Why problem-focused coping works wonders for perfectionists

  • problem-focused coping for perfectionists

Recent research published in the Journal of Psychology of Sports and Exercise found that problem-focused coping was the most effective coping mechanism among perfectionists.

Being able to cope with stress is one of the key ingredients for success. Some might think this is bad news if you have a perfectionist personality. Perfectionists tend to push themselves to the brink. It’s a dangerous trait that puts them at an increased risk for regular bouts of burnout. And burnout, we know, interferes with a person’s ability to cope effectively.

It’s the vicious cycle of the perfectionist. But it’s also not the complete story. Researchers are learning that it depends on the type of perfectionism and the type of coping being used.

This led the current team to examine the different styles of coping used among perfectionists. As the findings show, perfectionists do best with the style of coping that deals directly with the problem at hand (problem-focused) rather than their emotional response (emotion-focused) to it.

We’ll explain why this is the case a bit further down in the post. But first, we have to ask:


What is perfectionism?

Before we begin, it may be helpful to know whether “perfectionist” is a term that could describe you. It is characterized by a few key traits:

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  • Striving for excellence: Perfectionists (indirectly or directly) set exceedingly high standards.
  • Unjustified concerns: Perfectionists show irrational levels of self-doubt, excessive concerns over the expectations of others, and harsh self-evaluation following perceived failure.
  • Cognitive distortions: Perfectionists tend to perform all or nothing thinking. When a negative event happens, they struggle to see alternatives to the situation or solutions to the issue.
  • Procrastination: Perfectionists wait for the “perfect moment” to actually act — a moment that rarely ever comes.

Now that’s not to say that all perfectionist are alike. According to the 2×2 model of perfectionism, there are two primary types of perfectionism:

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism (SOP): These individuals push themselves to meet extremely high standards imposed on themselves. Their drive for excellence comes from within.
  2. Socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP): These individuals also pursue extremely high standards. The difference is these standards are believed to be imposed by others.
types of perfectionism

source: ravishly.com

It is suggested that among perfectionists, SOPs in particular, problem-focused coping leads to the best outcome. This style of coping involves directing effort to the underlying problem causing distress, rather than dealing with the stress directly.

Emotion focused-coping, on the other hand, is centered on managing your emotional response to a situation. It consists of adaptive techniques such as seeking emotional support, but can also lead to maladaptive methods such as self-blame, ruminative thoughts, and over-generalization of failure.

Problem-focused coping has been shown to promote mental health, provide a sense of control as well as reduce depression, paranoid thinking, anxiety and aggression.

Here are a few ways to implement problem-focused coping:


Quit multitasking

This may be difficult, especially since sticking to one task at a time can feel like you aren’t doing enough. Especially for a perfectionist, the idea of falling behind can be agonizing. However, multitasking can actually do more harm than good. Not only can multitasking increase stress, studies show it can also decrease your ability to comprehend and even lead to reduced grey matter density in the brain.

quit multitasking to better cope

source: forsythwoman.com

One way to keep yourself from multitasking is to limit your involvement in other projects or activities. This act is known as “phenomenal field constriction.” This may include putting certain tasks on the backburner or delegating them for others to do.

Begin by analyzing all the tasks that need completing within the next 2 weeks. Before you pick which of these tasks you want to focus on, think about your goals. Another issue with multitasking is it causes you to be distracted by goal irrelevant information, making it harder to reach those goals. So select the task that has the strongest connection to your goals. Once this task is completed, you can move onto the next goal-related task on your list.


Outline a plan

The first step is determining the root of your stress. This may involve some introspection. Look inwards to see how you feel. Are you frustrated? Irritated? Think of what elements in your environment are causing you stress. You can start by narrowing it down to a noun. If you’re feeling pressured from work, is it because of a co-worker or is it because of a specific task? Put a name to the stress.

Once you’ve determined this, you will need to create a plan for tackling this problem. Let’s pretend you’re stressed about an upcoming presentation. You aren’t the best public speaker and you’re worried you’re going to embarrass yourself in front of your colleagues. What can you do? Start by thinking of ways that you can improve your presentation (e.g. memorizing your lines). Next, think of ways that you can improve your public speaking skills (e.g. attend a toastmasters meeting). Now, think of things that will make you feel more comfortable (e.g. asking your favorite co-worker to sit in the front row).

planning for problem-focused coping

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Creating a plan puts the control back into your hands. That’s because stress is merely due to the perception that your external situation is out of your control. This leads to uncertainty – something your brain hates. Having a plan is the best antidote to stress because a plan, by its very nature, is completely within your control. So even though your situation may be filled with unpredictability, a well thought-out plan can allow your brain to regain a sense of control and thus, relieve your stress.


Seek out instrumental support

Although emotional support from loved ones can have its benefits, instrumental support is quite different. This type of support requires you to tap into your network. If you have a problem, talk it through with a colleague or seek advice from someone you admire. Hearing from someone who has been in your shoes can be an effective way to reduce stress. Studies show that instrumental support predicts well-being.

Additionally, instrumental support can be incredibly valuable if you’re venturing into a new field. Having someone there to guide you can help you avoid many of the stressors that accompany dealing with the unknown. In fact, network support has been linked to the growth of newly founded businesses.

Here’s a few ways to seek out instrumental support:

  • Be proactive: People often make the mistake of waiting for others to come to them. This can lead to disappointment and even feelings of rejection. Be proactive by reaching out to your network. This can be as simple as saying hello or lending a helping hand.
  • Return the favor: A great way to build connections with others is to meet them halfway. If they are willing to be there for you, make sure you do the same. Studies even suggest that you may benefit more from providing social support, than from receiving it.
  • Find common ground: If you find it nerve-racking talking to someone you’re not too familiar with, find a common interest. This shared interest can get the ball rolling and help you – and the person you’re talking to – feel more comfortable.

The experiment and its findings

The researchers tested the relationship between the 2×2 model of perfectionism and the two styles of coping (problem- versus emotion-focused). According to this model, there are 4 subtypes of perfectionism when you consider their various combinations:

  • Non perfectionism (low SOP and low SPP)
  • Pure SOP (high SOP and low SPP)
  • Pure SPP (high SPP and low SOP)
  • Mixed perfectionism (high SOP and high SPP)

The 2×2 model of perfectionism proposes four hypotheses:

  • Hypothesis 1 is split into three versions: Pure SOP will be associated with (1a) better (1b) worse or (1c) equivalent outcomes when compared to non-perfectionism.
  • Hypothesis 2 suggests that pure SPP will be associated with worse outcomes than non-perfectionism.
  • Hypothesis 3 suggests that pure SPP will be associated with worse outcomes than mixed perfectionism.
  • Hypothesis 4 suggests that mixed perfectionism will be associated with worse outcomes than SOP.

Another way to put it, according to the hypotheses a ranking of the perfectionism styles from best outcomes to worst would be:

1/2) SOP

1/2) Non-perfectionism

3) Mixed-perfectionism

4) SPP

SOP and non-perfectionism share the number 1 and 2 spot because people who exhibit SOP will come out on top only if they use problem-focused coping. If they opt for emotion-focused coping, then the non-perfectionists will fare better.

Previous studies have shown that SOP’s are more likely to use problem-focused coping, while SPP’s are more likely to use emotion-focused coping and avoidance coping. The researchers wanted to determine whether the various coping mechanisms could account for the trend in the 2×2 model of perfectionism. They tested these hypotheses by examining injured runners.

224 injured marathon runners were recruited for this study. The researchers used a seven point Likert scale known as the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale Short Form (HMPS-SF) to determine the participants degree of perfectionism. This included a five-item SOP subscale (e.g. ‘One of my goals is to be perfect in everything I do.’) and a five-item SPP subscale (e.g. ‘Anything that I do that is less than excellent will be seen as poor performance by those around me.’).

runners' problem-focused coping styles

source: women.thenest.com

Coping was measured in the participants using a collection of subscales called the Brief COPE. The subscale included strategies which could be categorized as problem-focused coping (e.g. planning), emotion-focused coping (e.g. positive reframing) or avoidance coping (e.g. behavioral disengagement).

Each item was measured on a four-point Likert scale and the participants were instructed to rate the degree to which they used each particular strategy.

The researchers examined the correlation between the various types of perfectionists and their desired coping mechanism. In relation to problem-focused coping, all four hypotheses were confirmed.

That is, SOP was associated with higher levels of problem-focused coping and thus resulted in better outcomes when compared to non-perfectionism (hypothesis 1a) and mixed perfectionism (hypothesis 4). Pure SPP was associated with lower levels of problem-focused coping and thus resulted in worse outcomes when compared to non-perfectionism (hypothesis 2) and mixed perfectionism (hypothesis 3).

The same trends didn’t hold for emotion-focused coping and avoidance coping. In fact, these two styles of coping were more likely to be associated with maladaptive outcomes. A key takeaway then: Problem-focused coping may be the most useful for dealing with stress and subsequent injury recovery because it facilitates better planning for rehabilitation and adherence to recovery programs.

Overall, the results of this experiment show that problem-focused coping is most likely to be used among people who exhibit SOP. In which case, being an SOP perfectionist is actually a good thing.


Recap and wrap up on perfectionism and problem-focused coping

There are various types of coping mechanisms, each which have their own benefit. However, amongst perfectionist, problem-focused coping is associated with better outcomes. A few tactics for implementing problem-focused coping include:

  • Outlining a plan to deal with a problem
  • Sticking to one task at a time
  • Seeking out support from your network