Perfectionistic individuals are more likely to view their problems as outside their control, according to new research published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, which may help to explain why they often struggle to cope with stressful events. But the new findings indicate that the emotion regulation strategy known as cognitive reappraisal could help perfectionists view difficult situations as more controllable.
“I study psychological attributes that make it possible for people to achieve their goals. One of these attributes is cognitive flexibility — which is the ability that allows us to change our perspective or alter our behaviors,” explained study author Vrinda Kalia, an assistant professor of psychology and director of the TLC Lab at Miami University.
“Cognitive flexibility can be particularly important when you encounter a challenge or obstacle on the journey to achieve your goal as it allows you to imagine a different solution or provide you with insights about alternative pathways to get to your goal.”
“Perfectionism is a personality trait that makes a person strive for flawlessness as a goal. Flawlessness sounds like a good idea in theory, and mass media promotes the pursuit of flawlessness. But a ton of research in psychology has shown that the pursuit of perfection can be debilitating for the person and can prevent the person from achieving their goal,” Kalia said.
“I was interested in seeing whether there was a relationship between one attribute that helped goal achievement (i.e. cognitive flexibility) and another attribute that hindered goal achievement (i.e. perfectionism). Surprisingly, there is very little work that has been done on this!”
The researchers used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to survey 486 U.S. adults regarding three types of perfectionistic tendencies (rigid perfectionism, self‐critical perfectionism, and narcissistic perfectionism); two facets of cognitive flexibility (control and alternatives), and two emotion regulation strategies (cognitive appraisal and expressive suppression).
Kalia and her colleagues found that all three types of perfectionism were negatively correlated with the tendency to believe one can control challenging situations. That is, participants who agreed with perfectionistic statements such as “I do things perfectly, or I don’t do them at all,” “When I make a mistake, I feel like a failure,” and “I demand perfection from my family and friends” were also more likely to agree with statement such as “I feel I have no power to change things in difficult situations.”
“Perfectionism is really not good for you and your pursuit of a goal. Specifically, our work shows that it makes it more likely you will be inflexible when you confront everyday challenges and obstacles. Since obstacles and challenges are inherent in the pursuit of a goal (e.g. I need to complete this assignment for work and my child is running a fever), our work shows that perfectionism could prevent goal achievement by reducing a person’s willingness to come up with alternatives in the midst of a challenge,” Kalia told PsyPost.
But perfectionism was unrelated to another form of cognitive flexibility: the ability to perceive multiple alternative explanations for life occurrences.
When it came to emotion regulation strategies, the researchers found that all three types of perfectionism were associated with a more frequent use of expressive suppression, which is a maladaptive coping method characterized by concealing or inhibiting the expression of one’s emotions. They also found evidence that the frequent use of cognitive reappraisal, which is characterized by reframing the meaning of a situation to change its emotional impact, could weaken the link between perfectionism and cognitive inflexibility.
“Regulating your emotions by reappraising the situation can help a perfectionist be more flexible in confronting everyday challenges. Our ability to regulate our emotions (i.e. turn them up and down like music on a radio) is really important for life success. We’ve all experienced those days when nothing goes right at home and we still must show up to work and get the job done. We wouldn’t be able to do it if we weren’t able to modulate our feelings,” Kalia explained.
“One way of regulating your feelings is by putting on your ‘game face’ (or hiding how you’re really feeling inside). This is known as expressive suppression and generally less helpful. The other way to regulate emotions is to engage is reframing the situation and what you’re feeling. This is known as cognitive reappraisal and generally more helpful.”
“Here is an example of how these two take-aways would work: Let’s say a person has begun an exercise routine, 30 minutes of cardio per day for 5 days of the week, in order to be more healthy. However as soon as a challenge comes up, perfectionism would prevent the person from pursuing their goal,” Kalia said.
“Let’s say it’s something simple like a friend’s birthday party in the middle of the week and that does not give the person enough time to exercise for 30 minutes. Instead of saying, ‘it’s okay I’ll park my car a mile away from work and walk it so I can do something toward my exercise goal,’ the perfectionist would be focused on making sure they are able to stick to the plan of 30 minutes for 5 days of the week regardless of how much it costs them. And as the costs pile up, the exercise routine would become a bigger and bigger burden until the person can’t take it anymore and gives up exercising.”
“A person who can reappraise the situation (by saying something like the following ‘my friend is important to me and her birthday come around only once a year so I will miss one day of exercise so I can be a good friend’) will be more likely to stick to their exercise routine in the long run because it will be less of a burden.”
But the researchers also found a surprising caveat. Frequent use of cognitive reappraisal strengthened, rather than weakened, the link between between perfectionism and cognitive inflexibility among those with very high levels of narcissistic perfectionism.
“There is one form of perfectionism that we examined in this project, which has been less studied by others and needs more attention – narcissistic perfectionism. Narcissistic perfectionists believe themselves to be superior to others and expect high standards of behavior from those around them. We found that using the emotion regulation strategy of reappraising the situation actually reduced flexibility in narcissistic perfectionists,” Kalia explained.
“In the example I used above, the narcissist perfectionist would believe that they were justified in focusing on their own health over their friend’s birthday and be annoyed with their friend for having a birthday party in the middle of the week. This reappraisal would make things harder for them, not easier, in the long-term. So reappraisal is not always good, it can also be harmful.”
But the study — like all research — includes some limitations.
“There have been a handful of studies (very very few; we were able to cite only 2 or 3 papers!) on this question. Before any firm claims are made there needs to be a bigger body of work on this,” Kalia said.
“There is so much work that still needs to be done on perfectionism and its impact on goal pursuit. I also study gritty people (i.e. those who persist with their goals despite challenges) and my work has shown that gritty people are less flexible when they encounter a difficult problem (Kalia et al., 2019). Considering that perfectionism is also associated with low flexibility, I am curious to know more about the role of perfectionism in gritty goal pursuit. That is something we are beginning to explore in my lab.”
The study, “Cognitive reappraisal moderates the relationship between perfectionism and cognitive flexibility“, was authored by Niki Hayatbini, Katherine Knauft, and Vrinda Kalia.