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We all know a perfectionist – the person we live with, share an office with, or are friends with, who has agonisingly high standards and is disappointed when things fall short. It might even be you. It’s often harmless enough.
But for some people, this perfectionism is taken to an extreme level, and interferes with their ability to work, study or maintain relationships. This is known as clinical perfectionism.
Clinical perfectionists constantly strive for ambitious goals and judge their self-worth on the achievement of these goals. Not meeting these goals, whether realistic or not, is met with a barrage of self-criticism and loathing. Some clinical perfectionists avoid or procrastinate because they fear not being able to meet their desired standards.
Clinical perfectionism is not listed as a disorder per se in the diagnostic manuals, but it can increase the risk for a number of disorders, including depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
How common is it?
We don’t know the prevalence among adults, but we have some data for young people.
One in four Australian adolescents are self-critical when standards are not met. Around 1.6% of boys and 3.4% of girls experience clinical perfectionism most or all of the time.
Watch: Meghan Kelly on the importance of good self-esteem. (Post continues after video.)
When should you get help?
Clinical perfectionists often don’t see themselves as perfectionists because they believe they can’t do anything perfectly. So, they’re surprised at how well the description fits them.
Take Lisa, for example, who presented for treatment for an eating disorder. She had been kicked out of university for repeatedly failing all her subjects and not responding to a “please explain” letter.
Lisa feared not doing her work perfectly and not being the perfect student, so she had not handed in work she had done and had avoided attending tutorials. She didn’t withdraw from her subjects, as that would be an acknowledgement of failure.
She found it impossible to respond to the “please explain” letter as she felt she could not explain her situation eloquently enough. (Post continues after gallery.)