Q&A: Dr Margaret Osborne on perfectionism
Image by Lucy McRae.
High pressure to perform is present in all walks and stages of life, from school to sport, the arts world to the business world. On Thursday 18 October, Science Gallery Melbourne presents ‘Perfectionisms: Pressure to be perfect’, an intriguing discussion as part of our MTALKS series. On the panel is psychologist Dr Margaret Osborne of the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and the Melbourne School of Psychological Sciences at the University of Melbourne. We asked Margaret a few questions about why we strive for perfection.
MPavilion: Can you explain what makes someone a perfectionist?
Margaret: When someone is a perfectionist, they have exceedingly high standards of performance, driven by concerns about making mistakes and the social consequences of not being perfect. Many people have perfectionistic tendencies, some of which are associated with a wide range of indicators of psychological maladjustment such as low mood and depressive symptoms, anxiety, and even suicidal ideation. Perfectionism also has positive aspects, with perfectionistic strivings shown to be associated with higher performance and academic achievement.
There is general agreement that adolescence is a sensitive period in the development of perfectionism, especially for young people embedded in a school environment that emphasises evaluation (via the culture, teachers, parents) and the importance of formal evaluations, grades, competitions, and comparisons. Add to that developmental changes such as increasing cognitive abilities, self-consciousness, and an awareness of social standards, which results in adolescents being more sensitive to others’ expectations for achievement and the implications of performance excellence for their academic future.
MPavilion: When does perfectionism become a problem?
Margaret: Some researchers argue that perfectionism can never be healthy. Given it is a multidimensional construct, I don’t agree. For example, noting what I discussed above, I would say it becomes problematic when perfectionistic striving, an adaptive form of perfectionism associated with the achievement of excellence, conscientiousness, problem-focused coping and positive affect; transforms into a perfectionistic concern, characterised by psychological distress and avoidance of the task we are required to perform.
It becomes a problem when we seek perfection in order to be approved of by others: parents, teachers, peers, colleagues, the industry one works in; coupled with an all-or-nothing thinking style where the criteria around the occurrence of any ‘mistake’ (however defined depending on one’s particular performance domain) means one’s performance is deemed a complete failure. This discounts the magnitude of other aspects of the performance which may have either met the mark, or qualified as an optimal or peak performance. This thinking style focuses on minor negative features and discounts entirely the positive elements.
MPavilion: Is this a growing concern? Are we putting too much pressure on ourselves to achieve?
Margaret: Well, this is a million-dollar question. In itself, striving for perfection drives humans to achieve physical and mental states that likely wouldn’t have been achieved without a goal of perfection.
MPavilion: How do we ensure that having high expectations of ourselves—or teaching children to push themselves to achieve—doesn’t lead to overwhelming anxiety?
Margaret: For children and adolescents, ensure that parental/teaching approval is not contingent on a perfect performance; that parent’s/teacher’s expectations for performance are realistic, and that approval will not be withheld if the child/student doesn’t meet parent’s/teacher’s expectations.
Encourage achievement goals that focus on mastery of a task versus perfect performance. Mastery goals focus on continued learning and eventual mastering of difficult tasks. People who have mastery goals want to improve their abilities and master new skills. On the other hand, performance goals focusing on comparison with others, either demonstrating that one has better capacities than others, or by a desire to avoid failure relative to others.
It can also help to build self-efficacy for performing, which is a belief that one can capably execute the task at the required/expected level. For example, adolescents who experience success in academic tasks at school gain an increased sense of academic efficacy (beliefs about their ability to learn or perform the task at the required level), are more likely to show increases in perfectionistic strivings (remember, this is a positive/functional type of perfectionism) because perfection seems possible for them. Perfectionists are highly sensitive to evaluative feedback. Consequently, adolescents in a scholastic context with high academic achievement (demonstrated by the grades they achieve in school) and high perceived skills (i.e., academic efficacy) may develop perfectionistic strivings based on their repeated experiences of success indicating that perfection is achievable.
MPavilion: Some people handle high-pressure situations well and achieve great things. How can we become more like those people?
Margaret: Interestingly, I would suggest that part of the answer lies in your question—that these people often aspire to achieve “great” things, and not “perfect” things.
Perfectionism is a double-edged sword: when a performer feels they have given a perfect performance, they have often done so when they have let caution fly to the wind. They have prepared their craft to the very best of their ability. In the act of performing they are able to get themselves out of the way, and let the skilled execution of their craft spew forth. This can only be achieved when the self-critical mind is still, and the performer is in complete sensory-kinesthetic immersion in the moment (aka the concept of flow)—that is, when they are not thinking of achieving perfection. In order to want perfection, a performer must be constantly scanning their performance activity/actions to determine if it meets the required standard, and by this very act, they have lost full immersion in the moment, and the likelihood of achieving the desired perfection is markedly reduced.
And more broadly, in who’s mind is something “perfect” anyway? In my knowledge of the research literature around music performance adjudicating, for example, judgements of whether a performance has improved after an intervention are often poorly correlated across adjudicators. One person’s opinion of what is perfect might be another’s sub-standard, to whatever degree. Judgement of what is “perfect” is a subjective phenomenon.
Well, that’s what I think, anyway.
Join us at Science Gallery Melbourne presents ‘Perfectionisms: Pressure to be perfect’ at MPavilion 2018 on Thursday 18 October, 6.15–7.30pm. Visit Science Gallery Melbourne at melbourne.sciencegallery.com.