Perfectionism and self-defeating behaviours: Studying individuals and dyads over time
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People high in socially prescribed perfectionism (i.e., those who perceive others demand perfection of them) often behave in ways that are incongruent with their efforts to be perfect for others. This research proposes and tests two models that explain why socially prescribed perfectionism is related to self-defeating behaviours (i.e., behaviours with negative effects on the self that are often detrimental to achieving one’s goals). In Study 1, socially prescribed perfectionism was proposed to contribute to a cycle of self-defeat involving perfectionistic discrepancies, perfectionistic self-presentation, depressive affect, and self-defeating behaviours (i.e., binge eating, procrastination, interpersonal conflict). To test the model, data was collected from 317 undergraduates who completed structured online daily diaries. Results of multilevel structural equation modeling largely supported hypothesized relations such that participants high in socially prescribed perfectionism engaged in, or experienced, patterns of self-evaluation, self-presentation, and emotion that contributed to their imperfect, self-defeating behaviours. These behaviours undermined their efforts to be or look perfect for others—creating a sense of deficiency that sets the stage for another cycle of self-defeat. In Study 2, I tested the perfectionism model of binge eating in 218 mother-daughter dyads using a mixed longitudinal and daily diary design. Results largely supported hypotheses suggesting daughters’ socially prescribed perfectionism and mothers’ psychological control contribute indirectly to daughters’ binge eating by generating situations or experiences that trigger binge eating (i.e., discrepancies, depressive affect, and dietary restraint). For young women who believe their mothers rigidly require them to be perfect and whose mothers are demanding and controlling, binge eating appears to provide a means of coping with or escaping from an unhealthy, unsatisfying mother-daughter relationship. Together, the results of Study 1 and Study 2 help to explain why people who strive to be perfect for others often engage in self-defeating behaviours. These findings have numerous implications for theory and research on personality, relationships, and self-defeating behaviours, and for prevention, assessment, and treatment of perfectionism and associated difficulties. These implications, along with the limitations and future directions of this research are discussed.