A study that examines traits that predict psychological distress
Excessive concerns about making mistakes, pernicious self-doubt, harsh self-criticism, impossibly high standards or expectations for performance, a strong and chronic tendency to evaluate one’s performance as not measuring up to levels expected by oneself or others - these are features of maladaptive perfectionism that predict psychological distress.
In a longitudinal study across the semester of a sample of predominantly female undergraduate students, Kenneth Rice, Clarissa Richardson, and Dustin Clark from the University of Florida examined the relations between measures of perfectionism, procrastination, and psychological distress. They explored a number of different potential models that might explain the relation among these variables, with a particular emphasis on a model where perfectionism leads to more procrastination that increases psychological distress. Interestingly, this isn’t what they found. Before I tell you what they did find, let me explain a little more about perfectionism and its possible relation to procrastination.
Perfectionism and Procrastination
As Rice and his colleagues write, “a person with maladaptive perfectionistic characteristics who wants to avoid scrutiny (evaluation) or is primed to be dissatisfied with performance may be more likely to procrastinate to avoid that dissatisfaction, shame, or embarrassment (Sagar & Stoeber, 2009). The procrastination helps on the front end of the formula (with perfectionism) but hurts on the tail end in that it seems likely to result in greater stress and distress during performance- and evaluation-intensive times.”
In other words, if we have internalized unrealistic standards, are plagued with self-doubt and prone to self-criticism, we’re more likely to avoid our work to avoid what we believe is inevitable failure. And, while this short-term avoidance may provide some immediate mood repair, in the longer term, we pay the price with the distress that task avoidance and last-minute efforts bring.
However, as I said above, although we might expect the perfectionism-distress relation to be mediated by procrastination like this, it isn’t what these researchers found.
At all three times when they measured the students (i.e., early, mid and late semester), procrastination and perfectionism were strongly related to psychological distress. The more perfectionism or procrastination, the more distress. No surprises here.
More surprising is that the correlation between perfectionism and procrastination was actually quite modest, suggesting that the procrastinators may be psychologically distressed, but these academic procrastinators seem only minimally self-critical. As well, procrastination was not mediating the perfectionism-distress relation. In other words, it’s not that perfectionists subsequently fail to engage in their work due to fear of living up to unrealistic expectations. Instead, both perfectionism and procrastination are very stable, trait-like attributes, and both predict subsequent psychological distress.
Interestingly, early-term perfectionism was a strong predictor of those students who could be categorized as clinically distressed by the end of the semester. In this case, there was a role for procrastination. Higher levels of psychological distress were associated with higher levels of procrastination, but only for students who were not perfectionists by nature (scoring low on the perfectionism measure).
Taken together, the authors argue that “these findings suggest that high levels of Perfectionism may be concurrently and prospectively problematic, regardless of Procrastination, but that the later detrimental effects of Procrastination may only become apparent for nonperfectionists.”
These findings underscore the importance of early-semester intervention while recognizing that perfectionism and procrastination are rather entrenched ways of being; there may not be a quick fix for the distress with which these traits are associated.
The authors write,
“Moreover, because the association between those constructs appeared relatively stable over time but the worst academic consequences may not befall students until later in the term, it may be beneficial for university and college counseling centers to conduct outreach programming on these topics at multiple times during the semester. Such programming may need to incorporate an arousal component to facilitate readiness for change to bring otherwise ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issues into sharper focus for students. Our results also suggest that, among perfectionists, treatment may focus around increasing feelings of adequacy surrounding performance, whereas treatment may target procrastinatory behaviors among distressed nonperfectionists.”
Links to previous research
This is an important study, but like all research limited, of course. Most importantly as the authors note, they did not measure stress in their design. As research from our Procrastination Research Group (procrastination.ca) has found in previous studies, stress is an important factor in the procrastination-health symptom relation, and there are both direct and indirect effects of procrastination on health. In this regard, the authors note,
“Stress could be another variable to consider in future research. Tice and Baumeister (1997) found that stress and health symptoms were higher for procrastinators at the end of the semester (see also Sirois, 2007; Sirois et al., 2003), and Rice, Leever, Christopher, and Porter (2006) found higher perceived stress among perfectionists at the end of the semester. Although stress was not directly measured in the current study, it is likely that high stress levels at the end of the semester exacerbated psychological distress for individuals with higher levels of perfectionism and, to a lesser extent, procrastination. As indicated, the results did not support procrastination as the mechanism through which distress emerged. Perhaps future research might more directly investigate stress, other indicators of stress (e.g., health-related problems), and stress management throughout the semester as potential moderators of our proposed mediator model.”
We agree with this focus for future research. In the meantime, those of us with perfectionistic and procrastinatory tendencies have some work to do to lower our own psychological distress. Previous posts on the link between perfectionism and procrastination provide some possible ideas for these life changes as we learn to manage our own irrational thoughts and our tendency to give in to feel good. You might want to read these words of healing for perfectionists or some more research on perfectionism and procrastination, or a little more about irrational thinking.
Rice, K. G., Leever, B. A., Christopher, J., & Porter, J. D. (2006). Perfectionism, stress, and social (dis)connection: A short-term study of hopelessness, depression, and academic adjustment among honors stu- dents. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 53, 524–534. doi:10.1037/ 0022-0126.96.36.1994
Rice, K. G., Richardson, C. M. E., & Clark, D. (2012, February 20). Perfectionism, Procrastination, and Psychological Distress. Journal of Counseling Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0026643
Sagar, S., & Stoeber, J. (2009). Perfectionism, fear of failure, and affective responses to success and failure: The central role of fear of experiencing shame and embarrassment. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 31, 602– 627.
Sirois, F. (2007). “I’ll look after my health, later”: A replication and extension of the procrastination– health model with community-dwelling adults. Personality and Individual Differences, 43, 15–26. doi:10.1016/ j.paid.2006.11.003
Sirois, F., Melia-Gordon, M., & Pychyl, T. (2003). “I’ll look after my health, later”: An investigation of procrastination and health. Personality and Individual Differences, 35, 1167–1184. doi:10.1016/S0191- 8869(02)00326-4
Tice, D. M., & Baumeister, R. F. (1997). Longitudinal study of procrasti- nation, performance, stress, and health: The costs and benefits of dawdling. Psychological Science, 8, 454 – 458. doi:10.1111/j.1467- 9280.1997.tb00460.x