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The Different Types of Perfectionism
General Personality Traits of the Perfectionist
Perfectionistic personality traits can cause a wide range of difficulties. Typically those would include difficulty making decisions, dotting i’s crossing t’s (checking and rechecking), over-analysing, ruminating, being too picky about potential partners – all common to what psychiatrists refer to as ‘obsessive’ – but only a very small proportion of people with this tendency would go on to develop obsessive compulsive disorder, a clinical condition for which one would normally seek therapeutic help.
Even though here we are talking about a personality trait, you might still benefit from some talking therapy or life coaching to help you work through the process of overcoming what can be a crippling habit. For many it’s about self-esteem –feeling inferior to others, seeing them as more intelligent, attractive or successful than you. Some have ‘emotional’ perfectionism – ashamed of being vulnerable, depressed, anxious or embarrassed.
Canadian psychologist Gordon Flett says that perfectionists reveal themselves in three distinct ways: first, a "self-promotion" style, that involves attempts to impress others by bragging or displaying one's perfection (this type is easy to spot because they often irritate other people); second, by avoiding situations in which they might display their imperfection (common even in young children); and third, a tendency to keep problems to themselves (including an inability to admit failure to others).
You can see how it might be difficult for the experts to agree on the theory and nature of perfectionism – it is a complex subject which overlaps with so many other aspects of our personality and behaviour. Whilst researchers over the past two decades have led to a better understanding of the problem, they have approached it from different angles, so we are left with many different perspectives on the subject. One way of assessing perfectionistic tendencies, the Multidimensional Perfectionism Subscales devised by Frost et al, looks at the following areas: concern over mistakes; doubts about actions; personal standards; parental expectations; parental criticism; and organisation.
Another measure, created by Flett and Hewitt, identified three main dimensions of perfectionism: self-orientated, other-orientated and socially prescribed perfectionism, broadly as follows:
1 Self-Orientated Perfectionism
We put pressure on ourselves to attain unrealistic and impossible standards. This is associated with self-criticism, intense self-scrutiny and the inability to accept any mistakes or failings in one’s self. “I’m my own worst critic” you might hear them say. Sorotzkin (1985) describes a thinking style in which the individual feels compelled to achieve perfection in all areas of life as “the tyranny of ‘shoulds’ (more on that later). The problem is that low self-esteem and lack of self-belief can lead to the feeling that we will never achieve our goals in life, and that can produce a kind of immobilisation, where we lack energy and motivation to make things happen. So it’s no surprise that this can lead to problems with depression.
2 Other-Orientated Perfectionism
We expect others to meet unrealistically high standards – it’s a way of externalising the pressure they feel. It is most likely to develop when children are brought up in families which are extremely evaluative, where the emphasis is on everyone striving for perfection. Even when these children have been exposed to harsh or controlling parenting, they often maintain the somewhat narcissistic view of themselves that they are capable of achieving perfectionism. This type of perfectionist often displays inflexibility, anger and intolerance, which may lead to problematic relationships, both at home and at work. Their excessive demands and expectations of others lead them to sometimes be seen as blaming, arrogant or dominant – “the people that matter to me should never let me down” they might be heard to say. They may have trouble delegating because they worry the results will be less than perfect. “If you want a job doing well, do it yourself” will sound familiar to them.
The same internal critical voice we use on ourselves, and the same impossible high standards we have for ourselves can be projected onto others. For example they may become distracted by poor grammar or a mistake when reading an article or a book, and even decide on the basis of that, that the whole thing is ‘rubbish’!
Some parents not only have high expectations (i.e high levels of controlling behaviour), but they sometimes over-idealise the child, leading to a form of narcissistic perfectionism. These people will strive for perfection and also believe they can achieve it due to the overly positive evaluation by their parents. This type may also be associated with maternal restrictiveness, leading to a desire to control others in adult life. It has also been suggested that these exceedingly high expectations of others may be a way of compensating for being mistreated or disappointed. It seems there are several possible explanations for this type of perfectionism!
3 Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
We believe that others expect us to meet standards so high, that they are impossible for us to reach. So these high standards are thought to be imposed by others, whereas the self-orientated perfectionist’s high standards are self-imposed. This type is particularly potent because if we don’t meet those standards we feel there is a high risk of disapproval or rejection. We fear the social consequences of failure, looking foolish or being criticised by others. This type is associated with adjustment problems such as greater loneliness, shyness, fear of negative evaluation, and lower levels of self-esteem. It can lead to anger and resentment (at the person who is apparently imposing the standards), depression (if they are not met), and social anxiety (fear of being judged by others).
In reality these categories often overlap. Any categorisation is an attempt to clarify and simplify the subject, but remember that human beings don’t fit into nice neat boxes and you may find yourself identifying with characteristics across all three categories.
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