If you identify as a perfectionist in 2021, you have known torture for the past year. As we lived through 2020, it began to feel like nothing was within the grasp of our control. Perfectionists, no matter what stage of life we’re in, desire to create control in at least one or more areas of life. This manifests in many ways, including attempts at perfect grades in school, perfect relationships with others, and perfect parenting. Interestingly, in the early 1990s, three distinct perfectionist profiles emerged, categorized by the way the perfectionism manifests in a person’s life. Of note is that the three types of perfectionism described below certainly do not exist separate from one another and can be found to exist concurrently.
1. Self-Oriented Perfectionism
For self-oriented perfectionists, the desire to be and do better comes from within. However, unlike a healthy drive for success in whatever aspect of life comes into focus, the self-oriented perfectionist not only sets a goal but attempts to continuously surpass that goal. For example, a self-oriented perfectionist might decide to complete a viral 30-day exercise challenge. On day one, the perfectionist completes the challenge’s 100 squats. However, finding that task challenging, yet doable, the perfectionist might try the next day to do 101 reps, just to prove to themselves that they did even better than the goal that was originally set. While this may not seem harmful, the consequences of this type of thinking can lead to a cycle of feeling immensely successful followed by a sense of utter failure if the challenge doesn’t go as planned. If, for example, the perfectionist forgets one of the days or doesn’t make it all the way to the 100-squat goal, an all-or-nothing attitude can set in and do more damage to emotional morale than any fitness challenge’s physical benefits. This type of perfectionist is also generally seen as a great coworker, stellar employee, and wonderful partner. However, this comes as marked by phases of “disappearing” in fear of disappointing others or when an inevitable shortcoming arises, much like symptoms of the third type of perfectionism described below. Avoidance of the perceived failure or those connected to the perceived failure is one way in which self-oriented perfectionists may manifest unhealthy behaviors.
2. Other-Oriented Perfectionism
One phrase which embodies other-oriented perfectionists is “You should have…” or “You should…” Other-oriented perfectionists are consumed with the same over-achieving and perfectionist tendencies that self-oriented perfectionists also suffer from. However, as the label suggests, other-oriented perfectionists project their perfectionistic requirements onto others. In this case, group projects are an absolute nightmare. These perfectionist-types not only often set unrealistic expectations for themselves, but also expect perfection from others. In a group project scenario, these perfectionists anticipate the work from all others involved to meet and exceed expectations. When this inevitably isn’t the case, the perfectionist laments the performance of others until he or she decides the best path forward is to simply do all the work themselves. A second way that other-oriented perfectionists suffer is through throwing their expectations on almost all relationships they have with others. This is most often clearly seen in the example of the parent with “high expectations” for their child. The other-oriented parent will often set unrealistic expectations on their child and unfortunately, in a power-dynamic such as that of parent and child, this can be detrimental to many aspects of the child’s life. This can include everything from the child’s self-esteem, self-image, sense of self-worth, and ability to have fulfilling relationships with others. In this case, an avoidance of others or self-imposed isolation may manifest as a protection mechanism by which never to be disappointed.
3. Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
This unique third type of perfectionism is quite similar to the above self-oriented perfectionism, but in this type, the perceived expectations an individual subscribes to seem to come from others, however distorted this may be. Someone suffering from socially prescribed perfectionism believes that there are expectations placed on them by society which do not allow for perceived mistakes, laziness, or even rest. Additionally, because these types of perfectionists feel as though a thousand pairs of eyes are always watching them, critical of every move they make, anxiety is often a side-effect. Notably, those who are socially-prescribed perfectionists struggle with a significant fear of rejection from others if they do not live up to the perceived expectations of others and this can affect all domains of life – from work, to school, to friendships, and beyond. Not only though are debilitating fears of rejection common, but also the fear of appearing incompetent or silly is sometimes present. At work or school, this might mean that this type of perfectionist believes her boss or teacher views her in a certain way and expects “nothing but the best” with all work or assignments. In a relationship, this might mean that the perfectionist perceives his partner to reject him should he ever be late to a planned event. The partner may never even indicate any ill feelings towards a potential tardiness, but the perfectionist will manifest the anxiety regardless of the reality presented. With this perfectionist, anxiety and burnout can occur in every aspect of life where there is perceived pressure from the outside world.
If you relate to any of these types of perfectionism, please reach out to a therapist or trusted friend to discuss your reflections. All aspects of life can be negatively impacted by your own self-imposed expectations, which in turn can severely affect your mental health. Know that you are not alone in your struggle for self-worth. While challenging, working through perfectionism will help you feel much better when you realize what a gift you truly are to the world – flaws, mistakes, and bad hair days included.