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Where does perfectionism come from? A qualitative investigation of perfectionists and nonperfectionists.

Perfectionism is generally defined as the "striving for flawlessness" (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 5), but researchers disagree about the developmental roots of perfectionism. It is likely that a perfectionistic orientation develops over time, and family history may contribute to the development of perfectionism. Early messages from teachers, coaches, peers, and the media regarding achievement and success may also influence whether or not one becomes a perfectionist. However, it remains unclear which specific experiences may lead one to become a perfectionist. A major purpose in this preliminary investigation was to examine the roots of achievement motivation in general and to clarify the developmental dynamics that surround an individual who becomes a self-proclaimed perfectionist.

Participants comprised 36 (16 male and 20 female) undergraduate students (65% Caucasian; [M.sub.age] = 24.63, SD = 7.52) from a public university in North America. Through semistructured interviews, they answered a set of questions relating to their achievement motivation (e.g., "How important is achievement to you?"). Participants were also asked if they had any perfectionistic qualities or tendencies. Interviewees who answered yes to this question were then asked a series of questions specifically relating to the origins of their perfectionism (e.g., "Where do you think your perfectionistic tendencies come from?"). In this study, 23 participants (64%) identified themselves as perfectionists.

In terms of achievement motivation, perfectionists and nonperfectionists were similar in many areas of inquiry (e.g., believing in the need to work hard in order to succeed and feeling frustrated when unable to complete a task). Results from the interviews, however, indicate a few noteworthy differences between perfectionists and nonperfectionists. For example, although perfectionists and nonperfectionists did not give different ratings of the importance of achievement and success in their lives, perfectionists were more likely than nonperfectionists to say that they felt pressure from their families to succeed and that their parents were overly critical of their mistakes when they were growing up. Contrary to our predictions, however, perfectionists were no more likely to feel pressure from peers or teachers to succeed in life than were nonperfectionists. Sample responses from those describing themselves as perfectionists and nonperfectionists in response to the question "What messages did you get from your family about success and failure?" can be found in Table 1.

Findings from this ongoing investigation may be useful to parents, teachers, counselors, and other professionals who work with perfectionistic individuals. Knowing where perfectionism comes from (as well as what specific socialization experiences might contribute to perfectionistic tendencies) will make it easier to design intervention strategies that encourage adaptive perfectionism in individuals and discourage (or at least help perfectionists manage) the more maladaptive aspects of perfectionism.

Keywords: perfectionism, origin, development, achievement, qualitative investigation. 10.2224/sbp.2012.40.7.1121


Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2002). Perfectionism and maladjustment: An overview of theoretical, definitional, and treatment issues. In G. L. Flett & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 5-31). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

David R. Hibbard and Gail E. Walton

California State University

David R. Hibbard and Gail E. Walton, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, California State University.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to: David R. Hibbard, College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, California State University, Chico, CA 95929, USA. Email:
Table 1. Responses from Perfectionists and Nonperfectionists about
Success and Failure

Self-descriptions        Perfectionists           Nonperfectionists

What messages       "You can always do         "Achieving is
from family about   better next time; you      important, but only if
success/failure?    can try again"             you are happy and do
                                               your best"

                    "It is very important      "Try your hardest, but
                    to them that I succeed"    sometimes it is okay to
                                               fail; you can pick
                                               yourself up"

                    "[If I fail], I would      "You can succeed if you
                    not say they were          try hard enough, but it
                    disappointed, but they     is not worth killing
                    know my potential and      yourself over"
                    they expect high
                    standards from me; they
                    think I do not try hard

                    "They are not critical     "They are just happy
                    of me, because they        when I put the effort
                    think I am critical        in"
                    enough of myself

                    "If I fail, they call      "If something goes
                    me a failure"              wrong, try to make it
                                               better; but if you fail
                                               you are still
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Author:Hibbard, David R.; Walton, Gail E.
Publication:Social Behavior and Personality: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Aug 1, 2012
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