'Perfectionism increases the risk of depression'. Interview with dr Magdalena Nowacka


Dr Magdalena Nowacka from the Faculty of Social Sciences’ Institute of Psychology was the first person in the Doctoral School of Humanities and Social Sciences to defend her PhD. Read a conversation on clinical perfectionism and gender dysphoria among transgender people - these issues were the subject of her doctoral dissertation.


Julia Bereszczynska: - In your doctoral thesis, you examined the issue of clinical perfectionism and gender dysphoria among transgender people. Could you explain these terms?

Dr Magdalena Nowacka: - In my research, I tested whether perfectionism could be a factor that interacts with feelings of gender dysphoria, that is, whether high perfectionism could increase feelings of gender dysphoria in transgender people. Perfectionism itself means imposing high, often unrealistic standards on oneself and being overly critical of oneself when one fails to meet these standards. Gender dysphoria is a feeling associated with a sense of gender non-conformity, which is a negative emotional reaction to the fact that my bodily aspects and social functioning (how I am addressed and perceived by others) are not congruent with how I experience my identity. Perfectionist standards can relate to various aspects - including appearance (extreme perfectionism occurs in anorexia, for example) - and thus place unrealistic expectations and demands on one's corporeality/functioning, so I was interested to see whether this might also be relevant for transgender people, e.g. creating the belief that I need to fit perfectly into a gender stereotype consistent with my identity in order to be accepted or sufficient.


- Clinical perfectionism in such people is often combined with real suffering, as you point out. Can it be cured?

- People characterised by high perfectionism set themselves very demanding goals and expectations, and when they fail to achieve them, they react very negatively by devaluing themselves. It is also impossible to 'win' with perfectionism because even when perfectionists achieve their goal, they assume that apparently it wasn't that difficult, and set themselves another, even more demanding one. So they never feel satisfied with themselves or their achievements. For this reason, perfectionism is an important factor that increases the risk and sustains mental disorders such as depression or eating disorders but also reduces life satisfaction in general. Treating perfectionism is possible through the process of psychotherapy; research shows the high effectiveness of such interventions, but at the same time, it requires commitment and the will to change one's way of thinking and behaviour.


- What percentage of transgender people may struggle with clinical perfectionism?

- This is something I am not able to say because we do not have such data. As far as I know, my study is the first study on a transgender population to use psychometric tools focused on perfectionism. Transgender people are also a difficult social group to estimate statistically because due to the risk of experiencing discrimination, as well as the history of this group (until a few decades ago, people were encouraged to hide their identity), we know that the transgender people who take part in the study are probably only a fraction of the general population.


- In your publications, you write that we should distinguish between two types of perfectionism - negative and positive. Which one was more prevalent in the study and control group?

- The control group and the study group differed in that aspect: transgender people had a higher incidence of those perfectionism traits that we perceive as maladaptive, while cisgender (non-transgender) people had a higher incidence of adaptive perfectionism. This is a very significant result, as it is the maladaptive perfectionism, which includes - but is not limited to - excessive criticism, fear of experiencing failure or focusing on mistakes, that is the most influential factor on mental health. The interpersonal perspective was also an interesting and important result of the study - socially imposed perfectionism was significantly higher among transgender people, meaning that transgender people are likely to strive to meet the standards they think are required of them by those around them (e.g. loved ones or society in general). This is probably related to the minority anxiety experienced by people from marginalised groups. As a minority group, transgender people are still vulnerable to discrimination, so trying to fit perfectly into societal expectations may be a mechanism to protect themselves from rejection.


- Where did your interest in such concepts and topics come from?

- I have been interested in sexology since childhood and always wanted to work in this area of science. During my master's studies, I started reading anthropology books on sexology and there I found articles about people in other cultures who don't fit into the gender binary. Discovering that not all societies in the world have an exclusively male/female divide sparked my curiosity in general about the topic of gender - what exactly it is, how it is shaped, and how it shapes our reality. I believe that it is transgender and non-binary people, who often challenge the rigid, zero-sum division of sexuality, who are most knowledgeable about the social understanding of gender, through at least their experience, so I am very interested in their perspective.

At the same time, I am also a sexologist and psychotherapist, so personality psychology is the foundation of my work. This is also what I do at the university as a personality lecturer. It is important to me that psychological research is applicable to practice, too, because I feel that using psychology to help others is the most vital role of this science. When I began to suspect that perfectionism in transgender people might affect their body image (as it does in cisgender people) and gender dysphoria, I decided to test this empirically. Not only to prove that something exists but also because perfectionism is possible to decrease by psychological interventions, which would mean that it would be possible to improve the mental state of transgender people and decrease gender dysphoria also by psychological support in this area.


- How do you assess the possibilities and prognosis for transgender people in Poland, in terms of their perception by the rest of society, their possibilities to get help, or even their position in the labour market?

- Since I have been working with transgender people (either in a support group or in individual processes) and analysing scientific research on how transgender people function in different contexts, I have the impression that things are getting better. The very fact that younger and younger people are talking about their identity shows that, in contrast to transgender people older than them, they are not so afraid of ostracism and rejection by their parents. In the past, transgender people often went into hiding for many years, withdrew from society and experienced a lot of discrimination, unfortunately also from the professionals on whose help they depended. I hope that things are better now, transgender people with the support of allies are also increasingly speaking up and speaking out about their rights and needs. Regarding the position in the labour market, the situation for transgender people is different because the legal system still does not counteract discrimination based on gender identity. Nevertheless, there are more and more workplaces that have guidelines or procedures on how to ensure the safety of their transgender employees (e.g. through ID badges and emails with the name used and not just the one from the ID) and when hiring, they focus on what competences and skills these people present and not on how they feel about their gender - and this is by all means a sign of an increasingly optimistic direction.


-Thank you very much for the interview and this optimistic thread at the end.

Julia Bereszczyńska/Press Office