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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 June, 2004, 00:54 GMT 01:54 UK
Why perfect is not always best
By Melissa Jackson
BBC News Online health staff

Jonny Wilkinson
Rugby perfectionist Jonny Wilkinson
"We can't all be perfect", the saying goes and that may not be such a bad thing, psychologists suggest.

Perfectionists not only put their own health at risk through stress and anxiety - they make other people's lives a misery too, it is claimed.

Take the example of chef Gordon Ramsay who fired explosive outbursts at celebrities - learning the culinary ropes on a live tv show - when they failed to live up to his expectations.

He left many "students" in tears or unable to continue, and probably sent his own blood pressure sky high.

Some scientists think perfectionism should be categorised as a medical condition, alongside other behavioural problems, such as obsessive compulsive disorder.

A Canadian psychology professor has identified three types of perfectionists - self-oriented perfectionists (expect perfection of themselves), other-oriented perfectionists (demand perfection from other people), and socially prescribed perfectionists (think others expect perfection from them).

Professor Gordon Flett has devised a scale that uses a questionnaire to measure degrees and types of perfectionism.

self-oriented - who expect perfection of themselves
other oriented - who demand perfection from others
socially prescribed - who think others expect perfection of them
He said perfectionists not only harboured unrealistically high standards, but also judged themselves or others as not living up to their elevated expectations.

Professor Flett, from Toronto's York University, said: "Perfectionism is the need to be, or to appear to be, perfect.

"Perfectionists are persistent, detailed and organized high achievers.

"Perfectionists vary in their behaviours: some strive to conceal their imperfections; others attempt to project an image of perfection.

"But all perfectionists have in common extremely high standards for themselves or for others."

Take England rugby ace Jonny Wilkinson, who trains every day of the year and admitted during the rugby world cup that he needed to relax more.

Suicide potential

Professor Flett claims that certain forms of perfectionism can be linked to a host of emotional, physical and relationship problems, including depression, eating disorders, marital discord and even suicide.

He said: "Perfectionism is not officially recognised as a psychiatric disorder.

"However extreme forms of perfectionism should be considered an illness similar to narcissism, obsessive compulsiveness, dependent-personality disorder and other personality disorders because of its links to distress and dysfunction."

1) you can't stop thinking about a mistake you made
2) you are intensely competitive and can't stand doing worse than others
3)you either want to do something "just right" or not at all
4) you demand perfection from other people
5) you won't ask for help if asking can be perceived as a flaw or weakness
6) you will persist at a task long after other people have quit
7) you are a fault-finder who must correct other people when they are wrong
8) you are highly aware of other people's demands and expectations
9) you are very self-conscious about making mistakes in front of other people
10) you noticed the error in the title of this list
He says perfectionism is evident in children as young as four years old.

In an experiment in 1994, 30 four and five-year-olds were asked questions tapping perfectionism levels, including "How would you like to be perfect?".

They were also given a computer task that was rigged not to work.

Highly perfectionist children showed greater signs of extreme distress, such as elevated anger and anxiety, explains Professor Flett.

He says that perfectionists reveal themselves in three distinct ways:- first, a "self-promotion" style, that involves attempts to impress others by bragging or displaying one's perfection (this type is easy to spot because they often irritate other people); second, by shunning situations in which they might display their imperfection (common even in young children); and third, a tendency to keep problems to oneself (including an inability to admit failure to others).

Perfectionist boss

British psychologist Dr Penelope Johnson said perfectionism was based on an unrealistic view of life.

She said: "I think it's part of a general stress problem and that the perfectionist is a highly stressed person and I would prefer to tackle the stress overall, rather than perfectionism by itself."

Dr Johnson says it is difficult to work for a perfectionist boss because they have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of employees.

Celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay
Gordon Ramsay is a perfectionist in the kitchen
She says the way to deal with a perfectionist boss is to question whether their demands are really reasonable and negotiate with them without becoming nervous or flustered.

Psychologist Professor Stephen Palmer of London's City University says perfectionists can be helped.

He said: "I get them to see the pros and cons of their behaviour. They have to recognise their thinking and where they're going wrong.

"We help them to modify their attitudes and make them more manageable."

He is also opposed to classifying perfectionism as an illness in its own right.

He said: "As soon as you make it a disorder or personality aspect, people think 'I can't change my personality'.

"I would much rather focus on their way of thinking, not their personality. Changing their thinking will change their behaviour."

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03 Jun 04 |  Health

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