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Pavel Somov, Ph.D.

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Perfectionism: Adaptation or Pathology?

Posted: 07/21/10 07:52 AM ET

It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
Jiddu Krishnamurti

Somewhere on a continuum between normality and pathology there is a point at which an otherwise culturally normal behavior acquires a problematic degree.

In other words, there is a point at which the given behavior results in functional impairment. The difficulty of establishing whether your particular perfectionism has met the diagnostic threshold of pathology has to do with the specific cultural norms of the society in which you reside and function.

You see, some societies are more culturally perfectionistic than others. For example, it has been frequently observed that so-called "developed societies" tend to emphasize "efficiency, punctuality, a willingness to work hard, and orientation to detail," i.e. the very traits that accompany compulsive perfectionism (Millon et al., 2000, p. 174).

With the cultural considerations in mind, it could be said that the actual threshold of pathology for perfectionism is culture-specific.

Neurosis or Sociosis?

Sociosis is a form of cultural neurosis (J. H. Van den Berg, 1961). Flett & Hewitt (2002) have observed that perfectionism is "endemic" to the Western culture. With this in mind, it would be logical to pose a question of whether perfectionism is a reflection of a given person's emotional health or of the values of a given culture. Restated, the question is whether perfectionism is a matter of a person's psychological health or is it just a matter of psycho-social software?

Perfectionism can be thought of culturally-normative, as an adaptive reflection of the extent to which a given culture emphasizes the pursuit of perfection. A cultural perfectionist is simply trying to play by the rules of the given society that he or she is in, in order to succeed.

Perfectionist's Dilemma

So, here's a perfect dilemma: do you, as a perfectionist, keep your cultural software intact to assure that you keep on achieving the culturally-defined success, or do you modify this cultural software of perfectionism to leverage a greater sense of well-being and possibly risk under-achieving by the standards of your culture?

In other words: is being adaptive to a "profoundly sick society" well-adjusted or psychologically unhealthy?

Not an enviable dilemma, but, nevertheless, your dilemma to resolve...