As a personality trait, perfectionism is characterised by setting high standards and striving for excellence. Once a quality to aspire to, in recent years, experts have shown how pursuing perfection can harm rather than enhance a person’s wellbeing. After all, while aiming to be or do your best is one thing, settling for nothing less than that is quite another.
But it’s not all as black and white as that. Contemporary research suggests that there are three different types of perfectionism. And while each of these types needs to be managed, there are elements of some that can be used positively as you strive toward success.
The three types of perfectionism are:
Socially-prescribed perfectionists generally believe that others (family, friends, colleagues, and society in general) expect them to be perfect. They judge themselves as they believe others are judging them and typically find themselves wanting. Only by being “perfect” will they attain the approval of those around them and the more they feel “imperfect”, the more anxious and unconfident they become.
If socially-prescribed perfectionists believe everyone is judging them, other-oriented perfectionists are the ones that are actually doing it! This type of individual holds others to very high standards and can be extremely critical and deprecating of anyone who doesn’t meet their expectations. Studies confirm that a core characteristic of the other-oriented perfectionist is disagreeable behaviour, which can make them unsociable, very negative and lacking in empathy.
The third type of perfectionist that scientists have studied is the self-oriented perfectionist. With this particular form of personality trait, individuals set and seek often unrealistic standards of behaviour or performance, and can attach huge significance to excelling at all times. They can become excessively critical of their perceived flaws and failings, engaging in even stricter standards of behaviour to motivate themselves further. Like socially-prescribed perfectionism, self-oriented perfectionism has been linked to greater depressive symptoms including anxiety, stress and feelings of worthlessness.
But while each of the three traits seems to spell trouble, psychologists have pinpointed self-oriented perfectionism as being the most “adaptive” form as it correlates with the ability to thrive and succeed.
Interestingly, other-oriented perfectionism, which is usually viewed very negatively, has also been proven in some studies to be adaptive and able to enhance an individual’s sense of meaning and accomplishment. But then again, this is often to the detriment of the external others.
Of the three types, socially prescribed perfectionism is considered the most “maladaptive” form – meaning it’s most likely to undermine a person’s ability to thrive.
However, psychologists say that those of us with perfectionist tendencies have a little of each type within us. But if we focus on self-oriented perfectionism we can build up this trait’s more positive elements, which may help us override the others’ more negative qualities. Here’s how to do that:
Consider the cost
In her book Trust Yourself, Melody Wilding, professor of Human Behavior at Hunter College, New York, says that a big step towards mining the most positive parts of both self-oriented perfectionism and other-oriented perfectionism is to simply consider the cost.
“You may think that being the office superhero is helpful”, Wilding writes. “But pause to reflect on the negative impact on yourself and others. Your over-functioning may be creating a dynamic where others under-function. When you assume responsibility for doing everything and “fixing” situations, others don’t get the opportunity to step up”.
And more than that, she states, the perfectionist doesn’t get the opportunity to shine. Running the whole show yourself because you feel you have to (or think you’re the only one who can) can cost you in time, energy and greater opportunities. All these costs might, then, be undermining your leadership potential and, according to Wilding, when perfectionists realise this, it alters their perspective. They see what’s really at stake.
As a result, enabling others to take on responsibility or pitch in on a project with thoughts and ideas, suddenly shifts from being a problem to being a solution for the perfectionist.
Know your priorities
A big issue, particularly with self-oriented perfectionists, is believing that there is a single correct choice and that if you pick incorrectly, you’ll fail.
However, simply being aware of your top priorities in any situation, be it professional or personal, can help in overcoming this dilemma. Wilding claims that once you know what your top priorities are, you can look at the choices available to you and determine which one will likely have the most positive effect on the selected priorities. Doing so enables you to make the best decision based on all the information you have to hand – and, because of that, it doesn’t feel like failure.
Sure, some smaller issues might be side-lined as a result – but most perfectionists can live with a choice that allows them to opt for the most meaningful preference over the most marginal.
Start name calling
Self-oriented perfectionists tend to use self-criticism as a motivator to work harder and be better. But research has shown that being too tough on ourselves can actually inhibit our performance by making us tense and causing us to procrastinate.
To step out of the self-shaming and blaming circle, experts suggest using a cognitive defusion approach that not only calls out your inner critic but helps minimise it too.
Cognitive defusion is a technique that can help people get space from their negative thoughts and emotions. While there are several different applications of this technique, a good one for the self-oriented perfectionist is to simply give your inner critic a silly name that highlights its bad behaviour.
Call it Sourpuss, Party-Pooper, or whatever the heck you want, but the funnier and sillier it is, the better. Strange as it may seem, something as simple as name-calling your inner critic can help you identify it more quickly when it pops up. And once you do that, you’re better placed to see the bigger picture and reframe negative thoughts more positively.
Of course, pushing yourself towards your limits can be a good thing. It can help build resilience and help you embrace challenges.
The truth is, we should really all be aiming for perfection. The trick, though, is to make peace with the fact that we’ll never actually reach it.