Being a Perfectionist Can Ruin the Lives of Everyone Around You, Research Says

While we often think of perfectionism as a positive quality, research suggests the personality trait can lead to violence and abusive behavior when it's combined with a certain type of narcissism.

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Sep 30 2016, 7:10pm

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In popular imagination, perfectionists are goal-oriented people who make for excellent, hard-working employees. But recent research suggests some perfectionists are more like the fictional character Tracy Flick in the film Election—exhibiting components of what psychologists refer to as the Dark Triad of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy.

This subset of perfectionists, so-called "extreme perfectionists," are highly self-invested and some have the superficial charm that is a hallmark of antisocial personality disorder, according to a paper titled "Deep, Dark and Dysfunctional: The Destructiveness of Interpersonal Perfectionism," by authors Gordon Flett, Paul L. Hewitt, and Simon S. Sherry.

Notorious individuals who've suffered from this type of perfectionism, according to the authors, include Steve Jobs; the "Unabomber," Ted Kaczynski; and Walter Petryshyn, a mathematician charged with murdering his wife because he was so stressed that colleagues would discover a minor mistake in a textbook he'd written.

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"These are people who demand perfection and tend to be harsh or arbitrary towards those around them for failing to live up to their exacting standards," Flett told Broadly. "They can always justify it in terms of their pursuit of the higher ideal."

According to Flett, who has been studying perfectionism for more than two decades, the personality trait can lead to violence and abusive behavior when it's combined with a certain type of narcissism. People in this subset of perfectionism are so invested in being the best and so hyper competitive that they'll potentially do anything to "succeed."

"If you mix perfectionism with someone who is anti-social, that's when you get someone like the unabomber—a failed math professor who was very perfectionistic. It can be a pretty nasty combination," Flett said.

He told me one of his students was married to an abusive perfectionist who threw her through a glass window when he was upset that she wasn't living up to his expectations. "His favorite phrase was that the only mistake he ever made was marrying her," Flett said.

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It can be hard to treat these individuals in therapy because they are so invested in their flawless self-presentation; psychoanalysts must work hard to scratch off the veneer. Narcissistic perfectionists who seek to change others also have a "marked tendency to terminate their treatment," according to a 2004 study.

Though extreme perfectionists aren't thought to comprise a large portion of the population, even garden-variety perfectionists tend to alienate those around them. Researchers have found a link between perfectionism and a "cold and domineering interpersonal style," as well as "irritable and aggressive traits."

People needs to understand that there are health risks to constantly striving to be the best.

In a previous study, Flett analyzed how perfectionism activates stress hormones, which can lead to a host of illnesses, including heart disease, arthritis, headaches and depression. He told me about a perfectionistic, "extremely self-critical" former student of his who'd been so stressed that he'd burned a hole in his esophagus, which led to a heart infection. He died at the age of 41.

"There's so much worrying about fear of failure," Flett said. "People needs to understand that there are health risks to constantly striving to be the best."

There's also reason to believe that perfectionism is getting worse, especially among young people. One study published at the end of 2015 by Australian researchers found that at least three out of 10 participants had some form of maladaptive perfectionism. Flett believes social media, a usual suspect, was likely at play: Teens who compare their lives to others on Facebook can end up exacerbating their own perfectionism.

Integral to getting over perfectionism is learning how to have some compassion for yourself instead of automatically beating yourself up when you fail at something (especially because you probably didn't fail — another thing perfectionists do is apply unhelpful "all or nothing" logic, painting everything with a dark brush if they get one thing wrong.) The other (rather obvious) way of treating the overly-perfectionistic mind is to circumvent your own self-obsession by helping other people. "There's a lot of merit to deriving self-worth from helping others," Flett said. "Try directing attention away from yourself."

Read more: Narcissists and Psychopaths Love to Stay Friends with Their Exes

"People in treatment are afraid to let go, afraid to lose ground and afraid that if they stop being perfectionists, they'll stop accomplishing things," he added. "But what I keep pointing out is that there are benefits that balance itself out. Perfectionism, after all, is associated with burnout and exhaustion," Flett said.

While there haven't been any longitudinal studies on perfection, Flett believes it can sometimes get better over time. "If your perfectionism is driven by a need for approval and affection, I think, as you grow older, you get a little less concerned with that," Flett said.

I told Flett that sometimes I self-soothe my perfectionistic tendencies by watching news about Trump and feeling better about my own mistakes in comparison. Flett pointed out that Trump seems to have perfectionistic tendencies as well. "You can see that in how often he tries to deflect any criticism of his performance."