A bit of etymology trivia first (from etymonline.com):
Oriental (adjective): from Latin word orientalis “of the east.”
Occidental (adjective): from Latin word occidentalis “western.”
Now, on with the essay…
OCPD – an Occidental Personality Disorder?
While perfectionism is not, per se, a diagnostic category, it is an essential feature of the so-called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD, not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD). OCPD is usually defined as “preoccupation with perfectionism, mental and interpersonal control, and orderliness at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency” (Pfohl & Blum, 1991).
Given the fact that perfectionism, the central feature of OCPD, seems “endemic” in the West, should we then, perhaps, rethink perfectionism as a strictly Western/Occidental issue? Should we view OCPD as Occidental Compulsive Personality Disorder?
All Cultures Program Minds
While Occidental (i.e. Western) societies have been traditionally depicted as cultivating perfectionistic aspirations, the Orient (the East/Asia) has not been spared its own share of perfectionism.
Cziksentmihalyi (1998), in referencing William James’ famous formula of self-esteem as being a ratio of expectations to success, notes that Asian-American students “who get excellent grades tend to have lower self-esteem than other minorities who are academically less successful, because proportionately their goals are set even higher than their success” (p. 24).
This Asian brand of perfectionism can be likely traced to some of the postulates of Confucianism that is a major cultural influence in China and such Chinese-influenced societies as Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan (Kim, 2007).
The Confucian emphasis on education and hierarchical propriety can serve as an easy platform for perfectionistic self-abuse. Kim (2007, p. 30) writes that the “enthusiasm for education” may lead to such negative consequences as “extreme competition for acceptance into prestigious universities that result in many psychological and emotional problems including high levels of stress, anxiety, depression, cigarette smoking for relief, and sometimes suicide” as well as to devaluation of play in favor of hard work and to a reduction in “creative potential.”
These ultra-Confucian traits and characteristics are diagnostically reminiscent of the perfectionism of the obsessive compulsive personality disorder with its overconscientiousness and cognitive-behavioral rigidity.
Therefore, a person reared in a perfectionistic society might be seen (by the standards of such society) as entirely psychologically healthy, but when taken out of his or her cultural context, may present as being compulsively perfectionistic. With these cultural differences in mind, it is important to always consider the extent to which one’s perfectionism is normative in the context of the native culture.
In sum, culturally-distributed perfectionism, just like the privately-distributed perfectionism (that stems from family dynamics) is ultimately a matter of psychological “software” (or, as I like to call it, “mindware”) and can be “re-programmed.”
Update Your Mindware
One thing is clear: whichever brand of perfectionism you have (oriental or occidental), you got it by accident. Indeed, you didn’t choose the culture you were born into. Whether you were born into a macro-culture of perfectionism or merely thrown into a dysfunctional family microcosm that required you to be perfect to survive, your perfectionistic personality style is an accident. Correct it.