“What are your plans after graduation?”
This is a question that you have likely encountered (or will encounter) at one point or another in your senior year in college. For some people, the answer is all ready to roll out of the tongue: “I received a scholarship to study abroad and do research!” or “I’m going to take a year off to travel in Europe.” For others, an answer to this question is not readily available. There is so much to think about (family, money, housing, etc.) before walking down a certain path.
Transitioning out of college into “real world” may result in a cascade of undesirable stressful events that turn on the pressure for many freshly minted graduates. Beliefs about what constitutes a successful versus an unsuccessful life especially become potent during this period of transition.
Everyone differs in the way they react to whatever life unfolds for them. And how people respond to life’s challenges depends heavily on the interaction between their environment and their disposition.
“If I am not 5 minutes early, I consider myself already late.”
One of the ways psychologists study stress is by investigating the personality characteristics that predict successful management of problems encountered in daily life. Perfectionism, for example, has received a lot of attention from researchers regarding its association with stress and psychological health. Perfectionists are described as individuals who are demanding and highly self-critical. The goals they set for themselves are high yet they do not feel satisfied with their performance.
More recently, researchers have distinguished between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Both types of perfectionists set high standards for themselves however, adaptive perfectionists are more satisfied with their performance than their maladaptive counterparts.
While this kind of a categorization is controversial, multiple studies have linked adaptive perfectionism with greater satisfaction with life. On the other hand, maladaptive perfectionism has been associated with heightened levels of stress, increased procrastination, increased levels of depression and diminished satisfaction with life.
In addition, Timur Ozbilir, Arla Day and Victor M. Catano (Saint Mary’s University, Canada) have found perfectionism to be an important personality characteristic to study in the workplace. In a study they did in 2014, they found that perceived discrepancy between performance and goal is not only associated with higher strain and burnout but also with lower work engagement (discrepancy is related to how frustrated people feel when they cannot reach their goals). Moreover, the results applied to both Canadian and Turkish participants in the study (except for work engagement).
In 2012, Jeffrey S. Ashby, Christina L. Noble, and Philip B. Gnilka (Georgia State University, Kent State University) studied the association between perfectionism, perceived stress, depression and satisfaction with life. The study sample consisted of undergraduate women between the ages of 18 and 50 (mean age 24) from several introductory psychology courses at a large midwestern university in the U.S. Participants completed three tests that measured depression, satisfaction with life and perfectionism. Perfectionists in the group were categorized as either adaptive or maladaptive (the third group was classified as “non perfectionists”).
The researchers found significant differences among the groups. Maladaptive perfectionists had higher perceived stress and depression scores than adaptive perfectionists. Furthermore, the study authors, among others, suggest that maladaptive perfectionists may spend their time ruminating on perceived failures instead of focusing on the positive aspects of their performance.
However, caution needs to be taken when interpreting these results because of the correlational nature of the study. In other words, we cannot state that perfectionism causes stress. Also, the study participants were all women so the results cannot be generalized to men. Nevertheless, the extent to which individuals perceive their performance as sufficient influences how stressed they feel.
What does it all mean?
Psychology of stress is complicated to say the least. While certain personality characteristics such as adaptive perfectionism have been linked with positive outcomes, how one responds to challenges in the heat of the difficult situation depends on multiple factors. Despite the challenges that are associated with stress research, it is clear that individual differences play a big role in how stress impact a person’s life.
To reflect on your own perceptions of stress take a couple of minute to think about these questions:
- What standards do you set for yourself when you want to achieve a goal?
- On what aspects do you evaluate your performance?
- Do you feel a sense of satisfaction regarding your current level of performance?
- 1. Ashby, S. J., Noble, L. C., & Gnilka, B. P. (2012). Multidimensional perfectionism, depression, and satisfaction with life: Differences among perfectionists and tests of a stress-mediation model. Journal of College Counseling, 15,130-143. DOI: 10.1002/j.2
- 2. Ozbilir, T., Day, A., & Catano, V. M. (2014). Perfectionism at work: An investigation of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism in the workplace among Canadian and Turkish employees. Applied Psychology: An International Review, 64, 252-280. DOI: 10.1111/a
- 3. Segerstrom, S. C., & O’Connor, D. B. (2012) Stress, health and illness: Four challenges for the future, Psychology & Health, 27,128-140. DOI: 10.1080/08870446.2012.659516
- 4. Zimmer-Gembeck, M. J., & Skinner, E. A. (2016). The development of coping: Implications for psychopathology and resilience. In Cicchetti, D. (Ed.), Developmental Psychopathology, Third Edition. (Chapter 10). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.