Newswise — ‘Obsessing much?’ ‘Just back away.’ ‘Let it go.’

This sort of comment from perceptive colleagues or friends may indicate perfectionistic tendencies, but in general the recipient isn’t likely to recognize their trait as a problem.

Even if someone wryly acknowledges himself as a perfectionist, there’s a widely held -- if mistaken -- belief that perfectionism is an unambiguously positive trait.

But when a researcher decided to turn the lens on fellow professors, the findings proved to be the opposite of conventional wisdom. Dalhousie University professor Simon Sherry studied psychology professors working in universities throughout North America, evaluating them on a continuum of perfectionistic traits and correlating this with their research productivity.

“Perfectionism may represent a form of counterproductive over-striving that limits research productivity among psychology professors,” says Dr. Sherry.

By studying a large sample of 1,258 psychology professors, perfectionism was found to be negatively related to the number of total publications, the number of first-authored publications, the number of citations, and the impact rating of the publishing journal.

Whether perfectionism helps or hinders success is a question that preoccupies researchers in this field. There is no more contentious issue in the perfectionism research, a literature involving several thousand research articles.

Good or good enough?

“I believe our recent study provides one provocative answer to this question,” he says.

The study is in press now with the Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science. The collaborative team included graduate students and collaborators at Dalhousie, York University and the University of British Columbia.

Why the navel gazing, so to speak?

Psychology professors were chosen as a study example because their occupation is multi-faceted and complex. They are required to be flexible and strategic, the exact qualities that perfectionism may inhibit. It is important to distinguish between being conscientious and being a perfectionist. Conscientiousness is defined as self-discipline, goal orientation and a focus on results; versus perfectionism, which is a relentless, rigid striving fro unrealistic goals.

“You need to know when it is adaptive to pursue extremely high goals and when it is okay to just be good enough,” says Dr. Sherry. “Perfectionism is excessive -- the person has a compulsive need to be perfect, however in reality this rarely translates into high performance.”

It’s interesting to ask what might trip the perfectionist up in the pursuit of perfection. Perfectionists need approval and they fear evaluation, so criticism will prompt a strong reaction.

“And yet, as a professor, you face daily scrutiny, from students, peers and reviewers,” he notes. “In order to succeed, you need to take risks, compete for grants and experience setbacks.”

If a professor who is a perfectionist receives a critical evaluation of an article or is unsuccessful in a grant application, he or she can lose a week (or more) of productive time to harsh self-recrimination. This leads to further immobilization in the face of enormous pressure. The academic literature has established that people high in perfectionism encounter more stress, health concerns, mental health issues and negative life events.

“It’s quite a package all together and the end result is less productivity,” he says. “The individual can’t seem to regulate themselves -- it’s obsessive and it’s ugly.”

Next study

Clinical psychologists are often challenged by a patient’s often mistaken attribution of their success to perfectionism. In such a case, changes suggested by a therapist are perceived as a threat to continuing success. These new findings will help clinical psychologists during discussions with patients.

“Over the past 15 years, new treatments have emerged. Clearly, there’s a long way to go, but increasingly there are promising interventions to help perfectionistic individuals,” says Dr. Sherry.

The next phase of his investigation will focus on asking why there is an association between perfectionism and depression.

“My belief is that people with a high degree of perfectionism struggle to relate to others satisfactorily and this inability contributes to conflict and alienation,” he says.

In the next study, volunteers will be asked to wear recorders on their belts all day. The recorders will switch on every 12 minutes to record the ambient environment. Later on, researchers will assess these ‘overheard‘ social interactions to test the idea that perfectionism contributes to tangled and limiting relationships which, in turn, contribute to depression.

“A person with a high degree of perfectionism is always going to be vulnerable,” he says. “Perfectionism isn’t bad, as long as everything remains perfect.”

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Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science