Chasing the Elusive Perfect

You can’t talk about personality types long without bringing up perfectionism. Many of the different types include perfectionism on their list of weaknesses. But what exactly is perfectionism? Did you know that current research has identified three distinct “flavors” of perfectionism?

Joachim Stroeber described perfectionism as “… a personality trait characterized by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards of performance accompanied by overly critical evaluations of one’s behavior.”

A lot of people will “humble brag” and call themselves perfectionist when what they really want you to know is that they strive for excellence. Simply being determined to excel is different from the sometimes debilitating burden of perfectionism.

There are two characteristics that make perfectionism different:

  • With perfectionism, enough is never enough. Perfection and flawlessness are elusive and impossible to reach. Nonetheless, that does not prevent the true perfectionist from trying.
  • Criticism is the inevitable outcome. The person dealing with perfectionism will either criticize themselves or criticize others. Criticism is an integral part of perfectionism. Depending on the type of perfectionism, self-esteem is often sacrificed on its altar. When one expects others to be perfect, perfectionism can come across as hostile.

Some have argued there are adaptive and useful forms of perfectionism. However, most would counter there is little of benefit that comes from holding oneself or others to such exacting standards. Most would agree that it is desirable to put in one’s best efforts into life. For our purposes, perfectionism is different. Perfectionism is when doing one’s best crosses the line into reaching for unattainable standards. It can often be more harmful than helpful.

It’s hard to talk about the problems caused by perfectionism without discussing the three types identified by Hewitt and Flett in 1991. They include:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism (SOP): SOPs demand perfection from themselves. They show an adequate interest in other people and generally get along with others. However they are self-critical when they seek perfection and fail to reach. SOPs often internalize parents who criticized them plentifully as they grew up.
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism (SPP): SPPs believe that others expect perfection from them and they expect that others will be critical of their performance if they fail to be perfect. SPPs also often have critical parents. Usually, SPPs suffer from low self-esteem.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism (OOP): OOPs expect others to perform perfectly and are highly critical of them when they don’t. They are characterized by antisocial traits, narcissism, Machiavellianism, and an uncaring personality. This is considered by subscribers to the theory as the “dark” perfectionism. Stroeber has even found that their sense of humor is “aggressive” rather than “affiliative” like the SOPs. It should be noted that of the three, this is the only type in which the perfectionists don’t blame themselves for an imperfect performance. They typically focus on criticizing others for their imperfections.

There may be some crossover between the groups for perfections when different situations call for it. However, there seems be a dominate “flavor” experienced by the typical perfectionist.

We offer here a brief catalog of potential problems that might arise when perfectionism is a personality trait. If you have any to add to this list, we invite you to leave your contribution in the comment section below.

  • Procrastination: Procrastination is the classic problem that most people think of when they think about perfectionism. The SOPs and the SPPs may “freeze” or postpone doing something rather than face the pain of self-criticism that inevitably comes from doing something imperfectly.
  • Lack of help: SPPs in particular may not want to admit they need help or a consultation for fear that others will see it as a weakness. They are difficult clients in therapy because they may be reluctant to confess their flaws even to a therapist. This can also make working in a team difficult because they may not allow themselves to ask for help with a problem. When SPPs cloak their own drawbacks instead of finding someone who can help them, an important part of a project could remain incomplete or unnecessarily flawed.
  • Failure to take risks: A risk implies a chance for failure. SOPs and SPPs are unlikely to take risks even when the potential for winning may be high enough to make the chance of failure worth it. Calculated risks are often part of the recipe for success but can be difficult for the perfectionist.
  • Linked to illness and problems: Clinicians have linked perfectionism to depression, OCD, anxiety, relationship and sexual problems, anorexia and other mental and physical difficulties.
  • Create stress: Perfectionists sometimes push themselves beyond reason. If something is left imperfect, how can a perfectionist feel they merit some downtime? A weekend off is a luxury many perfectionists don’t feel they deserve.
  • Disregard gifts: Rather than celebrate strengths and successes, perfectionists put all of the focus on the flaws. This offers them a skewed view of the world.
  • No room for ambiguity: The answers to some questions are vague and messy. The law, ethics and many other disciplines often have places where conclusions are broad enough to evade absolute interpretations. The answers to such questions can be imperfect and relative. This can prove a challenge to perfectionists who may not be able to function when all the possible conclusions are so imprecise.
  • Create fear and disdain in others: OOPs, with their callous and critical attitude toward others, may demotivate others or cause them to be fearful or uncooperative around them. Other negative reactions may rise from family, friends and co-workers as well. Relationships with the demanding OOPs can be incredibly difficult.

The good news is that there are many self-help and therapeutic interventions for perfectionism too numerous to discuss in a short article. But the first step is usually awareness of the problem and, hopefully, we’ve provided that here.