Teens: Are You a Perfectionist? Is That a Good Thing? Take the Test

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To Perfect or Not Perfect

In our society, we place a high value on personal achievement. That’s one of the things we’re taught about U.S. culture from a very young age. You work hard, you get ahead, you succeed. You live the American Dream. For many of us, hard work means working hard until what we’re doing is absolutely perfect. We accept nothing less. If we’re going to put the time in, we make it count and get it right. We hear stories about the importance of a strong work ethic our entire lives. From old Ben Franklin’s early to bed and early to rise to anecdotes about Michael Jordan spending countless hours perfecting his jump-shot even after he’d won three championships and dunked all over everyone in the NBA, the drive to work toward perfection is part of our national DNA.

We’re virtually brainwashed into believing perfection equals success.

But does it really?

The Perfect Data

A recent article in the New York Times cites a long-range study on the trend toward perfectionism in college students. The researchers examined data from 164 studies over the past thirty-three years that included information on over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British students. They looked at three types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: the drive to be perfect is internally motivated.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: an individual expects those around them to be perfect.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism: the drive to be perfect comes from external sources.

What they found was very interesting: perfectionism has increased by thirty-three percent over the past twenty-nine years. Even more interesting was the fact that the author of the study, Thomas Curran, believes social media plays a role in the cultural shift toward perfectionism. Quoted in the NYT article:

“Millennials feel pressure to perfect themselves partly out of social media use that leads them to compare themselves to others…Meritocracy places a strong need for young people to strive, perform and achieve.”

Before you roll your eyes and tune out because you can see another millennial-bashing, young-people-are-so-deluded-by-social-media rant coming, give us just a moment. That’s not what we’re about to do at all. The data is the data: we didn’t make it up. All we want is for you to understand why you’re doing what you’re doing. Once you understand that, you can decide whether your particular brand of perfectionism – if you’re a perfectionist at all – is helping you, hurting you, or somewhere in between.

Knowledge is power, and we want you to have all the self-knowledge you need to guide your life in the direction of your choosing. It would be a shame if you spent your whole life seeking a type of perfection that doesn’t serve you, right?

The Multidimensional Perfectionism Test

We adapted the test below from an article called “Perfectionism and depression: A multidimensional analysis” published in 1991 in the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality. P.L. Hewitt and G.L. Flett, the authors of the article, created the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale to help people determine where their perfectionist tendencies come from, and further, to help people determine whether their perfectionism is adaptive (healthy) or maladaptive (potentially unhealthy).

Are you ready? It’s longer than the tests we typically share, but no longer than random Facebook quizzes that tell you your personality type based on how many song lyrics you can identify.

How to take the test:

Respond to the following statements about your personal characteristics and traits. Read each line and decide how much you agree or disagree. To score your responses, take a separate sheet of paper, make three columns labeled Self-oriented, Other-oriented, and Socially-prescribed. For each statement, write the corresponding number, 1-7, in the appropriate column. Then, add up numbers for the three columns to get your totals.

    Disagree           Agree
1. When I am working on something, I cannot relax until it is perfect

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
2. I am not likely to criticize someone for giving up too easily

(Other-oriented)

 

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
3. It is not important that people I am close to are successful

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
4. I seldom criticize my friends for accepting second best

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
5. I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
6. One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
7. Everything that others do must be of top-notch quality

(Other-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
8. I never aim for perfection on my work

(Self-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
9. Those around me readily accept that I can make mistakes too

(Socially-prescribed)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
10. It doesn’t matter when someone close to me does not do their absolute best

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
11. The better I do, the better I am expected to do

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
12. I seldom feel the need to be perfect

(Self-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
13. Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor work by those around me

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
14. I strive to be as perfect as I can be

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
15. It is very important that I am perfect in everything I attempt

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
16. I have high expectations for the people who are important to me

(Other-Oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
17. I strive to be the best at everything I do

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
18. The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
19. I do not have very high standards for those around me

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
20. I demand nothing less than perfection of myself

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
21. Others will like me even if I don’t excel at everything

(Socially-prescribed)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
22. I can’t be bothered with people who won’t strive to better themselves

(Other-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
23. It makes me uneasy to see an error in my work

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
24. I do not expect a lot from my friends

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
25. Success means that I must work even harder to please others

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
26. If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly

(Other-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
27. I cannot stand to see people close to me make mistakes

(Other-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
28. I am perfectionistic in setting my goals

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
29. The people who matter to me should never let me down

(Other-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
30. Others think I am okay, even when I do not succeed

(Socially-prescribed)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
31. I feel that people are too demanding of me

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
32. I must work to my full potential at all times

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
33. Although they may not say it, other people get very upset with me when I slip up

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
34. I do not have to be the best at whatever I am doing

(Self-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
35. My family expects me to be perfect

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
36. I do not have very high goals for myself

(Self-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
37. My parent rarely expected me to excel in all aspects of my life

(Socially-prescribed)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
38. I respect people who are average

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
39. People expect nothing less than perfection from me

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
40. I set very high standards for myself

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
41. People expect more from me than I am capable of giving

(Socially-prescribed)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
42. I must always be successful at school or work

(Self-oriented)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7
43. It does not matter to me when a close friend does not try their hardest

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
44. People around me think I am still competent even if I make a mistake

(Socially-prescribed)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1
45. I seldom expect others to excel at whatever they do.

(Other-oriented)

7 6 5 4 3 2 1

Understand Your Scores

When you add up your scores, you’ll get a total number for each of the three categories. Please note: this is not a clinical test. There is no clinical cutoff score for the categories. Generally speaking, though, the higher your score in each category, the greater the chance that particular type of perfectionism could cause you problems later in life. Research shows there are three ways to look at your results:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: High scores in this category are associated with increased levels of productivity, career success, and conscientiousness.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: High  scores in this category may mean you have difficulties in delegating tasks to others. You may also cause others to see you as critical and/or judgmental.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism. High scores in this category are associated with increased risk of anxiety and depression. High scores in this area can also indicate an elevated risk of future suicide attempts, if the individual in question has a major life setback and is unable to put the setback in perspective.

These three score-categories enable you to figure out whether your perfection is adaptive or maladaptive:

Adaptive perfectionism means:
  • You modify personal expectations to meet the situation.
  • Your personal standards match your relative strengths and weaknesses.
  • Your sense of self-worth exists separate from your performance on particular tasks.
  • You tend to finish things on time.
  • You’re able to see the nuances in situations, and avoid black-and-white, all-or-nothing type thinking.
Maladaptive perfectionism means:
  • You may have standards that are high, inflexible, and don’t always match the situation.
  • Your fear of failure may outweigh your desire to succeed.
  • You may focus on avoiding mistakes, as opposed to doing things right for their own sake.
  • Your sense of self-worth may depend on your performance on particular tasks and how others perceive that performance.
  • You tend to procrastinate.
  • You may think of things as only black-and-white: you think you and your efforts are either perfect or a total failure, with no middle ground.

Why This Matters

You may be thinking “this study is about college students and has nothing to do with me.” And you’re halfway right. The study is about college students, true. But it has everything to do with you, because it’s like a time machine: it allows you to peer into the future and see where your style of perfectionism might lead, if you’re not aware of it. There’s also the elephant in the room: social media. We know you’re sick and tired of hearing adults bash Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and all the others. You’re right to be annoyed by that tendency. We don’t really get it. Adults use all those platforms, sure, but we didn’t grow up with them, so we don’t fully understand what it’s like to be a middle- or high-school teenager and get thrashed on Facebook.

But you do know what it’s like. And you’re smart enough to figure out what matters and what doesn’t matter. That’s why we didn’t keep this article under five hundred words or dumb down the language to the seventh-grade level all the experts say is necessary for blog posts geared toward teens. You’re smart, savvy, and sophisticated: we’ve seen you organize nationwide rallies this year that touched the lives of millions of people. We’re watching. We’re impressed. We know if you make the time to take this test, you can use the results to enrich your life, with or without our input.

No lectures, no platitudes, and no tired old adages. Except this one:

There is no such thing as perfection.

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