Dr. Paul Hewitt, professor and clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychology, has been researching and treating perfectionism for over 25 years. He is the Principal Investigator of the Perfectionism & Psychopathology Laboratory. This clinical lab investigates perfectionism, defined as a transdiagnostic personality vulnerability factor, as well as its association with psychological and physical health outcomes, its influence on treatment, and the psychotherapeutic treatment of perfectionism.
Dr. Hewitt, a pioneer in perfectionism research and treatment, has conducted extensive research on the construct of perfectionism as a maladaptive and multidimensional personality trait. His research has linked perfectionism to a variety of forms of psychopathology, including anxiety, depression, and personality disorders, suicidal behaviours in children, adolescents, and adults, disordered eating and sexuality, and both achievement and relationship difficulties. Moreover, he has developed a psychodynamic psychotherapeutic treatment for perfectionism that has been shown empirically to be effective.
In this Q&A, Dr. Hewitt shares the research and treatment taking place in his lab, his insights into the perfectionism trait, and the lab’s personality.
To start, can you describe the general personality of a perfectionist?
Simply stated, it is someone who requires perfection of the self and/or others. They are also attempting to perfect the self. These are generally individuals who live pretty unhappily and have dissatisfied lives. They seemingly have learned that the route to social connection is to fit in with the world, and to have self-worth is by being perfect or by appearing to others as perfect.
Can the average person relate?
I believe people generally can relate to this idea as either pertaining somewhat to him or herself or to people they know. Whenever I do public lectures, I normally have many who comment that the description of the perfectionism construct accurately captures their loved ones who are living rather tortured lives.
What is the lab’s main research focus?
There are numerous focuses in the research we are currently doing. First, we continue to explore some of the maladaptive outcomes from perfectionistic behaviour. For example, we are currently analyzing a large dataset of 450 community members across the adult age span to look at how perfectionism creates a vulnerability to suicide as well as physical health concerns. A second focus is to evaluate a model of perfectionism (the Perfectionism Social Disconnection Model) which proposes that perfectionism develops from early childhood relational experiences and family constellations, and that the perfectionism arises in an attempt to establish social connectedness and self-worth.
The model further states that although the person attempts to connect with others by being perfect or appearing to be perfect to others, the perfectionistic behavior actually creates social distance, alienation, and a sense of being alone and separate from others. This is a perfect example of the neurotic paradox! We have numerous projects underway assessing components of the model. A third focus is on treatment of perfectionism, and although we completed a very large psychodynamic group treatment research program, we are also attempting to refine this treatment and evaluate the impact of perfectionism on other forms of psychotherapy. Finally, a fourth focus involves evaluating the early relational experiences and development of attachment behaviors that we believe underlies the development of perfectionistic behavior.
One of the many assessment tools you have developed is the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS), a measure of the interpersonal expression of perfectionistic behaviour. What led you to develop the PSPS?
Early in the process of trying to explicate and measure the perfectionism construct, the work in my lab focused on trait elements of perfectionism and we developed a model and measure of three
independent perfectionism traits (self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed perfectionism). In addition, because there is an important interpersonal component to perfectionistic behaviour, we extended the model to incorporate not just perfectionism traits but also the interpersonal expression of those traits. That is, the traits involve preoccupation and concern with being perfect, whereas perfectionistic self-presentation involves attempts to communicate one’s purported “perfection” to others. A third component involves a self-relational component (i.e., the relationship one has with one’s self) that involves self-recriminations, demands for one’s own perfection and so forth. We have incorporated all three elements in a descriptive model of perfectionistic behaviour and developed measures of each the components for adults and children.
How did you become interested in this line of research?
I was working on a paper as a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba. After reading an article in a magazine about perfectionism I was curious to see what research had been done and I discovered that there wasn’t any empirical research on perfectionism. Now there are thousands of papers published. I wrote that third-year paper and continued my focus on perfectionism with my honours thesis, my MA, PhD, clinical work, and I have never stopped.
Can you tell us about any new research that you are particularly excited about?
I’m excited about new treatment research that I’ve been developing over the years where I’ve been studying early development and early attachment in small children and parents and how that relates to developing perfectionism as a child.
You have a number of people either working or volunteering in this lab. Can you give any insights into its popularity?
This type of research resonates with people. We have undergraduate research assistant and volunteers, directed studies and many graduate students. A majority of the people in the lab are currently focused on treatment related research and work. The lab tends to attract both hard working and fun loving people, which may be more of a function of the make-up of the graduate students who are incredibly giving of their time and energy to make the lab an interesting place. As well, there is a real clinical flavor to all the work in the lab which is quite attractive to many students.
What are other members of your lab working on?
I’ll let the lab members speak for themselves:
Xiaolei Deng, Second year MA: My research focuses on the treatment outcome of perfectionism and whether CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) and psychoeducation produce changes in symptoms but are not so effective with changes at a deeper trait level with perfectionism. As well, I am also trying to understand the relationship between perfectionism and conception of the self through the use of implicit methodologies.
Silvain Dang, Second year PhD: Sexuality, like perfectionism, is closely tied to our emotionally intimate relationships. My research focuses on how perfectionism can be a mechanism through which early attachment experiences and current romantic relationships can impact the development of sexual difficulties and problems. I am particularly interested in how perfectionism can interact with cultural differences in sexual attitudes and expressions.
Lisa Zhang, Second year PhD: My research focuses on how perfectionism affects the process, as well as the outcome, of group therapy by examining the relationship between perfectionism and the therapeutic relationship, group cohesion, and self-disclosure in the context of group treatment.
Chang Chen, Fourth year PhD: Broadly speaking, my research lies at the intersection of personality, social, and clinical psychology. My current research projects aim to address the following questions: (1) how is perfectionism manifested and expressed in the interpersonal context, such as family relationships, friendships, and romantic relationships? And (2) what developmental and social factors might contribute to individual differences in perfectionism? I am also interested in clinical treatment of psychological problems related to perfectionism.
Janet Kaldas, Sixth year PhD and currently on residency: My primary research examines the relationship between perfectionism and interpersonal dimensions in the process of group therapy over sessions. In other words, I am trying to understand the mechanism by which perfectionistic patients have difficulty benefiting from treatment. I am also interested in understanding the association between perfectionism and several psychological difficulties, such as suicide, shame, stress, and troubles seeking help.
Joanne (Yuan) Zhou, Fourth year undergraduate honours student: My honours project is looking at how perfectionism influences the therapeutic alliance in the context of psychodynamic group treatment and subsequent treatment outcomes.
Briana Smirfitt, Fourth year undergraduate student: My current research examines the relationship between perfectionism, social relationships, and disordered eating behaviours.
Lastly, what does the lab do for fun?
Work, work, work…but also we meet for lab meetings that tend to be quite supportive and, a lot of times, quite a fun time. We will also have the odd potluck lab meeting and lunches off campus. We have some real extraverts who are very focused on making sure people are both working hard and enjoying themselves.