Last year, the Women’s Initiative Report identified “effortless perfection” as a characteristic of the Duke social environment for undergraduate women. This phrase referred to the expectation that women are to excel in academic, physical and social realms of performance without visible effort. This expectation of “effortless perfection” resonated throughout campus with many members of the community, men as well as women.
As a research university, another characteristic of Duke is that scholarship is brought to bear on pressing problems. The identification of “effortless perfection” as a dynamic on our campus spurs a consideration of what the research literature offers to our understanding of perfectionism, processes that elicit and maintain it, and ways of promoting constructive change.
There is a long tradition in psychology of considering perfectionism as a personality trait. That is, an enduring pattern of perceiving oneself and relating to the world. Three dimensions of the perfectionism trait have been identified (Gordon & Flett, 1991). Self-oriented perfectionism involves a constellation of behaviors associated with requiring perfection of oneself including setting, and striving to achieve, unrealistic standards; selective attention to, and over-generalization of, failure; stringent self-evaluations and all-or-none thinking in which only success or failure exists as an outcome. Other oriented perfectionism involves unrealistic expectations of others. Socially prescribed perfectionism involves the perceived need to meet unrealistic expectations for perfection prescribed by significant others. Perfectionism has been associated with increased vulnerability to depression, anxiety and eating disorders.
Two styles of self-presentation of the perfectionism trait have also been identified and are considered forms of impression management (Hewitt et al., 2003). The self-promotional style “involves attempts to impress others with displays of flawless abilities and competence and to gain admiration and respect. The person attempts to look, demonstrate or behave in a perfect manner to others. Thus, the individual communicates a picture of being flawlessly capable, moral, socially competent, absolutely successful and so forth.” (p. 1305). The concealment style of self presentation involves “attempting to prevent others from seeing the individual behaving in any “less-than-perfect” manner and “avoidance of verbal disclosures of any perceived, personal imperfections” (p. 1305). In particular, the concealment style of self-presentation is associated with general self-esteem difficulties and social, academic and appearance self-esteem deficits (Hewitt et al., 2003). Furthermore, those who express their perfectionism through this style of impression management are reluctant to take any risks that might jeopardize their façade of perfection and have a lower tolerance for the stigma of seeking help.
The research literature also addresses the processes that contribute to the development and maintenance of perfectionism as a personality trait. Developmentally, the core concepts are the basic needs for approval and belonging and contingent self-worth. When approval and acceptance are perceived as forthcoming from parents, family members, peers, teachers or society as a whole only if one is perfect, a person’s sense of self-esteem becomes contingent on approval that is contingent on perfection and therefore vulnerable to threats to their flawlessness. In response to these threats, the person strives to gain or maintain approval by presenting an excessively positive image, vigilantly monitoring others reactions and masking any signs of imperfection.
How might these understandings of perfectionism help us to address the expectations of “effortless perfection” on campus? Duke is a highly selective university, and Duke students have a record of high achievement and accomplishment. It is reasonable to postulate that most Duke students have a desire to excel and many may have developed some degree of perfectionism. For some, being the best has become a central aspect of their identity and their self-worth has become contingent on being “the best.” While it is often the fulfillment of one’s life-long dream to join a community of similarly accomplished peers, it also can be very threatening to one’s self-esteem when it is no longer possible to be the best in all the realms of human endeavor reflected in the Duke community. It is understandable how the perception would arise that “to be the best among the best,” one must not only be perfect but also achieve perfection with minimal effort. In this way, the Duke environment could foster self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism.
The association of perfectionism with vulnerability to distress is cause enough for concern. In addition, the self-promotional and concealment forms of impression management associated with perfectionism inhibit the wholehearted engagement and openness necessary for the intellectual and personal growth that the Duke undergraduate experience is intended to promote. Perfectionism results in both unnecessary distress and loss of precious opportunities for growth.
The resolution to this unhealthy dynamic begins with the recognition that “perfection” is not only an unattainable objective but also is a misplaced emphasis. Building on this recognition, we need to change the contingencies of the campus culture so that self-esteem and approval are linked not only to excellent performance but also to passionate engagement in intellectual and personal growth. Furthermore, we need to be open to the risk of not being the best while in pursuit of this growth. Restricting engagements to only those situations in which we can be the best limits opportunities for growth. One may actually experience the most growth in situations where he or she is not the best.
Robert Thompson is the Dean of Trinity College.
Hewitt, P.L., & Flett, G.L., (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60, 456-470.
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Hewitt et al. (2003). The interpersonal expression of perfection: Perfectionistic self-presentation and psychological distress. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1303-1325.