Toxic Perfectionism; A New Concept or just an Expansion of Negative Effects of Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a major area of interest within psychology. There is a growing body of literature that focuses upon the ill-effects of perfectionism. It is considered a self-defeating way to exist (Ruggeri, 2018). Owing to its deleterious effects, it is heading towards an epidemic and serious public health issue (Rasmussen & Troilo, 2016). Studies suggest that higher the level of perfectionism, the more psychological issues an individual will face (Egan, Wade, & Shafran, 2012). Footballer Cristiano Ronaldo says that he “strives for excellence, not perfectionism” and Tennis player Serena Williams “is a self-described perfectionist who destroys racquets and casts blame when things go wrong – outbursts which have cost her the game.” (Ruggeri, 2018). Claude Monet, a French painter once said ‘My life has been nothing but a failure’. He often burnt paintings in a fit of rage, and was such a perfectionist that he refused to paint unless the light of the sun was exactly the way he wanted. He was always trying to achieve what he called the ‘unattainable’ (The Journal of a Struggling Artist, 2013). Research states that perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to several psychological disorders. Depression, anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder, insomnia, chronic fatigue, and most damaging of all, early mortality and suicide (Ruggeri, 2018). After examining the detrimental effects of perfectionism, this study proposes that Toxic Perfectionism is an emerging concept which can be added to existing literature. A part of the aim is also to examine whether ‘toxicity’ has a contrasting meaning in different cultures or is it culturally universal. 

This study aims to contribute to the existing literature with regards to perfectionism by exploring the term toxic perfectionism. To do so, it is first important to get an in-depth understanding of the current research regarding perfectionism.

It is assumed that being perfect at a task or a given situation may be an ideal scenario. The words perfect, perfectionist or perfectionism all seem to have a positive ring to them. Perfectionism has been defined in several ways and may have contrasting explanations. This has created a sense of ambiguity around the term. One viewpoint suggests that perfectionism is a positive personality trait that can motivate individuals to achieve their goals (Bowers, 2012). A differing viewpoint argues that constantly trying to strive for perfectionism may have an adverse effect on one’s mental health and well-being  (Sandoiu, 2018). Frost et al., (1990), defined perfectionism as a personality characteristic where individuals set unreasonable, demanding and taxing standards for themselves, in addition to evaluating themselves based upon achieving the set standards (Lloyd et al., 2014). Numerous studies have explored the concept of perfectionism and have concluded that it’s a multidimensional construct with both positive and negative effects attached to it (Wang, 2012). Adaptive perfectionists experience minor stress when high standards are not achieved, whereas maladaptive perfectionists experience substantial amount of stress if they are unable to achieve what they set out to do (Bair et al., 2003).

When the maladaptive aspects of perfectionism significantly overpower the adaptive aspects, this may lead to Toxic Perfectionism. Bowers (2012) defines toxic perfectionism as a state where an individual is in a paralysed state of mind and it’s extremely difficult to reason with the person. In such a state, fear of failure is so high that it becomes extremely hard for individuals to carry out tasks, which may ultimately lead to depression and feelings of shame. Fear of abandonment is also prominent, where one is afraid that if a task is not carried out flawlessly, then the situation or relationship will be destroyed. Toxic perfectionism may also lead to suicide attempts. Obsessive behaviour, low self-esteem, depression and physical ailments are all considered ill-effects of toxic perfectionism. It may affect young individuals in a hard manner. Perfectionists who expect others to match their impossibly high standards are considered toxic to other people (Dean, n.d.). These types of perfectionists tend to be antisocial and narcissistic. Over the last few decades, there has been a dramatic increase in perfectionistic tendencies (Curran & Hill, 2017). Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill compared data collected in 1990s and early 2000s with 2017, regarding perfectionistic tendencies in college students from the United States, United Kingdom and Canada. They reported a significant increase in perfectionistic tendencies in 2017. According to research, around 30 percent of undergraduate students experience symptoms of depression, where perfectionism has been associated with it (Sandoiu, 2018). To date, far too little attention has been paid to toxic perfectionism as a concept. Therefore, this study can provide one of the first investigations into how toxic perfectionism as a personality trait is leading to detrimental effects in individuals’ overall well-being. Existing research recognizes the increase in perfectionistic tendencies and subsequent psychological disorders, making it an area worth examining.

Around 15 years ago, Flett and Hewitt (2005) published an article stating the risks of perfectionism in sport and exercise, which went on to inspire numerous future studies (Stoeber, 2014). Stoeber (2014) compares perfectionism to a “double-edged sword” that has benefits but also comes with significant risks in sport and exercise. The benefits have been viewed as perfectionistic strivings, which are associated with positive characteristics, processes and outcomes, while the potential costs or perfectionistic concerns have been said to be the reason for risks of perfectionism in sport (as per Two-Factor Theory of Perfectionism) (Gaudreau & Steober, 2017; Gotwals et al., 2012; Stoeber, 2011, 2012). Athletes who are perfectionists may have low self-confidence in practice and competitions, and may demand a lot from themselves and their performance. The high expectations may result in self-doubt (Cohn, n.d.). In sport, perfection can be considered more tangible, objective and for elite athletes at the highest levels, it can be attainable, whereas, in other areas, perfection is considered ambiguous, elusive and irrational (Hill et al., 2019). According to Gould et al., (2002), this is the reason why several elite athletes consider themselves perfectionists, and some researchers have come to view perfectionism as a hallmark for elite performers. (Hill et al., 2019). Hence, perfectionism can have contrasting effects in sport, which may be positive or negative. There is no available literature on toxic perfectionism in sport, exercise or athlete behaviour. It can be interesting to examine whether toxic perfectionism exists in these domains. Highly competitive settings come with added pressure to perform, which can be stress-provoking. As stated before, many elite-level athletes consider themselves to be perfectionists, so there may be a likelihood that these perfectionistic personality traits may have some detrimental consequences. Therefore, toxic perfectionism as a personality characteristic can be a valuable addition to the existing literature related to sport and athlete behaviour.

There is a lack of attention given to examining cultural differences in perfectionism. (Chang, 1998). Culture may affect the way individuals feel, think, act and behave. There exists a clear difference between individualistic and collectivistic cultures, so it is crucial to keep in mind that toxic perfectionism may impact individuals from different cultures in differing ways. Many a time, it is assumed that research carried out in a specific culture will apply to all cultures around the world. Researchers tend to overlook the uniqueness of a particular culture and assume generalizability across all cultures (Gerstein & Ægisdóttir, 2012).

This study, therefore, aims to explore the experiences of post-graduate university students (young adults) from different cultures with self-proclaimed perfectionistic tendencies. A group intervention can be executed and thematic analysis can be used to explore the feedback collected from focus groups. Focus groups involve participants coming together and sharing ideas, feelings, thoughts and perceptions about a specific topic area (Sparkes & Smith, 2013, p. 85). According to Boyatzis (1998), thematic analysis helps interpret different aspects of the research topic, and can assist in examining commonalities, differences and relations in the data (Braun & Clarke, 2006; Gibson & Brown, 2009)

Information regarding toxic perfection is not available and hence, focus groups can be a good way to understand the experiences of individuals with perfectionistic tendencies. It can provide us with a further understanding of perfectionism and whether toxic perfectionism is a topic which can be incorporated in the existing literature. According to research, participants appreciate a group setting as they can learn from others and gain an insight into the topic area (Larsson et al., 2018). Lloyd et al. (2014) reported a reduction in perfectionism following a group intervention, and Thornicroft and Tansella (2011) stated that by exploring participants’ viewpoints on interventions, it makes it easier to bring about improvement and increase engagement and treatment success (Larsson et al., 2018). The interactive nature of the session will be of key importance, to obtain a deeper understanding of the personal experiences of the participants. This would also assist in identifying other aspects of perfectionistic behaviour and thinking. Furthermore, it would lead to more awareness and understanding of negative perfectionism. After thematic analysis is carried out, this study will aim to conclude as to how toxic perfectionism can be a valuable addition to the existing literature.


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