“Sometimes perfectionist behavior leads to a positive and desirable outcome,” says Monifa Seawell, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist in Atlanta. “For many people, their perfectionism causes them to produce high-quality work, or leads to them excelling or doing very well in some specific areas of life.” But, there's a serious caveat: “Perfectionism can also be tricky because people don’t always necessarily feel burdened by their perfectionism and can feel very much justified in the standards they have set,” she adds, noting that it's even possible to be a perfectionist and not realize it.
For some types of perfectionism, though, the tendency can function as a direct hindrance to happiness and productivity. “Perfectionists can be inefficient, not get things done because they get lost in the perfectionism, become anxious about the perfectionism, run the risk of holding others to this kind of standard, and miss deadlines because of focusing on getting things perfect,” says licensed clinical psychologist Ramani Durvasula, PhD, author of Don’t You Know Who I Am?
So, given these multiple types of perfectionism and how each functions, it's clear that not all perfectionists are created equally. Below, get details on the three types of perfectionism and how to overcome the negatives of each, if you happen to fall into one of the camps.
3 types of perfectionism to know about
1. Self-oriented perfectionism
A self-oriented perfectionist is “very conscientious and wants to get every detail right because they value that attention to detail,” Dr. Durvasula says. At a more extreme level, this can become obsessive and cause someone to feel anxious, she says. “But these are folks who if you need something detail-oriented done, they will take personal responsibility for getting things done in that way,” Dr. Durvasula says.
A big clue that someone may be a self-oriented perfectionist is that they demand high standards of themselves, Dr. Seawell says. “People with self-oriented perfectionism set very high standards for themselves and can be very critical of themselves in one or more areas of life,” she explains.
2. Other-oriented perfectionism
Pretty much the opposite of a self-oriented perfectionist, other-oriented perfectionists direct their perfectionist standards toward others. “People with other-oriented perfectionism set very high, often unrealistic, standards for others and can be very critical when people fail to meet those standards,” Dr. Seawell says. “This can understandably cause problems at work and in relationships.”
Other-oriented perfectionism is common of people “who will not delegate because of the belief that other people can't get it ‘just right,’” Dr. Durvasula says.
3. Socially prescribed perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism is a level of standard that people feel they need to meet to be seen a certain way by society, Dr. Durvasula says. “That can be a person trying to be ‘just right’ for family, friends, or to meet a societal or social media standard,” she says. “The person's self-esteem is tied up in portraying themselves and being viewed as perfect by the world.”
How to overcome negative perfectionist tendencies
It’s important to point out that not all perfectionist tendencies are bad. They can generally be grouped into adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism, says Ben Cherkasky, LPC, a licensed professional counselor at Skylight Counseling Center. Adaptive perfectionism, he says, reflects someone who sets “high standards for oneself or others, but one is not particularly critical when failing to meet those standards.” Meaning, you may have high standards, but you feel like you’ll be okay if you don’t happen to live up to those.
But maladaptive perfectionism describes a feeling of “severe distress and life interference” when your standards and actual results don’t match up, Cherkasky says. And that’s when perfectionism is a problem.
If you feel like you have some maladaptive perfectionist tendencies, there are several ways to keep it from getting in your way. For starters, Dr. Seawell recommends acknowledging that this is a thing for you, and then finding ways to try to challenge it. “For example, if your perfectionism normally causes you to spend two hours completing a work task that should take 30 minutes, you could consider limiting how much time you give yourself to complete the task,” she says. “Once time is up, you can consider the task complete, regardless of how ‘perfect’ you think it is.”
Dr. Durvasula reminds that overcoming maladaptive perfectionist tendencies can require time and practice, so being patient with yourself and others is key. “Tolerate the discomfort of less-than perfect, actually sit with the anxiety that comes from something that doesn't feel perfect, and practice breathing and mindfulness—anything to help manage the discomfort,” she says. This can be as simple as making a cake that you don’t frost perfectly or doing a task around your place that is “good enough,” like making your bed without hospital corners.
It also can be helpful to get off social media. “Looking at the ‘perfect’ lives of others can push that societal perfectionism to a point of discomfort or distress,” Dr. Durvasula says.
Finally, Dr. Durvasula says it’s a good idea to try to figure out what’s fueling your perfectionist tendencies in the first place: Did you grow up in a house with a perfectionist and it’s just what you’re familiar with? Are you trying to please someone? Are you trying to manage your anxiety? “For many people, perfectionist tendencies are deeply ingrained and can be hard to challenge or change on their own,” Dr. Seawell says. “If that happens to be the case, it would be worthwhile to seek help from a trained and licensed mental health professional.”
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