“When success dictates self-worth”

27 Nov 2023

When does wanting to do well become unwell? Barbara Cludius researches the propensity for perfectionism. In our EINSICHTEN interview she explains how a harmful thought construct is related to various mental disorders.

Most of us try to do our work as well as possible. How perfect should we be? And when does the issue of perfectionism arise?

Cludius: In psychology, we’ve been discussing what positive or negative perfectionism is for quite a long time. More recent literature tends to the view that perfectionism is never healthy – and thus never positive. These approaches seek to distinguish striving for excellence from perfectionism. Striving for excellence means that I have high standards and try to accomplish things as well as possible. It is based on a positive incentive. When I succeed, I’m proud and happy. If I have perfectionist tendencies, by contrast, the standards I set myself are inflexible, extremely high, and difficult to attain. Moreover, my sense of self-worth depends on whether I reach them. Success or failure defines me as a person. And then there is another form of perfectionism that is all about not making mistakes. I don’t have a positive goal; I just do not want to make any mistakes – this is associated with excessive fear of failure.

Portrait of PD Dr. Barbara Cludius

"Some people have no perfectionist tendencies at all, but a majority to a certain degree. It’s certainly good to keep an eye on these things, but there’s no need to panic", Barbara Cludius says.

© Florian Generotzky / LMU

Can perfectionism be clearly diagnostically defined?

Cludius: When it comes to perfectionism, we assume that it occurs on a continuum: This means that ultimately everyone is somewhere between being slightly or not at all perfectionistic and extremely perfectionistic on the other end. We assume that very strong perfectionism in particular can lead to psychological disorders. There is a frequently used questionnaire that measures various aspects of perfectionism, including the fear of failure. As part of clinical studies, a cut-off was suggested, namely, a point at which a certain number of criteria are met. But there is no clear point above which one can say that it is now pathological.

What are the signs that it’s tipping over into pathology?

Cludius: Perfectionism has negative consequences. That’s the point at which I myself can notice them, or the people around me. For example, when I don’t start a task for fear that I could fail. Or I avoid certain situations so I don’t make a fool of myself. I don’t go to a meal, say, because I might spill food on my shirt. Or I don’t go to an interview for fear of saying something silly. Or I notice that I’m in a bad mood and my mind is filled with thoughts like: “Failed again! I’m such a loser.”

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So it’s about problematic thought constructs, which underlie perfectionistic behavior?

Cludius: That’s inherent in the idea that success determines self-worth. Perfectionism is a cognitive schema. Whether I do something well or badly, I relate it to myself as a person. And I’m only deserving of love if I’m successful. Or: If I don’t perform to the utmost, I’m a total and utter failure. Let’s take our interview today as an example. I arrived five minutes late. A dysfunctional way of thinking would be if I now believe you cannot take me seriously in this conversation. That I’ve squandered my credibility because I was a few minutes late. Perfectionism doesn’t have this middle ground where I can say to myself: I arrived too late, and that means I haven’t organized things as well as I should have today. Nevertheless, I can do a good interview and show in this conversation that I know the topic well.

What role does society play? After all, it encourages perfection and high performance.

Cludius: As far as I know, there haven’t been any studies on this. In connection with a different research question, we looked at a small group of psychology students to determine how pronounced their tendency to perfectionism was. Almost 50 percent of them were above the cut-off point. That’s a very high number.

There is evidence that parenting styles may play a role.

What other risk factors are we aware of?

Cludius: I can’t give you any concrete findings here either, just theories which, unfortunately, have not been well investigated. Generally speaking, we know that the risk for a pathological behavior or disorder always rests on a genetic component and an environmental component. For perfectionism, the genetic element amounts to about 30 percent – that is not an awful lot. The rest is attributable to environmental influences.

We know that traumatic experiences such as abuse increase the risk of many disorders and pathological behavior patterns, and this holds for perfectionism as well. And there are indications that the parenting style, or indeed the example set by parents, plays a role. And so children often adopt the perfectionist behavior of their parents. Another risk factor is when parents push their children too hard, especially punishing or scolding them when they make mistakes. In such cases, error avoidance can be the main issue later.

Perfectionism is related to certain clinical disorders. Are they mutually dependent?

Cludius: Some clinical disorders are very closely associated with perfectionism. They include, for example, eating disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorders: striving for control, the drive to do everything correctly and present a perfect image to the outside world. Researchers have been unable thus far to determine which comes first, or whether both develop simultaneously. For depression, there are longitudinal studies which suggest that perfectionism and depressive symptoms are mutually dependent.

In contrast, we observed in one of our own studies that perfectionist behavior can trigger negative mood, but not the other way around, which would suggest that perfectionism could be a risk factor for depressive moods. Moreover, there are indications that perfectionism complicates treatment of depression and that successful treatment of depressive symptoms does not lead to any great reduction in perfectionism. Perfectionism and symptoms probably cannot be completely separated. For example, perfectionism could be a way of dealing with the loss of control experienced due to depressive symptoms. And at the same time, perfectionism also has consequences that affect and increase anxiety and depression.

So perfectionism can be quite varied in its effects ...

Cludius: We’re currently running several studies that explore this very question. We want to better understand the role of perfectionism as a so-called transdiagnostic factor – that is to say, a factor that plays a role in various disorders. We’re investigating how perfectionism is related to various disorders and perhaps even connects them. We’re also studying why people develop very different symptoms even though they all have perfectionist tendencies. One might well suppose that all people who are perfectionists would develop the same problems. But while some are subject to worsening moods, for example, others slip into over-controlled eating behavior or compulsions. We want to know which additional factors determine whether somebody develops, say, an obsessive-compulsive or an eating disorder – even though all the persons we’re studying have a higher tendency to be perfectionistic.

A bit fussy, this order

Ursus Wehrli exhibits in his books "The art of tidying up" (Die Kunst aufzuräumen).

© Kein&Aber AG Zürich-Berlin

What happens if I forget the decorations for my child’s birthday party?

Some readers have probably recognized themselves in one example or another. Should they be concerned?

Cludius: If I recognize some behavioral patterns in myself, it doesn’t mean that my perfectionist tendencies are problematic and can cause psychological symptoms. Some people have no perfectionist tendencies at all, but a majority to a certain degree. It’s certainly good to keep an eye on these things, but there’s no need to panic. And there are phases in life where having more control provides greater security. The important question is: Am I suffering from this? Because if it doesn’t affect me, then it’s just something that’s there. We don’t always do only things that are good for us emotionally. But they’re perhaps the best solution available for the moment.

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And how does one escape the perfectionism trap if one actually has the tendencies?

Cludius: The first step is to observe. For instance: If I procrastinate a lot because I’m afraid of failure, then I can ask myself in what situations this behavior arises and with what thoughts and feelings it is associated. The second step – and this raises the question as to how well you can do this on your own – is taking apart the construct: If I haven’t attained some goal, does it mean that I’m a failure in all aspects of my life? In which areas am I good or successful? As the next step, I can put my thoughts to the test using behavioral experiments. If I procrastinate, for example, I could set myself a deadline by which I must finish and submit my text. What happens? What kind of feedback do I get? Or if I have the tendency to always control and optimize everything down to the smallest detail, I could try out in various situations what happens when I don’t do it. Something like: What happens if I buy the cake for my son’s birthday party and don’t hang up streamers and balloons? And what effect does that have on me emotionally? Ultimately, the idea is to decouple self-worth from perfectionist behavior. In the end, I can hopefully say: I just can’t do some things the way I want to, but I’m good the way I am.

Interview: Stefanie Reinberger

Portrait of PD Dr. Barbara Cludius

© Florian Generotzky / LMU

PD Dr. Barbara Cludius is a post-doctoral researcher in the Chair of Clinical Psychology and Psychological Treatment at LMU’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences. In addition, she is a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist. In 2022, Barbara Cludius was Junior Researcher in Residence at LMU’s Center for Advanced Studies (CAS). She was awarded the Princess Therese of Bavaria Prize in 2023.

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