Two Kinds of Perfectionism and How They Might Affect You

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Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

The definition most people use when they talk about perfectionism involves a person striving for flawlessness. 100% perfect is impossible in most situations. Some use the idea of perfect as a lighthouse that helps them reach for a measure of excellence. It is healthy, for example, for a surgeon to have such aspirations and to seek the best possible results while fiddling around inside a human’s body.

And yet, some people, who are not surgeons, fall under the spell of uncompromising perfectionism, abandoning any sensible measure of mere excellence. Instead, they cling to the irrational thought that perfection is not only possible, but required. Striving for excellence becomes maladaptive perfectionism when individuals begin to link their identities and their self-worth to achieving or not achieving the impossible perfect. Those individuals refuse to accept that just good enough is ever good enough.

Using this definition, we can align two types of perfection with our personality theory: material perfectionism and existential perfectionism. There are many ways others have classified perfectionism. There are perhaps as many types of perfectionism as there are motivations to be perfect – of which there are plenty. In this article, we focus on the mechanics of these two perfectionistic styles rather than on motivations that create them. Future articles will describe some of those motivations and possible remedies.

Material Perfectionism

The first type of perfectionism is driven by meticulous attention to details. These perfectionists strive to make the outcome of everything they do precisely match their planned objectives. These things are usually measurable, and one knows when they have hit or missed the mark. For the sake of discussion, let’s call this material perfectionism because of its tangible nature. Material perfectionism is probably what most people mean when they refer to perfectionism.

Material perfectionists are concerned with details. Getting the details right is an admirable thing. “Everything has a place and there is a place for everything” is just fine. Making sure to spellcheck and go over one’s grammar is commendable. Keeping one’s workspace organized is top-notch. However, this healthy regard for the particulars can morph into perfectionism when the details begin to affect one’s self-concept. When someone associates excessive guilt, shame and a lack of self-worth with not completing a task precisely or not reaching a specific goal despite one’s good efforts, it is no longer about simply doing one’s best or reaching for excellence. It’s maladaptive perfectionism of the material kind.

In our model, material perfectionists are most likely to come from the ranks of the Observant and Judging personality types like the Sentinels. Sentinels tend to be more detailed-oriented, and the perfectionists among them will likely strive to make anything they touch (note “touch”) faultless. These perfectionists are rigid about outcomes and are likely not to be very experimental in life. Experimenting lacks full control of an outcome and that means there is no guarantee of a perfect outcome. While Sentinels are not known to be procrastinators, if they begin to doubt their skills and their ability to deliver, they may start putting things off rather than reveal their “flaws” either to themselves or others. When they do act, their perfectionism may have them “playing it safe.”

Sentinel perfectionists may spend inordinate amounts of time writing a perfect email or making sure a product is delivered at exactly the right time every time. These personalities will see it as a personal characterological blemish if productivity, profits, grades or sales do not meet or exceed projections. They lack resilience when they must recover from failure. Sentinels may be more susceptible to this brand of perfectionism if they also happen to be Introverted, Thinking and Turbulent – all marker traits of those who are more likely to seek the “perfect.”

While their similarly practical but more adventurous cousins, the Explorers strive to master the art of improvisation, they are less concerned with being perfect. This is typical of personality types with the Prospecting trait. Material perfectionism may come, at least in part, from a need to appear perfect to others, and most independent Explorers won’t put a lot of stock in opinions of others. Explorers might also see the idea of perfect as too demanding and confining in the light of their free-wheeling style. When considering these ideas with Explorers, it’s important to remember that reaching for excellence and trying to be perfect are not the same thing. Explorers will become masters of a craft, but they are less likely to become slaves of the perfect.

However, maladaptive perfectionism may rear its ugly head for Explorers if they also happen to be Turbulent. When Turbulent Explorers swim against the stream of their core instincts and take seriously the judgment of others, they may find themselves sinking into maladaptive perfectionism. In this case, these hands-on personality types would more than likely embrace materialistic variety.

Existential Perfectionism

There is a broader and perhaps even more insidious form of seeking flawlessness. It strikes at the core of one’s value and worth as a human. A failure in this area is likely to extend beyond just doing something wrong. It’s about the perfectionist judging their own very being.

This desire for perfection is fueled by idealism; we’ll call it existential perfectionism. People who are perfectionistic in this manner try to be perfect on a moral, rational or even spiritual level. The latest incarnation of Doctor Who asked his companion, “Am I a good man?” The newly regenerated Doctor was having a brief existential crisis. For someone dealing with existential perfectionism, “Am I a good person?” is the unrelenting question. Furthermore, for them, the “good” in the question usually means “perfect.”

Perfectionists of this type are in constant existential crisis mode. Until they shed perfectionistic thinking, the answer will always be negative. Obviously, no one is flawlessly moral, spiritual or rational. Insisting one’s self should be can do significant damage to the human psyche.

Existential perfectionists are always wrestling with questions concerning their integrity and their moral identity. It’s mostly found among Diplomats and, in different ways, among Analysts. Analyst personality types can be an interesting hybrid of these two varieties of perfectionism, and we discuss that below.

Diplomat perfectionists are driven to be nothing less than what the ideals they cling to demand they be. After all, ideal is a synonym for perfect. This goes beyond simply using those ideals as a lighthouse that guides them in approximate ways. Instead, ideals become hard and tyrannical targets that perfectionistic Diplomats must hit or their self-esteems are damaged. While perfectionistic Diplomats might quickly forgive others for having human shortcomings, these personalities may not be so generous with themselves.

Perfectionistic Diplomats might behave in certain ways to prove to themselves or others that they are “perfect.” This might loosely mimic material perfectionism, in that they may try to do noble acts to attempt attain perfection. But the two styles are not measured in the same way. Ethical questions can be a lot more complex and nuanced than setting up a perfect filing system for the office.

Perfectionistic Diplomats may do volunteer work or sit with sick friends. But deep inside, they realize these acts will not lead them to the perfection they seek. Thoughts come in. Motivations are questioned. Are they helping because of loving unconditionally, trying to prove something, assuaging their consciences, or for the sake of appearance? Someone who is not perfectionistic may answer “all of the above”, guiltlessly recognizing their human foibles which they share with all of mankind. But not so the perfectionistic Diplomat. They will see such thoughts as a testimony to their inability to reach their ideals and, for them, that is failure.

While all Diplomat personality types may lean in the perfectionistic direction that all idealists do, they are not necessarily full-blown perfectionists. However, the more perfectionistic among them are likely to focus on existential rather than material perfectionism. They may casually forget to put away the dishes without guilt, but they will beat themselves up over an angry or unkind feeling they had toward a friend.

What about Analysts, why did we call them a hybrid? Analysts do with pure rationality what Diplomats do with moral ideals. Rationality can be the tyrannical ideal for Analysts that morality is to Diplomats. These personalities take Descartes “I think therefore I am” to a whole new level. They place of lot of their identity on the quality of their logical processes and conclusions.

Flawless rationality for even the smartest human can at times be a bit elusive. Everyone has their filters. Everybody has blind spots. Emotions don’t always make sense. If the perfectionistic Analysts define themselves by their ability to reach flawlessly rational conclusions, they may experience anger or be ashamed of themselves when they become trapped by life’s occasional unreasonableness. Analyst perfectionists may inhibit their interactions with others for fear they might slip and let their human irrationality show.

The hybrid part comes in here – to come to a rational conclusion, facts and logical constructs are necessary. Even abstract formulations can be written down and codified. This lends them a more concrete, measurable quality. So, while perfect rationality may be a somewhat amorphous ideal entity, the path to it is filled with tangible things. To get to a rational conclusion, concrete stepping stones are needed and material perfectionism might then come into play.

The archetypal symbol for this might be a white board with a formula made up of numbers, letters and symbols – a lot of details demanding perfection. Finding the perfect argument may start with putting the perfect tangible pieces in place. In a laboratory, the steps to an experiment must be precisely executed so that they can be replicated and so that no unwanted influences seep in. This doesn’t, in any way, reflect maladaptive perfectionism, but it’s a good analogy for the role details play in the life of an Analyst. For the perfectionistic Analyst, the perfect premise must be supported by the perfect evidence which leads to perfect rational conclusions. Unfortunately, perfect is rare even among the most profound thinkers.

Ever had a conversation with someone who could not see the proverbial forest for the proverbial trees? At an extreme, it’s feasible that some Analyst perfectionists may become so concerned with the evidence that they get lost in it and forget the larger purpose. For them, the details that are pressed into service for constructing a strong foundation must be perfect. Since that is rare, these individuals may obsessively search for it. Consequently, they end up distracted by the foundation, and then fail to erect the rest of the building.

Just like any other Role, perfectionism is not necessarily baked into the Analyst personality. However, all Analysts share the Thinking trait, and our research has suggested this is the trait most often possessed by the people interested in the perfect.

The frustration that accompanies maladaptive perfectionism saps life of joy. Failure to reach the elusive perfect haunts the perfectionists on a constant basis and, consequently, destroys their confidence. It can be a clear roadblock to success. Learning to let go of the unnecessary expectation of perfection can allow life to flow more freely and to bring more satisfaction with it.

What have your experiences with perfectionism been? We’d love to hear them, and any thoughts you have. Please leave your comments below.