 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation training in the form of MBSR found that individuals increased their ability to focus their attention on the present moment as measured by an attention test (Jha, Krompinger Baime, 2007). Furthermore, individuals who completed 4 weeks of mindfulness meditation training, relative to somatic relaxation training and nonintervention control group, significantly reduced distress by decreasing rumination (Jain et al, 2004). Individuals who participated in five days of integrative mediation training, including mindfulness, improved scores on an attention test (Tang et al, 2007). Finally, in an 8-week study on clinically depressed and anxious participants, mindfulness meditation was shown to improve psychological wellbeing (Manzaneque et al, 2011).

In addition to mindfulness meditation, another approach to increasing present-moment focus involves finding joy and intrinsic meaning in everyday tasks (Borkovec, 2002). Although this technique is not as widespread as mindfulness meditation, it has also been shown to decrease levels of worry (Borkovec, 2002). Borkovec suggests that individuals high in worry create anxious feelings by worrying about potential threats, and thus are caught up in an illusory future and do not attend to the present moment. Furthermore, Borkovec claims that while it is possible for individuals to experience fear in the present moment, it is impossible for individuals to experience anxiety while paying attention to the present moment— there are no potential or worrisome threats that exist in the illusory future. By focusing on the positive aspects of presentmoment tasks, individuals can avoid experiencing anxietyprovoking thoughts of the future, and enjoy even menial tasks in the present.

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