Perfectionism is a trait that is commonly associated with high-achieving and high-performing individuals – such as healthcare professionals – where these individuals are often known to set high standards for themselves.

Researchers have made a distinction between two types of perfectionism – adaptive and maladaptive – based on the different constructs of each. Socially prescribed perfectionism, namely that which relates to others’ expectations, had stronger associations with maladaptive constructs than did self-oriented perfectionism.

In the context of an individual’s health and well-being, the significance of perfectionism is more apparent when seen in the context of its association with various negative health outcomes. This correlation has been investigated in a number of studies. Burnout, anxiety, depression and eating disorders, for instance, are among the conditions that have been linked to perfectionism.

Perfectionism leads to academic burnout

A 2016 study conducted among over two hundred medical students in South Korea found a significant correlation between academic burnout and socially-prescribed perfectionism. In other words, medical students with higher maladaptive perfectionism have an increased risk of experiencing academic burnout.

However, academic self-efficacy was negatively correlated with academic burnout - results showed that the risk of burnout increased when academic self-efficacy is low. Subscales used to measure academic self-efficacy in the study included aspects such as self-confidence, self-regulatory efficacy and task difficulty preference.

Medical students were chosen in this study as they are often presented with expectations by parents, teachers, friends and the community in general. The study was conducted by Ji Hye Yu from the Ajou University School of Medicine, together with two other researchers.

Linked with eating disorders & postpartum depression

Research has also aimed to determine the association between perfectionism for individuals with eating disorders. Findings from a study showed how adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism play a role in bodily dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorders among women.

The 2016 study was conducted by Sebastiano Costa from the University of Messina, together with four other researchers. Over a thousand women, aged between 28 to 24 years old, with various body mass index (BMI) were involved in the study.

Researchers found that bodily satisfaction is associated with women who have a high level of concern of mistakes and perceive mistakes as failures (maladaptive perfectionism) as well as those who set personal standards (adaptive perfectionism) for themselves. In brief, a higher level of perfectionism was associated with a thinner ideal.

To demonstrate yet another serious implication of perfectionism, a team of researchers from the University of Barcelona in Spain investigated the role of perfectionism as a predictor of postpartum depression in new mothers. Psychologist Estel Gelabert, together with several other researchers evaluated over a hundred women with major postpartum depression and also more than a hundred healthy postpartum women in 2011.

Results showed that high-perfectionism, particularly high-concern over mistakes, is a significant dimension associated with major postpartum depression. More specifically, the prevalence of high-perfectionism was higher in major postpartum depression group, by 34%.

Perfectionism may still be a force for good

Looking at the subject from a different perspective, however, perfectionism may not be all that bad. For instance, a six-and-a-half-year study carried out by Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada along with her colleagues, found that those who scored high on self-oriented perfectionism had lower mortality risk (29%) compared to low scorers.

The study involved over 300 diabetic older adults. This finding in fact contradicted the researchers’ earlier hypothesis that stress, which is associated with perfectionism, could lead to an increased risk of impending mortality for diabetics.

Findings from the above studies suggest that understanding the role of perfectionism as the predictor for different health risks is crucial. A sound knowledge and comprehension regarding this matter can be the initial step to determine the appropriate prevention and intervention strategies. This will aid in effectively addressing the different health problems experienced by many individuals. MIMS

Read more:
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Part-time doctoring as a means to cope with burnout
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