Monday, September 15, 2014

Perfectionism and Spirituality- A Dangerous Combination

Perfectionism: Maladaptive and Adaptive
   and Spirituality

As a clinician, specializing in the treatment of persons with spiritual issues in addition to general mental health conditions, it was not uncommon to see persons struggling with imperfection and feeling like a failure. This was especially true among clients associated with fundamentalist beliefs and those faiths with strict behavioral expectations. And from time to time I saw people with religious obsessions and compulsions.
A recent study in Psychology ofReligion and Spirituality examines adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in a sample of Latter Day Saints.

What Can We Learn About the Spirituality of Latter Day Saints (LDS, Mormons)?
The Latter Day Saints (LDS) is an example of an American religion, which began in the 1800s. Religions specify beliefs and values as well as expected behavior patterns. In short, many religions define morality for their adherents. Failure to comply with the behavioral expectations is often classified a sin. Righteous people are recognized by their conformity to the moral teachings of their faith tradition. This is true for the broad tradition of Christianity, which dominates the United States, as well as related groups such as the LDS.

A Recent Study

Who studied what?
Two scientists investigated factors related to LDS spirituality and wellbeing. G. E. Kawika Allen of Brigham Young University and Kenneth T. Wang of the University of Missouri studied 267 women (60%) and men in the Southwestern U.S. Most (97%) were White and young (Mean age 23.6).

They studied several factors.
Religious commitment- a commitment to personal and group religious activities
Perfectionism- a measure about personal performance expectations.
Scrupulosity- the questions assess obsessive-compulsive spirituality using two scales Fear of Sin and Fear of Punishment from God.
Depression and Anxiety
Satisfaction with Life

What did they discover?
The researchers conducted a number of analyses. In one aspect of their analysis they classified participants in terms of perfectionism using three categories: Nonperfectionists, Adaptive perfectionists and, Maladaptive perfectionists. Maladaptive perfectionists were very high on scrupulosity. Adaptive perfectionists were higher in religious commitment compared to nonperfectionists. 
How were maladaptive and adaptive perfectionists different? The adaptive participants were lower in anxiety and depression, higher in self-esteem, and higher in life satisfaction than were either the maladaptive perfectionists or the nonperfectionists.

Some implications
The authors suggest several implications. Here's two.
1. Perfectionism can have both positive and negative aspects. Thus, the high standards may not be the problem.
2. It may be important to help LDS persons with a more accurate perspective on God and faith. They expand a little on this idea – suggesting people may be led to healing and experience forgiveness.

The authors offer the usual cautions about the limited age group and limited research. See the article for more details.
Obsessive-compulsive patterns can be extremely annoying and difficult to resolve. An imperfect act viewed as a sin against a punishing God leads to considerable inner distress for those who struggle to be perfect as expected.

In my experience, the problem of maladaptive perfectionism is not limited to members of the LDS community. The problem deserves further study.

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