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The Trials and Tribulations of Moral Perfectionism

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article for Inspire the Mind entitled, "Why Perfectionism May Be Damaging For Our Mental Health". Inspired somewhat by my own perfectionist tendencies, my research took me on a journey of discovering the impact that this particular personality trait can have on our mental health.

Discussing how for some, perfectionism can be adaptive (helpful), yet for others it can be maladaptive (having more of a negative effect), we looked at the ways that perfectionism is sometimes linked with mental health difficulties. In the article, I touched a little on my realisation that my own perfectionist tendencies were more about being scared to make mistakes. Little did I know at the time, I would soon be introduced to a whole other take on perfectionism that strongly related to this: "moral perfectionism".

Due to its multi-dimensional and multi-faceted nature, I’m still learning all about perfectionism in its many shapes and forms, but the features described as "moral perfectionism" struck me as something particularly interesting and not so widely spoken about, yet when I recalled the concept to people around me, so many seemed to resonate.

When I’m not acting as a writer and co-editor for Inspire the Mind, I’m a researcher in mental health. So, embracing that very researcher spirit, I rolled up my sleeves and decided, once again, to investigate all that I can, relating to perfectionism. This time, of the moral kind.

Moral, existential... but what is it?

What I have learnt about perfectionism is that there is a lot to learn. Broadly a personality trait, there seem to be three different dimensions and many different subtypes, some of which appear to be more formally established than others. Moral perfectionism may be one of these less formally established.

First coming across the concept under the label of "moral" perfectionism, I was stopped in my tracks during my research, finding little to no resources linking it to mental health. From what I had understood of it, the negative side of moral perfectionism is best described as worry, even panic, when thinking you have done something remotely wrong. Having intense feelings of guilt and ruminating past actions, even dating back as far as your childhood, and feeling this strong desire to have a clean slate, erasing any wrong-doings or things which could be interpreted as such. There being no discussion about the possible implications for, or links to, mental health seemed unlikely given its description. That is until I learned that it is also referred to as "existential" perfectionism, and suddenly some more doors were opened.

Upon reading the word "existential", your mind may instantly go to the term "existential crisis", and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. An existential crisis may be best described as a deep, internal conflict surrounding your own purpose in life — most typically only focussing on the negative. Apply this to perfectionism, and we are looking at the idea of striving for perfectionism in your value and worth as a person spiritually, and morally.

Perfectionism is a is said to tie into three different dimensions described by Hewitt and Flett and discussed in my previous article. This idea of a moral, or existential, type of perfectionism has features which appear to tie into what they call "socially prescribed" perfectionism, which surrounds the belief that others have standards for you (almost impossible standards might I add) that you need to meet. These standards set by others in socially prescribed perfectionism can manifest in different contexts such as academically or socially. Oftentimes, the kind of worries experienced regarding values and your moral standpoint relates to how you will be perceived by others and concern that they will see you as anything but an entirely good person.

The terminology of moral or existential perfectionism is used relatively sparingly, and from what I can see, mostly in philosophy. It’s hard to determine the validity of "moral perfectionism" as recognised formally in psychology, but there is no denying that the experiences it encompasses are a shared experience for many.

If we think back to that idea of adaptive versus maladaptive, moral perfectionism could be something positive for some, an inspiring force to do good. But, on the other hand, the daily experience of worrying about your mistakes may include some quite negative and stressful feelings. We can of course assume that the latter most definitely causes some stress in everyday life.

So, what do we know about the implications for mental health, and what can we learn from socially prescribed perfectionism?

The link between perfectionism and many mental health difficulties is repeatedly reported. With little research relating specifically to the idea of a moral perfectionist, we cannot be sure of the true effects had on our mental health. We can assume that added stress may come to play but without explicit research to say so, we cannot be sure. We can however look to the literature and see what we can learn from socially prescribed perfectionism.

Last year, Flett, Hewitt, and colleagues authored a review to address the lack of understanding surrounding the impact of socially prescribed perfectionism; important to address given that this type of perfectionism is arguably the most maladaptive in nature and therefore has subsequent concerns for public health. It was notably discussed that the number of people who demonstrate socially prescribed perfectionism is on the rise, demonstrating the need for increased awareness of how this may impact the younger, and next, generations. I wonder, how much of this is linked to the idea of moral perfectionism?

Socially prescribed perfectionism is linked to stress in many ways, not just due to the stress the experience causes. Research has suggested that these perfectionists tend to have more negative emotional responses to stress and may generate interpersonal stress for themselves. We know from lots of research the impact that stress can have on many aspects of our lives and has important implications for our mental health. Studies have also shown links between higher levels of this type of perfectionism and mental health difficulties including depression and eating disorders, but that’s not to say it is a guarantee.

So, while socially prescribed perfectionism is on the rise, as is the research on its implications for mental health, we still lack clarity on the validity of moral perfectionism from a psychological perspective. For now, we can take learnings from perfectionism in general and remember to use self-compassion. Being a perfectionist, moral or otherwise, isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, striving to be the best version of yourself is even considered an admirable quality by some, you just want to make sure to go easy on yourself and remember that we are all human. No one is perfect.


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