There are two types of perfectionists, adaptive and maladaptive, and though they tend to have similarly high levels of academic success, maladaptive perfectionists experience much higher levels of self-criticism that may be related to depression, according to a study appearing this spring in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 51, No. 2).
In the study, which is part of a research program led by psychologist Robert B. Slaney, PhD, of Pennsylvania State University, the team used Slaney's Almost Perfect Scale to measure 273 undergraduate students' self-reported perfectionism. The scale gauges the level of people's high standards, associated with positive aspects of perfectionism, but it also measures their levels of "discrepancy," a negative aspect of perfectionism associated with dissatisfaction with performance.
Although grade point averages (GPAs) for adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists did not differ significantly, maladaptive perfectionists rated themselves as significantly less satisfied with their GPAs, says one of the researchers, psychologist Jennifer Grzegoek, PhD, of Iowa State University.
"The amazing thing here is that maladaptive folks are meeting the same standards but feel more like failures," Grzegoek says.
More research is needed, but evidence from this study indicates some potential applications in therapy: Perfectionism has been associated with nonresponsiveness to short-term treatment for depression, so Grzegoek advises therapists to attend to signs of self-criticism and discrepancy in clients.
"Those patients often fail to see perfectionism as a problem, instead considering their high standards to be the secret of their success and something they're very unwilling to talk about giving up," she says. "However, we are finding that it is discrepancy, rather than the mere presence of high standards, that is problematic in maladaptive perfectionism. This may be helpful for perfectionistic clients who are unwilling to give up their high standards, but who are willing to examine their discrepancy," she says.