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Tomorrow Today

What price perfection? Study aims to find out

"Barb" is a recovering perfectionist

Perfectionists usually view seeking professional help as an imperfection
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CNN's Rich Lockridge talks to a recovering perfectionist
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Windows Media 28K 80K


VANCOUVER, British Colombia (CNN) -- Some people are never satisfied with anything -- including themselves. What makes them impossible to please?

That's what researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, are trying to find out as they conduct one of the few studies ever to focus on perfectionism.

Vancouver Psychologist Paul Hewitt is studying perfectionists in the hope of finding ways to help them control their compulsions.

After all, being perfect is no picnic, as "Barb," a participant in the study, can attest.

"There is a fine line between having high expectations and moving toward those expectations, and flipping over to where they are ... unreasonable," she says. (Audio 498 K/13 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Hewitt, who has studied perfectionists for the past 14 years, says they fall into three main categories:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists, who believe they must be perfect.
  • Other-oriented perfectionists, who want others to be flawless.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionists, who feel they must be perfect because someone might be watching.

"These individuals don't have a real high regard for themselves," Hewitt says.

All three types, he says, put themselves through the same self-inflicted punishment.


"People who strive for excellence tend to experience satisfaction; people who strive for perfection tend not to."

Volunteers in Hewitt's study take a computerized test. Meanwhile, monitors watch for signs of stress.

Those who agonize over their answers long after the test is over reveal themselves as possible perfectionists.

"They're not able to let go as easily as other people," says graduate student Carol Flynn, who is working with Hewitt on the test.

"Our hope is that they will learn to moderate those reactions a little bit over time," she says.

A volunteer prepares to take the perfectionism test   

Barb joined Hewitt's group therapy program and says it has helped.

"When I'm aware of the potential of slipping into perfectionism and them pulling myself back, it's more of a peaceful internal experience."

She says it's hard, but she's getting better at not always having to be better.

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