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article imageOp-Ed: Perfectionism: Ideal, or multilevel mental health disorder?

By Paul Wallis     Dec 5, 2007 in Health
Apparently all the over-achiever sayings and motifs have a down side… (No! really…?) “Perfectionism” and its ethos is now seen as a potential health problem, with behavioral problems related to personal mindsets.
It’s almost a tautology to say some people are just obsessive about themselves and their own standards. One of the more disturbing elements in this New York Times piece is that some people literally seem to take the socio-cultural clichés as their own absolute standards for themselves.
In chickens, it’s called imprinting. The first thing they see must be their mother, whatever it is.
(Note: the links to “suicidal”, “eating disorders” and others lead to NYT pages, not related to the article. Thought I’d save you the time.)
So in the interests of figuring out the relationship between mindsets and mental problems, testing perfectionists has yielded some slightly horrifying results:
The assumption is that people want to be perfect in things like their job, not making mistakes. The spread of that perfectionism to general life, appearance, and hobbies is considered to be the problem zone.
(Can’t really resist commenting: In a culture where perfectly groomed people, furniture, and pets are the ideals blasted into people’s brains 24/7, the society might have a few problems of its own.)
Perfectionists, however, don’t recognize this trait as a problem. Quite the opposite. As the NYT researcher says, “The culture highly values and reinforces their attitudes.”
Then comes this interesting, if sociopathic, finding:
“Consider a recent study by psychologists at Curtin University of Technology in Australia, who found that the level of “all or nothing” thinking predicted how well perfectionists navigated their lives. The researchers had 252 participants fill out questionnaires rating their level of agreement with 16 statements like “I think of myself as either in control or out of control” and “I either get on very well with people or not at all.””
Sounds productive, doesn’t it?
(It’s not clear what sort of options the tests gave to participants. If they were given only either/or answers, it’s not a fair assessment. I think the intention is to show they gave answers at the extreme ends of a spectrum.)
This is where the idea of motivational jingles as absolute personal laws kicks in. Somehow, those values, intentionally, accidentally, or grafted on to social instincts, have taken hold, in the most literal sense. Even if the people didn't consciously decide to embrace those values through direct indoctrination, those are the standards of personal achievement.
What's really worrying is that the values, as defined, seem to fit every single motivational cliché I've ever heard. It's like the "times table", rote. Or brainwashing.
Being the NYT is a positive cultural advantage in this article. The reaction to this equation between perfectionism and obsessive compulsive behavior is to write about the issue like it was about rehab, and the people needed to break a pattern of addictive substance abuse. Minor classic in its way.
Alice Provost, an employee assistance counselor at UC Davis, handled that well, when confronted with perfectionism rampant:
As an experiment, Ms. Provost had members of the group slack off on purpose, against their every instinct. “This was mostly in the context of work,” she said, “and they seem like small things, because what some of them considered failure was what most people would consider no big deal.”
Ms. Provost’s comments to them after they tried the novel approach of not obsessing over things is memorable. It's a good payoff to what is otherwise a pretty worrying article, particularly if you know people like the subjects.
Being one of those who believes that self criticism is probably the only really reliable way of staying in touch with your own mistakes, I’d have to say that this reflexive perfectionism qualifies as seriously overdoing it.
Personal quality control has to have some basis, but not mythology and market maxims and some half baked self image created by a very lazy cookie cutter.
Bluntly, to be “given” your personal beliefs from what is essentially a series of jingles, directly or otherwise, doesn’t indicate high intelligence.
It may indicate the ability to survive eating a Tic Tac, but not necessarily.
Things like the NYT quotes, “Never accept second best” are conceptual cow prods, and “Always be true to yourself” shouldn’t need mentioning to an adult.
Particularly when “yourself”, after saturation in a management science verbal marinade, is likely to be a semi-sentient form of semi-digested swill like that. True to what? An obsessive vegetable?
As I see it, the most deadly part of this cultural crud happened when dumbing things down was mistaken for a form of communication, back in the 80s. The theory was that information was so dumbed down that people couldn’t help but understand.
In practice, it just gave the lucky recipients the idea that they did understand it, and we’ve seen plenty of evidence of where that led.
So the net result was a supply of highly "motivated" people, with an iron-on set of values, in a trash culture, who didn't know their subjects, weren't competent, but were loose in the industries, and worse, in academia.
They, in turn, like one of those communications workshops, have been relaying distorted, often just plain wrong, versions of the dumbed-down, and often obsolete, material to their own students.They're also spreading the motivation and the social idioms and contexts of "perfectionism" through the society like a disease. It was a predictable result.
I think the message here is don’t expose people to mindless slogans and cretinous concepts until you’re sure they can recognize them for what they are. The whole “over-achiever/workaholic” thing has produced a generation or so of imbeciles who really can’t tell the difference between their baby-chicken imprinting motivation and their own personal motives and aspirations. Even their idea of success isn't original.
That's "motivation"?
Ironically, most of the "perfectionists" I know are just pedants with high opinions of themselves. They like to pretend they can think, but usually can't get away with it for long enough to enjoy it.
Notable characteristics of this syndrome: there’s no extended logic beyond one or two steps, and no “off” switch for a reconnect to reality.
The head may be missing, but the chicken carcass keeps on running.
At both ends, apparently…
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