Differentiating the role of perfectionism and high standards in young adolescents

Author: Ivana Osenk

Osenk, Ivana, 2021 Differentiating the role of perfectionism and high standards in young adolescents, Flinders University, College of Education, Psychology and Social Work

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Perfectionism has been shown to have adverse impacts on mental health, general well-being, and academic achievement in youth. However, confusion remains about the structure of perfectionism, commonly regarded to consist of two factors: perfectionistic strivings, traditionally labelled as ‘adaptive’ despite contradictory research, and perfectionistic concerns, consistently shown to be maladaptive. Preliminary evidence posits the mixed findings regarding perfectionistic strivings has emerged due to the lack of clarification between pursuing perfection versus high standards in perfectionism measures. Thus, the main aim of this thesis was to improve our understanding of any distinction across five different studies.

The first two studies rigorously examined the unique associations of perfectionism measures with varying outcomes: indicators of academic achievement, and self-compassion and self-criticism. Using meta-analytic techniques, it was found that subscales relating to perfectionistic strivings were positively related to academic performance and helpful academic outcomes, but only one subscale, High Standards from the Almost Perfect Scale Revised (APS-R), had protective associations with unhelpful academic outcomes. Small to large maladaptive associations were found between perfectionistic strivings and concerns with self-compassion and self-criticism. However, High Standards from the APS-R shared a small but significant positive association with self-compassion. Lower self-compassion also tended to partially mediate the relationship between Discrepancy and psychological distress, suggesting that increasing self-compassion may counter the harmful effects of perfectionism.

The third study examined exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses on measures of perfectionism, followed by correlational and regression analyses. Using 282 high school students (aged 13-15 years), results supported a 3-factor model as the model of choice (Concerns, Strivings, High Standards). The High Standards were also found to be better understood separately from a General Perfectionism factor. Perfectionistic Concerns had unique associations demonstrating impairments in well-being and academic motivation, while High Standards revealed unique positive associations with well-being.

Studies 4 and 5 evaluated a school-based program designed to decrease perfectionism, while fostering high standards and self-compassion. Impact on well-being, self-compassion, academic motivation and negative affect was also assessed at post-intervention and 3-month follow-up. The 3-lesson pilot study (study 4, N = 93) revealed no significant differences between the intervention and control conditions but small to medium effect sizes in favor of the intervention were found for perfectionistic concerns, self-compassion, and negative affect. Study 5 tested a boosted 5-lesson universal program (N = 636, Mage = 13.68) and found no differences in perfectionism between the intervention and control group. At 3-month follow-up, anxiety showed a significant increase in the control group with no commensurate increase in the intervention group (d = 0.23). Moderating effects found females in the control group significantly decreased in well-being from post-intervention to 3-month follow-up compared to those in the intervention (d = 0.33), while those experiencing problematic levels of perfectionism in the intervention experienced significant decreases in self-oriented perfectionism compared to those with low levels (d = 0.40).

Taken together, these results support a distinction between perfectionism and high standards. The notion that perfectionistic strivings are ‘adaptive’ should be disbanded from future discourse. Universal school-based intervention and prevention work in this area is critical and the protocol for the program outlined in this thesis appear encouraging in the context of other mental health prevention programs in schools. Further research is needed to clarify perfectionism versus high standards to better understand this complex construct, with longitudinal model testing examining self-compassion and self-criticism as potential mechanisms which may differentiate these constructs.

Keywords: perfectionism, high standards, school-based intervention program, self-compassion

Subject: Psychology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Education, Psychology and Social Work
Supervisor: Tracey Wade