Dark Side of Perfectionism Revealed by Attachment Theory

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I just found the following article over at by Rachael Rettner: The Dark Side of Perfectionism Revealed. In my opinion, the information presented in this article not only agrees with but could be easily framed by attachment theory. I’m not sure why researchers are not making more of an effort to tie their work back to attachment theory, however, as a general observation, they are not. If they did, though, I’d be out of a job.

What attachment researchers have discovered is that kids with a distancing form of insecure attachment will often look calm, aloof, or even nonplused on the outside while on the inside they are very stressed, very hyper-vigilant (a pattern that often extends into adulthood). In other words, these kids look cool, calm and collected on the outside (think “Joe cool”) but their inner physiology (as evidenced by heart rate measurements or cortisol (the stress hormone) levels) is in a state of arousal. They may look cool, calm, and collected on the outside, but they are often anything but on the inside. Attachment theory is shot through with these types of paradoxes. This is why kids who have an outer appearance of resiliency may not, in fact, be that resilient when looked at from a physiological perspective. This article on perfectionism is making a similar connection: some kids may appear as if they have it all together as a result of their perfectionism (think the teacher’s pet) when in fact their health is at risk.

In this article on perfectionism, we hear Rachael Rettner tells us that “those who feel others expect them to be perfect might … experience declines in health as a result of distancing [my emphasis] themselves from other people, and any support from friends and family.” Sounds like a distancing form of insecure attachment to me. Chronically increased cortisol levels over an extended period of time can have a deleterious effect on health. Quoting Canadian researcher Danielle Molnar, Rettner reveals, “If you tend to have strong bonds with people, good family life, good friendships, you tend to be healthier.” She continues, “Socially prescribed perfectionists [as opposed to self prescribed perfectionists] … tend to have this sense of disconnection with other people, so it would make sense that one of the ways they would experience poorer health is because of this sense of social disconnection from others.” But this is on par with John Bowlby saying (in his infamous WHO report) that there’s a correlation between ill effects in children and maternal deprivation (see my June 29th, 2010 post). However,  the WHO report “said very little indeed about the process whereby ill effects are brought into being” (quoting Bowlby). That’s the case here: very little is being said about how socially prescribed perfectionism brings about ill effects. I would suggest that Bowlby’s attachment theory could help to bridge the gap. Allow me to take a first pass at it.

Continuing to use Molnar as a backdrop, we hear Rettner tells us that even when socially prescribed perfectionists receive support from others, they will often frame it as not being “nurturing and supportive” but as a form of criticism. In essence, socially prescribed perfectionists engage in self-defeating behaviors as looked at in my July 6th, 2010 post. Let me see if I can shed some light on why this may be the case.

A researcher using the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) (see my July 12th, 2010, post for more on the AAI) rarely looks at one piece of evidence but is constantly comparing pieces of evidence to look for such things as consistency and coherence. If someone taking the AAI uses adjectives like loving or comforting to describe an early attachment figure, and they can provide evidence in support of those adjectives, they usually rate highly on dimensions of coherence. As Rettner tells us, “Some scientists have argued [that] a subset of … high achievers can be classified as ‘positive perfectionists’—those who reap the benefits of perfectionism without falling victim to its ills.” In other words, positive perfectionists try to stay coherent with respect to the environment making demands for perfectionism (i.e., aspiring to become a surgeon or fighter pilot or prima ballerina).

During the AAI, if phrases used to describe early attachment relationships are overly “perfectionistic” (i.e., “very, very loving,” or “my mother never ever let me down,“ or “I had the best father in the whole wide world”) and no evidence is given in support of these glowing reports, coherence is often rated as low. What could be going on here? In my opinion, the mind of the child was not known by early caregivers, so, as a result, the child had to increasingly rely on building Inner Working Models based on exposure to social ideals—the best dads or the greatest moms. But these social ideals are often talked about during an AAI in ways that convey a sense of anger or disappointment, anger or disappointment, I would argue, over the fact that the child had to use internalizations of social ideals to build Inner Working Models as opposed to using their own minds reflected back to them in the minds of their early caregivers. These kids perceive an offer of help negatively because such offers are perceived as an attempt to help the real mind of the child (which was rarely if ever known by caregivers growing up) and not as an attempt to bolster the standing of the mind built up around idealizations or social stereotypes. The child desperately wishes to conceal the fact that the real mind of the child was never known (mentalized as some attachment researcher call it) by early caregivers. Perfectionism, then, could be framed as an attempt to keep attention away from the fact that the child’s mind was never known, never reflected back to them by early caregivers.

I know this is a first pass at trying to place perfectionism into an attachment theory perspective, but I thought it was a pass worth taking. I invite readers to take a stab at fleshing out this pass with information or examples they may know of. If nothing else, I hope I am convincing the reader that there is tons of information in the media these days on attachment if you are able to do a bit of translating. I’ll keep translating the best I can.

As a postscript, my first pass does raise an interesting question: What if your intention is to get the Inner Working Models of children to closely reflect social models such as idealizations and ideologies? Well, now we’re moving into the area of attachment and politics, a topic that is given short shrift if mentioned at all. Probably the best (and one of the only) books on the topic is Peter Marris’s 1996 book entitled The Politics of Uncertainty—Attachment in Private and Public Life. Peter’s take on attachment and politics is framed by a liberal bent (in my opinion). I wrote a summary of Peter’s book if you are at all interested in this topic. Please use the CONTACT US button above to request a copy. For a more conservative take, I’d recommend Mary Ebestadt’s 2004 book entitled Home-alone America—The Hidden Toll of Day Care, Behavioral Drugs, and Other Parent Substitutes.