(CNN) — Some people are never satisfied with anything — including themselves. What makes them impossible to please?
That’s what researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, are trying to find out as they conduct one of the few studies ever to focus on perfectionism.
Vancouver Psychologist Paul Hewitt is studying perfectionists in the hope of finding ways to help them control their compulsions.
“There is a fine line between having high expectations and moving toward them, and flipping over to where they are unreasonable,” he says.
Hewitt, who has studied perfectionists for the past 14 years, says they fall into three main categories:
• Self-oriented perfectionists, who believe they must be perfect.
• Other-oriented perfectionists, who want others to be perfect and flawless.
• Socially prescribed perfectionists, who feel they must be perfect because someone might be watching.
All three types, Hewitt says, put themselves through the same self-inflicted punishment. People who strive for perfection never experience satisfaction.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionists are people who strive to meet very high standards in everything they do. Perfectionists can be devided into two categories based on how flexible they are about their standards:
Normal perfectionists – set high standards for themselves but drop their standards if the situation requires it.
Neurotic perfectionists – never feel that they have done their job well enough. They are very intolerant of mistakes and extremely self-critical.
Dimensions of perfectionism
Dr Randy Frost of Smith College, Massachusetts has developed a scale, designed to measure perfectionism. The scale recognizes six different dimensions of perfectionism.
Concern over mistakes
Perfectionists get more upset over mistakes than other people because they are scared that others will think badly of them.
Setting high often unrealistic standards that you feel compelled to meet is a common trait of normal and neurotic perfectionists.
Doubting of actions
Feeling uncertain when a job is finished is a common feature of perfectionism. As a result, these people are often reluctant to give up on tasks. Doubting can also make perfectionists very indecisive.
Perfectionists tend to be fussy and exacting about whatever they do. They also have a preoccupation with making everything neat and tidy.
Perfectionism and depression
Perfectionism is a trait that causes people to find comfort in order. When it is overused as a way to cope with anxiety or stress, it can have serious consequences. For example, perfectionists have a deep need to “get it right”. Perfectionists often do not allow their real selves to be known because they fear they may look foolish or incompetent. They may be “perfect” in public situations yet a disaster in their private home life. Anxiety about mistakes — or fear of making mistakes — can preoccupy their minds and make relaxation impossible.
There are many factors that make depression worse in a perfectionist:
Shame and self-doubt. Growing up with low self-esteem and a lack of secure attachment leaves us feeling bad about who we are and pushes us to try harder to prove our worth.
Making comparisons with others. Comparing yourself to those who seem “better than me” — better looking, smarter, more accomplished — is a dangerous practice.
Lack of support combined with a desire to isolate. Perfectionists are often afraid of being found out as imposters. They expect criticism and do anything to avoid it.
Keeping secrets about mistakes. This is like having a double life – the person I appear to others and what I feel inside.
Fear of rejection or disapproval. This leads to defensiveness and prevents intimacy in what should be close relationships.
Ann W. Smith, author of “Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance and Self-Acceptance (2013)”.