Little Miss Perfect Reigns

Mrs Jody Forbes, School Psychologist and Student Counselling Coordinator

In the Mr Men and Little Miss series of children’s books there is no female equivalent for Mr Perfect, yet perfectionism in girls has proved a topic of considerable interest to educators and health professionals alike. Moreover, societal angst relating to perfectionism in boys does not appear to mirror that of girls. Thought to plague gifted and high-achieving individuals, perfectionism has been accused of shattering self-esteem and damaging girls beyond repair, with reports that some young women ‘could be too clever now for their own good’ (Lambert, 2014). Oxford High School, one of the UK’s highest achieving independent schools, has established the ‘Death of Little Miss Perfect’ campaign aimed at teaching girls about the harmful effects of perfectionism (Carlisle, 2014). This apparent war on perfectionism in girls invites curiosity and requires careful consideration. I wonder would the ‘Death of Little Master Perfect be embraced as readily. After all, perfectionists are typically characterised by their perseverance, motivation to succeed, striving to improve and strong work ethic. By lowering the bar for young women do we risk endorsing mediocrity? As a society how do we reconcile criticising girls for their perfectionism while simultaneously bombarding them with messages encouraging them to be perfect — beautiful, slim, clever, polite and feminine? Given it is unclear whether perfectionism promotes exceptionality or impedes it, we are obliged to examine this disposition rigorously and use this knowledge to guide our Grammar girls to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

What do we mean by ‘perfectionism’? Perfectionism appears to be a complex and often misunderstood personality trait and is best understood in terms of its various dimensions. In 1978, psychologist Don Hamachek was one of the first researchers to differentiate between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism and labelled the two separate forms as normal and neurotic. Normal perfectionists were described as people who derive pleasure from doing well at something difficult. Neurotic perfectionists however, never feel satisfied as they do not believe they ever do anything well enough to warrant this feeling. In the 1990s perfectionism was further differentiated into self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed dimensions (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Self-oriented perfectionists strive to be the best they can be and set high standards for themselves. Other-oriented perfectionists hold unrealistically high standards for the behaviour of others, while socially-prescribed perfectionists believe that others expect nothing less than perfection from them. Further research has suggested that self-oriented perfectionism is mostly considered healthy while the socially-prescribed and other-oriented dimensions are characteristic of unhealthy perfectionism.

The paradox of perfectionism is that it can be experienced as either incredibly frustrating or deeply satisfying. Repeated failure to reach set goals, procrastination, catastrophising mistakes and feelings of guilt and shame are indicative of unhealthy perfectionism. Driven by an underlying fear of failure and coupled with extreme self-criticism, this form of perfectionism has been associated with low self- esteem, stress, anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and relationship difficulties (Egan, Wade & Shafran, 2010; Schweitzer & Hamilton, 2002). Beyond psychological concerns, Dr Danielle Molnar (2006), a psychologist at Brock University in California, suggests perfectionism should be considered a risk factor for disease. Her research with adult perfectionists indicated that socially-prescribed perfectionists had greater episodes of illness, more doctor visits and higher absenteeism from work compared to non-perfectionists. In contrast, self-oriented perfectionism has been associated with greater physical health, conscientiousness, endurance, academic achievement and success (Molnar, 2006; Stoeber & Otto, 2006). Healthy perfectionists have been shown to feel more motivated for exams, spend greater number of hours studying and engage in more discussions with teachers (Stoeber & Otto, 2006). In addition, university students high in healthy perfectionism have been shown to receive a higher grade point average than both unhealthy perfectionists and non-perfectionists (Grzegorek, Slaney, Franze & Rice, 2004).

One factor distinguishing healthy from unhealthy perfectionism is the amount of self-criticism perfectionists engage in when their expectations have not been met. Individuals who blame themselves and react negatively when they feel they have failed fare much worse than those who can put things in perspective. So, perfectionism is far from straight-forward and is perhaps best summarised by Dr Linda Silverman:

Perfectionism is an energy that can be used either positively or negatively depending on one’s level of awareness. It can cause paralysis and underachievement, if the person feels incapable of meeting standards set by the self or by others. It also can be the passion that leads to extraordinary creative achievement an ecstatic struggle to move beyond the previous limits of one’s capabilities (‘flow’).

Perfectionism can develop from a number of factors including parental perfectionism, parenting style and early academic experiences. Unhealthy perfectionism appears mostly associated with having perfectionistic parents who adopt an authoritarian parenting style (Hibbard & Walton, 2014). Such parents tend to be controlling and have strict rules which they expect to be followed unconditionally (Baumrind, 1991). Little warmth is expressed between authoritarian parents and their children, and failure to respect parental authority usually results in punishment. Studies show that adults scoring high on socially-prescribed perfectionism describe parents who held excessively high standards, were overly critical of mistakes and expressed disappointment when children did not meet their standards (Hibbard & Walton, 2014; Speirs Neumeister, 2004). In contrast, adults high in self-oriented perfectionism described experiences of an authoritative parenting style characterised by realistic expectations, supportive response to failure and parents who were engaged with their emotional needs (Hibbard & Walton, 2014; Speirs Neumeister, 2004). Additionally, high achieving self-oriented perfectionists reported having early experiences in school where success came easily and thus a pattern and expectation of perfection developed (Hibbard & Walton, 2014; Speirs Neumeister, 2004).

While perfectionism has proved to be both healthy and unhealthy, one expert promotes it as an attribute to be treasured. Psychologist and author of The Perfectionist’s Handbook, Dr Jeff Szymanski, considers perfectionism to be one of the most valuable traits an individual can have. He believes a perfectionist’s attention to detail, persistence, desire to excel and insistence that everyone works to their potential, is crucial to success (Szymanski, 2012). According to Dr Szymanski, the problem with perfectionism is not the aspiration to be perfect, but rather what people do with this aspiration. Rather than extinguishing perfectionism altogether, Dr Szymanski suggests perfectionists consider the strategies they employ and whether these are helpful or not. An approach he suggests involves asking the following questions:

  1. My intention was …
  2. The strategy I used was …
  3. My desired outcome was …
  4. The actual outcome was …

I recently used this method with a student who was experiencing anxiety regarding an assignment. Her intention was to do the absolute best she could, yet the actual outcome was that she had not completed much of the task, was feeling paralysed with fear and was in floods of tears. After some discussion, she was able to identify that her strategy of avoiding talking with her teacher, due to fear of making mistakes, was not proving helpful in terms of reaching her desired outcome. Rather than lower her expectations and submit an average assignment, my student was able to preserve her desire to excel by adapting her strategy and facing her fears. This may not be appropriate in all cases, especially when time has run out and the only strategy left available may be to alter one’s desired outcome and use it as a learning experience. However, given it is often the intensity of the challenge which determines the amount of triumph one feels, rather than rescuing young women from the throes of perfectionism by telling them to lower their bars, it may be wiser to assist them to tolerate their distress and engage in helpful problem-solving strategies.

So declaring that ‘Little Miss Perfect’ be put to death seems to be a rather hasty reaction. Rather than removing or curing perfectionism, it is more important to determine whether the perfectionism is of the healthy or unhealthy dimension. I would also argue that instead of girls ‘being too clever for their own good’, perhaps it is society which needs to lower the bar. The expectations and pressure placed on girls to be good, to please others and look perfect, needs addressing. Research further suggests that encouraging parents to embrace a less authoritarian style in favour of realistic expectations and emotional support will enable girls to take on challenges and risks, rather than avoiding them due to fears of disappointing parents. Girls who have traversed primary school with minimal experience of disappointment or failure are potentially at risk of unhealthy perfectionism. Having a taste of failure and making mistakes allows girls to realise that the world does not end if they fail to be perfect. The answer need not be to curtail perfectionism, but rather to encourage girls to retain their high standards and work towards allowing their perfectionism to work for, rather than against, their desired outcomes.

We might consider someone to be recovered from clinical perfectionism when they are able to still strive towards goals that are attainable, to not judge themselves adversely if the goals are not met, to invest energy in goals that are not performance related, and to be able to shift focus and effort away from unattainable goals. (Egan, Wade & Shafran, 2010)


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