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Perfectionists are defined by the authors, following David Burns (1980), as individuals "whose standards are high beyond reach and reason, ... straining compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment". Apart from the perfectionist in most of us, this definition -- which does not include passionate professionals or artists committed to excel in their trade -- reads like a promising script for a book, play, or movie (e.g. No Reservations, 2007, with Catherine Zeta-Jones). Perfectionism suggests a sort of Doppel life where humans strive hard to change into some desirable, imagined state. At a grand level, the latter resonates stories of evolution, world religions, and self improvement plans: a theme that returns with cultures from every part of the globe and all ages. At a micro level, it suggests little boys and girls looking for acceptance, and adults searching for meaning, a place in social or professional networks. Perfectionism has an existential, emotional and potentially dramatic character.
Antony and Swinson's book, subtitled Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, contributes from an analytical, instrumental angle. It fits in the category solid Self Help books, with two professionals from the field of Psychology and Psychiatry. The book is accessible following a common problem solving cycle: define and analyze the problem, and offer effective strategies for dealing with the problem. The authors closely relate to the reader, e.g. in the section How perfectionism affects your life (p. 24), and various templates for diagnosing and monitoring daily life.
Part 1 Understanding Perfectionism defines perfectionism as a multidimensional construct. Perfectionism is oriented towards the perfectionist him/herself or their social environment, and it is potentially applicable to all areas of life (private, school, work). Perfectionism starts in people's thoughts and interpretations in relation to their experiences. To me, the section on perfectionist thinking styles (black-white thinking, filtering, reading others' mind, risk overestimation, tunnel vision, interpersonal sensitivity etc), was a very useful, even somewhat confronting section. Thinking styles correlate with various types of behavior (compensating, checking, reassurance seeking, correcting, organizing etc) that appear 'beyond the normal' in terms of frequency and intensity (very frequent checking f.i.). Plainly speaking and apart from the serious nature of these problems, people who do this can be a pain in the ass, adorable, and often welcome candidates for various forms of comedy.
In Part 2 Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism the authors move on to remedies against the various forms of undesirable perfectionism. They invite and enable readers to self assess their areas and level of perfectionism. In particular, I found triggers of perfectionism very helpful. Perfectionist tendencies can be dormant in many of us, so knowing when they may become an issue and escalate is useful knowledge. Part 2 continues with ideas for developing a plan for change aimed at increasing realism of standards and self awareness, and options for changing perfectionist thoughts. Challenging one´s take for granted thought patterns can be refreshing, even for non perfectionists or ´perfectionists-light´. The final chapters in part 2 move on to behaviors (e.g. how to manage exposure effectively, and assertive communications), and the -- in my case sometimes considerable - challenge of accepting imperfectionism. Mindfulness strategies seem useful yet somewhat unexpected in this chapter.
Part 3 Working with Specific Problems and Perfectionism explores in more depth perfectionism in relation to depression, anger, social anxiety, worry, obsessive-compulsive behavior, and dieting/ body image. The authors' combined expertise is impressive. Many readers will find comfort in these common problem areas. Reading this part also shows that perfectionism could be seen at a meta-problem level, becoming expressed in various challenges humans almost inevitably will face during their lives. For instance, the authors briefly sketch how worry relates to perfectionism, both concerning topics such as standards, uncertainty, tolerance and disappointment. The fascinating intersection of specific problems and perfectionism could be explored in more depth; this could be a fruitful extension of the current book.
Finally, Part 4 What's Next (one chapter) is committed to helping readers locking in to longer term success. Briefly the authors talk about difficulties of adjusting life style aspects. This correlates with the social contexts in which readers are engaged. Sections on awareness of stress levels and life style habits (sleeping, eating/ drinking, exercising) are useful though a bit short. Further readings in general and specialized areas complete the book. In fact, this section could be moved to the Web in order to keep resources updated.
Synthesizing, the authors adopt an instrumental approach to perfectionism, working hard to offer a broad scope and relevant advice. The book delivers accessible, professional insights for which the authors should be applauded. Its scope sometimes results in brief discussions of topics that trigger new thoughts. Furthermore, an instrumental approach suggests that perfectionism is a problem that can be 'managed' effectively and banned from some one's life. I tend to doubt this philosophy does justice to the multidimensional nature of perfectionism and its intricate relationships with various aspects of individuals' lives in modern society. A realistic (less than perfect) starting point might be accepting some level of perfectionism and learning how to deal with it.
Burns, D.D. 1980. The Perfectionist's Script for Self-Defeat. Psychology Today, November, 34-57.
© 2009 Paul C. can Fenema
Paul C. van Fenema, Ph.D., Associate professor at Netherlands Defense Academy