A psychology geek’s take on perfectionism and how it relates to Flow states
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This article was written by Flow Lab’s Head of Content and MSc. psychologist Eva Siem. She studied at the University of Groningen (NL) and is specialized in the area of performance and motivational psychology. In her articles, she combines findings from psychological research with practical tips from her experience as mental fitness coach and workshop trainer.
With her decision to withdraw from the Olympics 2021, US gymnast Simone Biles prompts us to rethink our strivings for perfection. Especially in a competitive environment and a sport where every detail counts, the line between success and perfection may easily blur. Yet, the striving for excellence can ironically lead to the opposite in some cases: Biles made untypical mistakes and didn’t want her team to perform worse because of her so she decided to withdraw and put her mental health first.
But perfectionism isn’t a phenomenon only apparent among world-class achievers. I’m sure many of us can relate to the “Paradox of Perfectionism”: Because we want to perform perfectly, we get hung up on the details and, in the end, don’t get anything done.
Sounds familiar? Then let’s take a closer look at the psychology of perfectionism, how it relates to Flow states and what you can do to excel without compromising your mental health!
The Flaws of Perfection
Perfectionists set excessively high standards: They don’t aim for high achievement, they aim for flawlessness (Flett & Hewitt, 2002; Frost, Marten, Lahart, & Rosenblate, 1990). And they compulsively do so even for tasks that don’t necessarily require perfection (shoutout to everyone testing different color-code systems for their To-Do lists) (Flett & Hewitt, 2006; Sherry, Hewitt, Sherry, Flett, & Graham, 2010).
At first sight, the consequences of perfectionism appear to be mixed: Some researchers found perfectionists to be less self-compassionate and self-accepting (Brown, 2010; Flett, Besser, Davis, & Hewitt, 2003; Neff, 2003) as well as exhibiting more workaholism tendencies (Clark, Michel, Zhdanova, Pui, & Baltes, 2016). Others linked it to more engagement (Zhang et al., 2007; Jo & Lee, 2010), better learning strategies (Jang & Pak, 2017) and even greater well-being (Fairweather-Schmidt & Wade, 2015; Vekas & Wade, 2017). So it seems that high standards alone don’t cause negative effects. But what is it then?
High standards alone don’t cause negative effects. (Flow Lab) Click To Tweet
Adaptive versus maladaptive perfectionism
Well, psychologists explain that there is both adaptive as well as maladaptive perfectionism (Enns, Cox, Sareen, & Freeman, 2001). With adaptive perfectionism (also called perfectionistic or positive striving), one strives for excellence. This form correlates with numerous positive outcomes, such as better performance (Jo & Lee, 2010), intrinsic motivation (Miquelon et al., 2005; Stoeber et al., 2009), less anxiety (e.g., Shaunessy, Suldo, & Friedrich, 2011), decreased procrastination (Sirois, Molnar, & Hirsch, 2017) and higher well-being (Fairweather-Schmidt & Wade, 2015; Vekas & Wade, 2017).
On the other side of the spectrum, maladaptive perfectionism (also referred to as perfectionistic concerns) may trigger worries about being judged or criticized by others (Enns & Cox, 2002; Terry-Short et al., 1995). Maladaptive perfectionists are less inclined to seek excellence than they are to avoid failure. They typically set unrealistic goals, show impaired attention (Slade et al., 2007) and are extrinsically motivated (or not motivated at all; Miquelon et al., 2005; Stoeber et al., 2009) because of external factors (such as approval or fear of rejection). They often feel pressured to perform in a competitive manner, eventually leading to burnout (e.g., Shim, 1995).
But this is not the only distinction that has to be made because both adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism come in different varieties. And before being able to let go of unhealthy strivings, we first need to know which one is actually applying to us…
Types of Perfectionism
For more than two decades, the Canadian psychologists Dr. Paul Hewitt and Dr. Gordon Flett have been researching the shades of gray within perfectionism now. Their research revealed three dimensions along the Hewitt and Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (Hewitt & Flett, 1991): self-oriented perfectionism (imposing high standards on oneself), socially-prescribed perfectionism (perceiving others to impose high standards on oneself) and other-oriented perfectionism (imposing one’s high standards on other people). Let’s dig deeper into each of these types:
1. Self-oriented perfectionism
People with self-oriented perfectionism impose extremely high standards on themselves which can be both healthy or unhealthy. If adaptive, these high standards are motivating since the goals and standards are self-chosen and perceived to be within one’s control (Flett, Hewitt, Blankstein, & Dynin, 1994). It is said to be the form most closely connected to self-improvement and achievement motivation (Hewitt and Flett 1991; Klibert et al. 2005; Neumeister, 2004). So these people aim high and put a lot of effort into achieving their ambitious goals – exactly what makes a high achiever!
If maladaptive, however, it usually triggers self-criticism and self-blame (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). Perhaps they can’t let go of that embarrassing mistake they made months ago or they speak to themselves in a very harsh tone. Researchers linked this type of perfectionism with the irrational belief that a perfect solution exists and must be found for each and every problem and associated it with a low frustration tolerance as well as the need for approval from others (Flett, Hewitt, Blankstein & Koledin, 1991).
2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism
The urge to perform perfectly can also arise when someone perceives other people to expect perfection from oneself. They may have internalized the belief that others’ approval is connected to their performance and are therefore afraid to let them down or get rejected (Enns & Cox, 2002; Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 2004). So this form of perfectionism is generally considered maladaptive since those affected are driven by external pressures (e.g., Chang et al., 2015) and perceive others’ expectations as uncontrollable (Bieling, Israeli, Smith, & Antony, 2003; Chang & Rand, 2000; Hewitt & Flett, 1991; Miquelon et al., 2005). Success for them is not necessarily about learning and improving, but about making others proud and earning status (Ballou-Broadnax, 2018). Perhaps they go to piano lessons they never wanted to attend to please their parents (and nope, still not mastering the perfect pitch after the early childhood music education), revise the Keynote for the fifth time to satisfy their micromanaging boss or feel pressured to complete another HIIT workout only to make their partner happy. Same goes for feeling pressured by peers (e.g., Flannagan, Marsh, & Fuhrman, 2005; Miller & Vaillnacourt, 2007) or siblings (e.g., Cook & Kearney, 2009; Wong, Branje, VanderValk, Hawk, & Meeus, 2010).
But also the opposite can be true: not putting in more effort, but less, resulting in procrastination (e.g., Neumeister, 2004). Although putting off one’s task may seem counterintuitive at first, it makes sense if we dig a little deeper: When you’re too anxious to start, but then become stressed about not getting anything done, deliberately putting off these scary tasks provides a welcome excuse of why something didn’t work out. That is, a lack of effort rather than ability explains the failure, thereby protecting someone’s self-worth (cf. self-worth theory, Covington, 1984). This fits with the finding that socially-prescribed perfectionists tend to adopt a victim mentality and blame others for the things that go wrong (Flett et al., 1991). Why? Well, the answer may lie in the need for approval. As a “victim”, we need others’ validation and aren’t responsible for what is happening around us – it’s much more comfortable to “let things happen to us”.
Interestingly, these patterns of low self-esteem and dependency (Flett et al., 1991) are also reflected in their humor. Psychologists differentiate four humor styles (Martin et al., 2003): self-enhancing humor (i.e., using humor to appear in a favorable light), affiliative humor (i.e., using humor to strengthen social relationships), aggressive humor (i.e., using humor to enhance the self at the expense of others) and self-defeating humor (i.e., using humor to strengthen social relationships at the expense of oneself). You may guess it already – socially-prescribed perfectionists tend to use the latter one (Stoeber, 2015).
Eventually, they may experience burnout (Appleton et al., 2009; Chang & Lee, 2019; Hill et al., 2010), report lower life satisfaction (Stoeber & Stoeber, 2009), are dissatisfied with their achievements (Stoeber & Yang, 2010) and experience anxiety and/or depression (Hewitt & Flett, 2004). Also, socially-prescribed perfectionists feel less supported by others and are highly sensitive to interpersonal cues (Hill, Zrull, & Turlington, 1997; Hewitt & Flett, 2004; Sherry, Law, Hewitt, Flett, & Besser, 2008).
3. Other-oriented perfectionism
And then there is other-oriented perfectionism: expecting others to meet one’s high standards and constantly evaluating their performance. Perhaps you expect your children to become the new Einstein and excel in school, want other members of your team to care and work as much as you do during a group project or push your partner to work harder so they get that promotion. Some studies emphasize the bright side of it, connecting it with better performance, engagement and mastery in personal projects (Childs & Stoeber, 2010; Flett, Blankstein, & Hewitt, 2009; Hewitt & Flett, 2004). A subform called “team-oriented perfectionism” (i.e., imposing high standards onto one’s teammates), for example, predicted higher performance (Hill et al., 2014). Likewise, other-oriented perfectionism in the workplace was associated with more conscientiousness in helping one’s colleagues (Shoss et al., 2015).
There is, however, a line between encouragement and rigid expectations. That’s why a bunch of research is cautioning against the maladaptive form. People with toxic other-oriented perfectionism are much more difficult to get along with as they are described as being hostile, not very agreeable or cooperative and tending to blame others for mistakes (Hewitt & Flett, 1991, 2004; Hill, McIntire, & Bacharach, 1997; Stoeber, 2015). A number of studies have even associated it with narcissistic traits (Sherry et al., 2014; Stoeber, 2014), a low frustration tolerance and the desire for social approval (Flett et al., 1991). And if we recall the humor styles mentioned earlier – can you guess which one they make use of most often? Exactly – aggressive humor: They tease others for their mistakes and make jokes at the expense of them (Stoeber, 2015). While this may sound harsh on paper, it may actually be very subtle to identify that in real life, especially when we’re being told that we should be able to laugh about ourselves.
In a romantic relationship, for example, this may potentially result in so-called “dyadic perfectionism” (e.g., Haring et al. 2003; Hewitt et al. 1995; Stoeber 2012; Stoeber et al. 2013): One partner with other-oriented perfectionism imposes high expectations on the other who, in turn, experiences socially-prescribed perfectionism.
Perfectionism and Flow
If you’ve read the other articles of this series, you know that we like to disentangle the relationship of a concept with Flow. So here it comes:
Flow is not only a state of optimal performance, but also of optimal experience. It is “autotelic” – with “autos” meaning “self” and “telos” meaning “goal”. In other words, the activity itself is the goal – it is intrinsically rewarding and inherently pleasurable. In the zone, we’re able to block out any distractions and are “low in self-consciousness”. That means we can let go of any doubts or worries and devote our full attention to the task. Our actions and thoughts seem to literally “flow” – they are automated and effortless.
Dietrich & Stoll (2010) argued that toxic perfectionism is extrinsically motivated as the outcome is more important than the process itself and worry, fear of failure, ruminations, unhealthy comparisons and self-criticism characterize the journey. Hence, these negative cognitions take up too much mental capacity to become absorbed. Also, they explain that perfectionists have an elevated baseline activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex which need to be downregulated for Flow to occur. That’s why the two researchers assume that toxic perfectionism hinders this peak performance state.
Maladaptive perfectionists have an elevated baseline activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex which need to be downregulated for Flow to occur.
This should not be the case with adaptive perfectionism though. Adaptive perfectionists are typically intrinsically motivated, implying that their focus lies on the activity itself rather than on self-referential processes which should facilitate Flow. And indeed there is some backup for this assumption: Studies found that adaptive self-oriented perfectionism, in particular, was connected to achievement motivation and mastery goals (Neumeister, 2004), which are also assumed to facilitate Flow (cf. Eisenberger et al. 2005; Engeser and Rheinberg 2008).
In line with this, Powers, Milyavskaya and Koestner (2012) showed in their study that healthy self-oriented perfectionism led to more Flow which, in turn, resulted in greater progress toward one’s goal. Self-criticism, on the other hand, was related to less Flow and less progress toward one’s goal. Similarly, adaptive perfectionism increased Flow among students through higher behavioral and cognitive engagement (vice versa for maladaptive perfectionism; Ljubin-Golub, Rijavec, & Jurcec, 2018).
Alright, what can you do then to let go of unhealthy perfectionism and find more Flow?
What you can do to let go of unhealthy …
… perfectionism in general
Here are a few approaches that may be worthwhile for all perfectionism types:
Tip #1: Zoom out, zoom in.
Perfectionists often set up a false dichotomy and fall prey to “all-or-nothing” thinking – it’s either success or failure, good or bad (Flett & Hewitt, 1998; Walsh & Ugumba-Agwunobi, 2002). Zoom out for a moment to see the bigger picture: How much closer does working on this detail actually move you toward your goal? How relevant will the outcome be in a year from now? Then also zoom in so you can see the shades of grey and stop pigeonholing: Which things do you enjoy during the process? Which small improvement have you made, regardless of the outcome? Which insights and learnings did you have that you can apply in the future?
Let go of that zero-sum mentality and try to remember these questions in crucial moments, perhaps even set up a reminder on your phone. For more sustainable effects, have a go at our Flow Sessions “50 Shades of Success” to challenge all-or-nothing thinking, “The Long Haul” to shift your focus toward the process rather than the outcome or “Bounce Back” to reframe setbacks as learning opportunities.
Tip #2: Start with the symptom
Letting go of perfectionism doesn’t happen overnight. But what you can do in the meantime is to cope with its emotional consequences. There are many tools that help you enhance your emotional self-awareness (e.g., mindfulness exercises), regulate yourself physically when feeling tense or stressed (e.g., breathing exercises) or change your cognitions to cope with your emotions and improve your current experience (e.g., cognitive reappraisal). If you want a little guidance with that, we’ve got you covered: Train your emotional self-awareness with “Rock Steady”, stay calm and collected with a relaxation breathing technique in “Breather” or gain confidence by imagining not the worst, but the best-case scenario in “What if”.
Tip #3: Learn how to take and reject criticism
Criticism is a tricky thing. We’re human and have a deeply rooted urge to protect our self-worth and fight whatever might threaten it. Or even better – we may have developed strategies (*cough* perfectionism *cough*) to do the best we can not to receive criticism in the first place.
But that’s the thing – we might not listen on the factual level, but take it personally. If we manage to control our impulses and listen with a curious mind, we gain a little more time to evaluate the feedback we receive and open ourselves for actual improvement. If we come to the conclusion that it is indeed valid, we can learn to adopt a growth mindset and ask ourselves what we can learn from it for the future. In the long run, this will bring us much further than getting stuck in the details and overcompensating with unhealthy perfectionism. If we don’t agree, however, we are also allowed to reject criticism. But these are not our hurt feelings speaking then, if we’ve seriously considered the facts and just have a different opinion. Of course, distinguishing defiance from disagreement requires training. A good start may be the Flow Session “Grounded” in the training area of “Ease” where you learn to resist impulsive reactions.
… self-oriented perfectionism
If you feel addressed by the facets we described about unhealthy self-oriented perfectionism, you may try these things:
Tip #1: It’s time for a reality check
When in the grip of unhealthy perfectionism, we tend to set ridiculously high goals that are impossible to achieve. Yet, according to research, people with self-oriented perfectionism don’t attribute their stress to the fact that their standards are impossible to meet, but to failing to meet them (Ballou-Broadnax, 2018).
So we can try as hard as we want – what we need is a reality check: Is your goal realistic? And, digging a little deeper, why did you set it in the first place – which needs does it fulfill? Questions like these help you get a handle on unhealthy strivings and become aware when it’s worth to adapt your goals. You may, for example, lower your standards or effort (goal disengagement) or, if you realize that this goal is rather a compensation for an unfulfilled need, you may drop it and set a new goal instead (goal reengagement). Make sure to formulate your goal positively (e.g., “My goal is to learn xy” instead of “My goal is to not do z”) and use yourself (rather than other people) as comparison to measure progress. These goals are considered much healthier and motivating (Elliot, 1999).
What might also help for a reality check is to distinguish between “must haves” and “nice to haves” – our Tip #2.
Tip #2: Disentangle “must haves” from “nice to haves”
I know, like, a million people have probably told you that already, but there is no such thing as “one perfect solution”. But how do we know when something is good enough? Of course, that depends on the task and context. But distinguishing the “must haves” that are absolutely essential for a successful outcome from the things that are only “nice to have” is a great start. And you can take care of the necessary things first, before choosing which details to work on afterwards (if at all). You also wouldn’t decorate your new apartment before painting the walls or assembling the furniture, would you? 😉
Some also swear by the “Pareto Principle”: It explains that 80% of the output come from only 20% of your time, while the remaining 20% of the output take 80% of your time. In other words, we get hung up on the details and it may be worth questioning whether these 20% actually make a big difference. For which tasks are 80% enough? And which other things could you tick off with the remaining time?
Tip #3: Be your best friend
You are the person you spend your entire lifetime with. That’s why the way you talk to yourself also influences how happy (or annoyed) you walk through life. Since self-oriented perfectionists tend to be overly self-critical and beat themselves up for every tiny mistake (plus, they don’t even appreciate it when they succeed), cultivating a positive inner dialogue is crucial. How would you treat a close friend in your situation? Which advice would you give to them? I bet you would find kind, encouraging words to support them – so what if you treated yourself in the same, compassionate way?
Feel free to train exactly that with our Flow session “Best Friend” in the training area of “Optimism”.
… socially-prescribed perfectionism
If you catch yourself becoming perfectionist to meet other people’s expectations, these tips are for you:
Tip #1: Play worst-case scenarios till the end
Anxious overconcern is a typical (and dysfunctional) belief among socially-prescribed perfectionists (Flett et al., 1991). They may fear to receive criticism, to lose others’ approval and to fail. When completely consumed by anxiety, we’re often only thinking about the worst thing that could happen – but not, what could happen afterwards. Although this may feel scary at first, play your worst-case scenario until the end and really visualize how you would cope with that situation. Because what you might realize is, on the one hand, that you are able to handle much more than what “anxious-you” tells you and, on the other hand, that the worst-case scenario is usually not the most realistic one. So take a deep breath and put things into perspective.
Tip #2: The art of not giving a f***
Let me start with a little reminder that your self-worth does neither depend on your achievements nor on other people’s feedback! You don’t need others to validate your existence. And no matter what expectations they may have – you still have the choice to let them or to determine your own standards! Of course, this was much more difficult to realize and implement as a child, but we can challenge our old habits and thinking patterns now. And at the risk of sounding like your mom with a wagging finger let me give you this gentle kick in the pants to assume responsibility for your actions (which is not the same as taking blame!). It means taking back control, shaking off the victim mentality and remembering that you’re worthy because you stay true to yourself. Real connections will stay even if you don’t live up to their perfectionist standards. So if you allow yourself to not give a f*** about others’ opinion, what does success look like for you – even if nobody would ever know about that success?
Of course, internalizing these things needs time and repetition. We need to actively train our mind to let go of negative belief patterns and cultivate new, more adaptive ones. So make mental fitness your routine and check out the session “Stay True” to let go of socially-prescribed perfectionism.
You don’t need others to validate your existence. And no matter what expectations they may have – you still have the choice to let them or to determine your own standards. (Flow Lab) Click To Tweet
Tip #3: Play safe, but play.
Neumeister (2004) suggests that socially-prescribed perfectionists benefit from increasing intrinsic motivation and setting mastery, instead of performance goals. Whereas performance goals are focused on either outperforming others or not performing worse than others, mastery goals are focused on learning and improving – using one’s past version as a comparison. In her study, participants reported that they had the best learning experiences when they knew they were not evaluated. They felt safe to explore, experiment and discover their intrinsic love of learning.
So block some time to deliberately play and experiment with your task or activity. If you adopt the mindset that there is no right or wrong in the first place, it will be much easier for you to explore your intrinsic motivation. In the long run, this will eventually help you shift your focus away from the things that others might want you to achieve, towards the things that matter to you. Also, explore your intrinsic motivation and passion with the Flow Session “Driven”.
Socially-prescribed perfectionists benefit from increasing intrinsic motivation and setting mastery goals.
… other-oriented perfectionism
Imposing high expectations on others sounds familiar to you? Here are three tips for you to lower this form of perfectionism:
Tip #1: Train your patience
Other-oriented perfectionists are said to get easily frustrated (Stoeber, 2015). So if you catch yourself becoming impatient when others don’t do the things as good or fast as you had it in mind, train your patience! Start by taking a strong, deep breath in through your nose and breathing out as slowly as possible through your mouth. I know, this is not earth-shattering advice, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. Training your impulse control with “Grounded” or emotional self-awareness with “Rock Steady” in the training area of “Ease” may also be useful. With simple tools like these, you’ll manage to disrupt your automatic, impulsive tendencies and gain a moment to reflect on the situation – which brings us to tip #2.
Tip #2: Look who’s talking
Let’s be real – you’re also messing up sometimes and have other people putting it together again, don’t you? It’s easy to leave the uncomfortable tasks to others, but I challenge you to take the more difficult path and ask yourself what you can do to make things better. And with “things” I mean your attitude, your communication style, your relationships.
To find the answers, you may look a little deeper into the things you actually identify with. A starting point may be to ask yourself why it matters so much to you how others perform. What needs do they fulfill? How does it make you feel if they follow your requests – or if not?
Tip #3: Do it yourself
Here’s the hard-hitting truth: It’s your standard, not theirs. You may have great intentions and aspirations, but other people just have other priorities. And you may understand that holding extremely high expectations on others can do more harm than good. So what are the options? Well, since having high standards isn’t bad in itself as we know by now, why not doing it yourself then? You are more independent and can put more effort into the project yourself.
And if you’re in a leadership position, you may try out different ways than a top-down approach to encourage your employees. Research shows that so-called transformational leadership is associated with the highly productive Flow state (van der Heijden & Bakker, 2011). It’s a passionate, enthusiastic and inspiring leadership style where leaders provide enough autonomy for their employees to grow. This implies that leaders don’t act according to their own interests, but in a way they motivate others to fulfill their own higher needs. So perhaps start by not asking what you want to achieve, but how you and your team want to work: Which atmosphere and work ethic would the majority of your team prefer and benefit from?
Phew, deep topic today. Overcoming unhealthy perfectionism in the long run will take some time and – more importantly – regular mental fitness training. So take the very first step to overcome your limiting beliefs and toxic tendencies right now with the Flow Lab app.