Perfectionism as a Vehicle for Transformation

Keynote address for 9th International Congress on The Theory of Positive Disintegration, St. Charles, IL, July 24, 2010
While hard work and effort are applauded, “working too hard” is considered a personality flaw. Perfectionistic tendencies have been pathologized in both psychology and education.  Perfectionism has been defined as a compulsive straining toward impossible goals, focusing on flaws, a psychic wound, obsession, belief that one can never be good enough, a constant state of anxiety about making errors, belief that others hold excessive expectations for oneself, etc.  All of these manifestations fit within Level II of Dabrowski’s Theory of Positive Disintegration (TPD).  Anxiety is common at Level II, strongly influenced by the environment.  Another form of perfectionism is directed at others, rather than at the self (e.g., “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.”)  This narcissistic form of perfectionism appears to fit the description of Level I in TPD.
Dabrowski’s theory offers a template for perceiving the positive value of perfectionism in the development of the personality. Following the Levels of Functions outlined in Theory of Levels of Emotional Development, Volume 1 (Dabrowski, with Piechowski, 1977), perfectionism could be displayed very differently at each level of development, have different causes, and have a significantly different impact on the personality.  Most of the literature focuses on the manifestations of this trait at Level II.  Some writers carefully distinguish between perfectionism, which they equate with the fear of “not being good enough,” and “striving for excellence,” which they condone as a desirable trait. One wonders how U. S. Olympic champion figure-skater, Evan Lysacek, would be perceived through this lens; it has been said that his coach had to beg him to stop practicing.  It is difficult to imagine an Olympic contender who is not perfectionistic.
Most of the instruments developed to measure perfectionism are based on the assumption that this is a negative characteristic.  One of the most popular instruments, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, created by Hewitt and Flett (1991) for studying clinical populations, divides perfectionists into three categories:  self-oriented (being filled with self-doubt); other-oriented (holding unrealistic expectations of others); and socially prescribed (feeling that others set too high expectations for them).  Another Mutidimensional Perfectionism Scale, created by Frost, Marten, Lahart and Rosenblate (1990) to study nonclinical groups, measures five facets:  personal standards; parental expectations; parental criticism; concern over mistakes and doubts about actions; and organization. Although some of these dimensions are more positive, this instrument still provides a negative impression of perfectionism.  Studies employing negatively-tinged tools add empirical data to support the prevailing views.
Some researchers acknowledge a healthy form of perfectionism; however, the role that this trait plays in setting, striving for, and reaching multilevel values, has not been investigated. A healthier appreciation of the trait will be necessary in order for new instruments to be created that can examine the relationship between perfectionism and multilevel development. The lens of TPD offers that possibility.
Multilevel development involves striving to become one’s best self.  At Level III, the individual becomes a seeker of self-perfection. Instead of feeling inferior to others or feeling inadequate to meet expectations of others, the person becomes aware of his or her potential to be fully human and may feel inferior to that potentiality. Gaining a glimpse of the possibilities in oneself for integrity, empathy, wisdom and harmony is a powerful incentive for growth.  When perfectionism merges with the dynamisms that emerge at Level III, it catalyzes the work of inner transformation.
At higher levels of development in TPD, perfectionism acts as an agent of transformation. It needs to be appreciated for its positive benefits for personal growth, rather than eliminated.  Individuals can learn how to channel perfectionism positively.
  • Dabrowski, K., with Piechowski, M. M. (1977).  Theory of levels of emotional development:  Vol. I—Multilevelness and positive disintegration.  Oceanside, NY:  Dabor Science.
  • Frost, R., Marten, P., Lahart, C., & Rosenblate, R.  (1990). The dimensions of perfectionism.  Cognitive Therapy and Research, 14, 449-468.
  • Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L.  (1991).  Dimensions of perfectionism in unipolar depression.  Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100, 98-101.