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Effectively Treating Pathological Self-Criticism in Depressed & Dysthymic Clients
Perfectionism in Adults
Several recent empirical investigations into perfectionism in adults have lent credence to this more positive interpretation of perfectionism. This research has supported the concept of a multidimensional model which allows for the idea that some aspects of perfectionism can prove to be helpful, rather than harmful, to clients.
Slaney, Mobley, Trippi, Ashby, and Johnson (1996) developed a measure designed to assess both the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism. They contended that, while experiencing extreme distress when one's performance did not match one's standards might be destructive and unhealthy, the holding of high personal standards and a desire for order were not necessarily negative. The results from a study by Rice, Ashby, and Slaney (1997) supported the distinction between adaptive and maladaptive dimensions of perfectionism. The authors of this study found that one duster of perfectionism dimensions (including high personal standards and orderliness) were related to higher self-esteem and lower levels of depression. However, a second cluster of perfectionism dimensions (including concern over mistakes and self-criticism) were related to increased depression and decreased self-esteem. Using this instrument, several authors have found differences between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionists on levels of inferiority (Ashby & Kottman, 1996); levels of career decision-making self-efficacy (Ashby, Bieschke, & Slaney, 1997); levels of general self-efficacy and social self-efficacy (Ashby, LoCicero, Kottman, Schoen, & Honsell, 1998); and levels of locus of control by powerful others (Periassamy, Ashby, & LoCicero, 1999).
Perfectionism in Children and Adolescents
In most of the quantitative studies conducted with gifted subjects, the researchers used a negative, unidimensional definition of perfectionism (e.g., Kline & Short, 1991a, 1991b). With this definition of perfectionism, Kline and Short (1991b) found that gifted girls in grades 9 through 12 reported having significantly higher perfectionism than peers who were less gifted but found no difference on perfectionism between gifted adolescent boys and peers who were less gifted (Kline & Short, 1991a). Using Hewitt and Flett's (1991) multidimensional model of perfectionism, Roberts and Lovett (1994) reported that gifted children demonstrated higher levels of self-oriented perfectionism relative to their nongifted peers. Measuring with Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, Parker (1997) found that the majority of gifted children in his sample were likely to fit into the healthy perfectionistic type (41.7%), with 25.5% falling into the dysfunctional perfectionistic type, and 32.8% falling into the nonperfectionistic type. In a study by LoCicero et al. (in press), the researchers used the Almost Perfect Scale to discover that gifted middle school children had higher levels of adaptive perfectionism but lower levels of maladaptive perfectionism than a comparison group of nongifted students.
In other empirical studies of perfectionism in children and adolescents, the researchers used a unidimensional, negative characterization of perfectionistic behavior and found that children and adolescents with higher levels of pathology tend to fit this description of perfectionism. Steiger et al. (1992) examined perfectionism as one aspect of the psycho-social profile of adolescent girls with eating and mood disorders and found that girls who manifest eating and mood symptoms have elevated levels of perfectionism as compared with girls who do not manifest these symptoms. Robins and Hinkley (1989) and Leon et al. (1980) found that depression in children and adolescents was related to high levels of perfectionism. None of these researchers used an instrument based on a multidimensional model which may have predetermined their confirmation that perfectionism tends to be maladaptive.
Empirical studies using a multidimensional measure of perfectionists are rare. LoCicero et al. (in press) provided support for making a distinction among adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists, and nonperfectionists at the middle school level in the area of basic lifestyle approaches. They found that adaptive perfectionists had significantly lower propensity toward being willing to shape their behavior to fit perceived social-environmental cues than maladaptive perfectionists and nonperfectionists. They also found that adaptive perfectionists were likely to manifest significantly a higher developed sense of belonging and the desire to cooperate, level of comfort with receiving recognition and/or praise for their accomplishments, and a need to strive to do things well than nonperfectionists.
Adaptive and Maladaptive Perfectionism
The same is true of the other positive attribute in the adaptive cluster of perfectionistic traits--need for order. Adaptively perfectionistic students will manifest this behavior by turning in neat and well-organized assignments, maintaining tidy work areas and lockers, and suggesting that other students and teachers work to make classrooms and other areas in the school building organized and orderly places to be. Organization of materials, strong study habits, dearly defined schedules, and so forth will be important to students who manifest a high need for order They will expect others to value structure and organization as well. Again, it is important to monitor the intensity and pervasiveness of perfectionistic students' need for order so that it does not interfere with their healthy functioning, but rather serves as a positive force in their lives.
Sometimes these children and adolescents blame others for any self-perceived mistake or failure, suggesting that it is someone else's fault that their performance did not live up to their standards. Usually, however, maladaptive perfectionists are extremely self-critical. They have a tendency to focus exclusively on their negative qualities and on anything that they perceive to be less than perfect about themselves (e.g., their performance at school, athletic functions, and/or extracurricular activities; their appearance; their social interactions; and so forth). Because they are so difficult to satisfy and so quick to criticize themselves, students manifesting maladaptively perfectionistic traits may fall prey to such maladies as eating disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation.
- Kottman, Terry; Perfectionistic Children and Adolescents: Implications for School Counselors; Professional School Counseling; Feb 2000; Vol. 3; Issue 3.
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