Perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Whilst it can push you to achieve great things and produce superb quality work; it can also lead to feelings of failure and self-doubt. As in most other areas of life, there is such a problem as having too much of a good thing.
Perfectionism, in psychology, is a broad personality style characterized by a person's concern with striving for flawlessness and perfection and is accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others' evaluations.
In other words, if not channeled correctly, the maladaptive elements of being a perfectionist can prove problematic to your overall wellbeing and happiness, even if it may be helping you to produce great work and exceed expectations at the same time.
Canadian psychologists Dr Paul Hewitt and Dr Gordon Flett studied perfectionism for over two decades. They found that, like most other traits, perfectionism comes in a spectrum and can manifest itself in several different ways.
Most perfectionists can identify their perfection driven tendencies, and this self-awareness is essential when evaluating into which category of perfectionists they fall. Some people may find that they are strictly one subtype, while others may discover that they are a mix of all three. Regardless of the subtype, there comes a time for most perfectionists when they realize that always expecting faultlessness from themselves or others is no longer working for them.
Here are the three types of perfectionism identified by Dr Paul Hewitt and Dr Gordon Flett, along with constructive ways to safeguard against the damaging pitfalls of perfectionism.
1. Socially Prescribed Perfectionists - “I know they know I can do better”
Socially prescribed perfectionists are very self-critical. They feel immense pressure to be the best and worry that others will reject them. They believe that others expect them to act or look a certain way to such a degree that they risk losing their sense of self. Whilst it is rational to care about the opinions of others to a certain extent, socially prescribed perfectionists take this to an extreme. Their self worth can become entirely based on the worth which other people seem to attribute to them.
The key to avoiding the pitfalls of socially prescribed perfectionism is to strengthen your positive inner dialogue, for example, by making a list of your strengths, positive features and accomplishments to help you feel proud of yourself, without relying on the validation of others.
It would help if you also realized that it is very likely that your worries have no factual basis in truth. It is easy to assume that people are thinking the worst, not the best, of you when that is not the case in reality.
2. Other-Oriented Perfectionists - “I know they can do better”
Other-oriented perfectionism is the sub-type you may not have previously considered. Other-oriented perfectionists believe that the people around them should behave in a certain way, and they often become upset when that is not the case. Other-oriented perfectionists hold others to high standards and can be critical and judgmental. Approaching social encounters in this way can prove problematic when building relationships, especially when creating a harmonious working environment. For example, by constantly critiquing your colleagues’ decisions this will likely foster a hostile atmosphere.
Before allowing frustration to take hold, consider the reasons for someone behaving or appearing in a certain way. There will likely be a rational and justified reason that may help to settle your vexation. Other oriented perfectionists must try to be more understanding and compassionate.
Secondly, you could consider making a gratitude list of all the reasons you are thankful for someone. Making this list will remind you of their redeeming qualities and hopefully make their less favorable traits pale in comparison.
Thirdly, mindfulness activities such as meditation or yoga can help switch your focus and concern from other people onto yourself and also provide some much needed time for self-reflection.
3. Self-Oriented Perfectionists - “I know I can do better”
Self-oriented perfectionists are organized and conscientious and are generally associated with productivity and success. They set high standards for themselves in their lives and careers and chase these goals relentlessly.
However, it can feel incredibly frustrating and disheartening because even their best doesn’t feel like enough for long. Often, self-oriented perfectionists tell themselves stories about how their achievements are not good enough and feel overwhelmed or dissatisfied instead of celebrating their successes.
Good self-care and self-compassion are critical to helping to combat the pitfalls of self-oriented perfectionism.
If you notice yourself getting overwhelmed, identify one area in your life where you can pull back or ask for help and support from others. For instance, perhaps if you volunteer at a youth group in the evenings you should take a break from this during the busy season at work. Leading a balanced life that includes social and leisure activities will also help.
Other tips to overcome the pitfalls of perfectionism
In addition to the specific recommendations above, there are also other more general tips and tricks that perfectionists can try, regardless of the sub-type with which they identify.
Firstly, think deeply about where your need for perfection may be arising from. Sometimes there is an underlying need that you are not meeting or an unhealed trauma that is still impacting your thought processes. Were these needs to be addressed, it might also cure the need for unyielding perfection.
Secondly, be honest with yourself about what perfectionism is costing you. It may be your time, energy, relationships or mental health. This reflection alone may be enough to realize that absolute perfection costs you more than it is worth.
Thirdly, try to let go of the all or nothing mindset which plagues most perfectionists. Very few things in life are black and white. Most times, a balanced approach is more appropriate.
Lastly, celebrate your successes! Reward yourself when something goes well; you deserve it!
Like we set out at the very start, being a perfectionist can be a great blessing, but of course it can also be something of a curse. However, the above tips can help perfectionists struggle less over time. Overcoming maladaptive perfectionist tendencies can require time and practice, so being patient and kind with yourself and others is critical. Sit with, and learn to be comfortable with, the uncomfortableness of things not always being perfect. Life is a journey of ebbs and flows, and pursuing wholeness over perfection may be the most liberating thing you can do for yourself.