Raise your hand if you've ever found yourself obsessively triple-checking an email before hitting 'send' or rewriting a to-do list until it's worthy of a Pulitzer Prize. Don't worry; you're not alone!
Like many things, perfectionism can be a gift or a challenge depending on the way it manifests. Even the word “perfectionism” tends to conjure up different meanings or images for different people. For some, it conjures images of success, achievement, or a type-A personality. Others may picture someone anxious or high-strung, or someone whose expectations may get the best of them if they don’t learn to "let it go." Parents sometimes worry about perfectionistic tendencies in their children, and perfectionists themselves frequently experience guilt or shame when they fail to live up to their own impossibly high standards. Phrases like "paralysis by analysis" and "don't let perfect be the enemy of good" capture the way perfectionism is often viewed as an unhealthy compulsion. But the truth is, perfectionism is much more nuanced than these stereotypes suggest.
Perfectionism comes in all shapes and sizes, and chances are, you've encountered it in your own life more times than you can count. But did you know that there isn't just one standard brand of perfectionism? There are actually different types of perfectionism, some more helpful than others. And perfectionistic tendencies can also exist on a spectrum, taking different forms in different people.
So, grab a cup of coffee, get cozy, and let's dive into the fascinating world of perfectionism, where we'll unpack different types of perfectionism and discover how it can impact our lives. With deeper understanding, we can identify when perfectionism is holding us back versus motivating us forward and learn how to harness its strengths while setting realistic goals and expectations.
Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism
First, let’s talk about adaptive vs. maladaptive perfectionism, because it isn’t all bad. While perfectionism can come with challenges, it also tends to be associated with positive characteristics, like a strong work ethic, conscientiousness, and organization.
Adaptive perfectionism is often considered the “healthy” type of perfectionism. Adaptive perfectionists have high personal standards and want to do their best, but they are also flexible. They can recognize when something is “good enough” and don’t get hung up on minor mistakes.
For example, an adaptive perfectionist might spend extra time editing a work presentation to polish it as much as possible. But they won’t obsess over tiny font or color issues for hours on end. If they have to submit the presentation by a deadline, they can do so feeling satisfied with their efforts, even if it’s not 100% perfect in their eyes.
Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, is the unhealthy extreme. Like adaptive perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists also have high standards. But a major difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism is that maladaptive perfectionists struggle to ever feel satisfied.
For instance, a maladaptive perfectionist writing a research paper will feel compelled to double check every single citation over and over. They will constantly rewrite paragraphs, never feeling the paper is good enough to submit. They always think it could be better, preventing them from finishing tasks in a timely manner.
While adaptive perfectionists take pride in their accomplishments, maladaptive perfectionists tend to dismiss or discount their achievements. This in turn places maladaptive perfectionists at a higher risk for adverse mental health outcomes. Their tendency to constantly feel like a failure can lead to crippling anxiety and depression. For example, a student with maladaptive perfectionism may experience panic attacks when they get a B on an exam or paper, even though objectively they are performing very well. Maladaptive perfectionism is also linked to eating disorders, as some perfectionists try to rigidly control their food intake and weight. Perfectionists struggling with anorexia nervosa, for instance, may have a maladaptively low ideal weight that they can never reach, resulting in dangerous restriction. Maladaptive perfectionists also have elevated rates of obsessive compulsive disorder. Their need for control and order combined with rigid high standards makes them vulnerable. Sadly, maladaptive perfectionism is even associated with increased suicide risk in some individuals.
Overt vs. Covert Perfectionism
Now that we have an understanding of adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism, let’s take a look at overt (openly displayed) vs. covert (hidden) perfectionism.
Overt perfectionists outwardly express their high standards and dissatisfaction with anything less than perfect. For example, an overt perfectionist at work might frequently sigh and mutter “this just isn’t good enough” when going over reports from their team.
Covert perfectionists, on the other hand, keep their perfectionism bottled up inside. They may think perfectionistic thoughts privately, but try not to express them openly. A covert perfectionist will seem calm and collected on the outside, but inwardly feel intense self-criticism if a baking recipe doesn’t turn out perfectly.
Overt and covert perfectionism exist along a continuum and its impact varies by severity. Mild adaptive perfectionists who are able to be satisfied with “good enough” tend to experience minimal negative effects, and more overt expression can sometimes even motivate positive achievement. However, as perfectionistic tendencies become more severe and inflexible, the effects become more crippling - especially if expressed covertly rather than openly. Severe covert perfectionists experience intense self-criticism and anxiety within, while hiding it on the outside. This can lead to especially high rates of anxiety and depression. Overt perfectionists may annoy others with their high standards, but covert perfectionists torture themselves silently. In general, more severe perfectionism that is inflexible and covert in nature predicts worse mental health effects, especially when paired with maladaptive or socially prescribed drivers, which we’ll discuss more in the next section.
Self-Oriented vs. Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Perfectionism can also be categorized as self-oriented or socially prescribed. This has to do with the origin of perfectionistic pressures.
Self-oriented perfectionists place excessive pressure on themselves. For instance, a dancer who demands flawless performances from themselves in rehearsals, no matter how tired or unwell they feel. Their perfectionism comes from within – they demand perfection from themselves, constantly monitoring their own performance.
Socially prescribed perfectionists, on the other hand, feel perfectionistic pressure from outside sources. For example, a figure skater with parents who pushed them hard during childhood, leading them to believe nothing they did was ever good enough. Socially prescribed perfectionists often experience shame and embarrassment when they don't live up to external pressures.
Interestingly, research shows self-oriented perfectionism is often associated with more positive outcomes than socially prescribed perfectionism. Though taking it to an unhealthy extreme is still detrimental, self-oriented perfectionism grounded in reasonable personal standards is linked to conscientiousness, self-control, and achievement. Socially prescribed perfectionism, on the other hand, correlates more strongly with negative mental health effects like anxiety, depression, and a sense of helplessness. It appears that when perfectionistic pressure comes from within, it may sometimes drive positive results. But when perfectionistic expectations are imposed externally, it takes a higher toll on emotional health. This speaks to the importance of fostering self-driven motivation over perceived external judgment.
There’s also a phenomenon known as other-oriented perfectionism. This refers to perfectionists who transfer their impossibly high standards onto other people.
A manager with other-oriented perfectionism will severely chastise employees for even the smallest mistake. They won't acknowledge hard work unless it meets their excessive standards. Their perfectionism is directed outwards rather than inwards.
Other-oriented perfectionism has its own distinct outcomes. Research shows that other-oriented perfectionism correlates with interpersonal hostility, criticism, and dominance over others. Other-oriented perfectionism doesn’t necessarily cause the same rates of internal distress and anxiety as self-oriented or socially prescribed perfectionism since the perfectionistic pressure is directed outwards at others, rather than inwards at the self. But other-oriented perfectionism can deeply impact those around them through excessive disapproval and poor treatment, leading to strained relationships.
Domain-Specific vs. Global Perfectionism
Last but not least, let’s talk about domain specific vs. global perfectionism.
Domain-specific perfectionism refers to perfectionistic tendencies that only occur in certain areas of achievement. For instance, a young man could be excessively perfectionistic about his performance on the basketball court, but care little about the quality of his school assignments. Someone else might obsess over the cleanliness and organization of their home but have reasonable standards for their work tasks. Or someone may be excessively perfectionistic about their job performance but be more balanced in other areas of their life.
This type of perfectionism can still lead to stress and anxiety within a domain, but the effects are somewhat contained, and it tends to be less detrimental than someone with more generalized perfectionism. Domain-specific perfectionism can still become problematic if it occurs in a core area of someone's identity or self-worth. For instance, a perfectionist ballet dancer may experience significant distress and lack of fulfillment if perfectionism permeates their art. But on the whole, domain-specific perfectionism focused on less central areas typically does not cause the same level of dysfunction as perfectionism that pervades every aspect of someone’s life. Maintaining balance through other aspects of someone’s life/identity can help.
In contrast, global perfectionism refers to perfectionistic tendencies that are pervasive across all aspects of life, rather than limited to certain domains. A global perfectionist tends to apply unrealistically high standards and excessive self-criticism to everything they do. For example, someone with global perfectionism may obsess over mistakes and minor flaws in their work, home life, hobbies, relationships, and even their physical appearance or health. They feel driven to be perfect across all categories of achievement or evaluation. This all-or-nothing style of perfectionism tends to create more dysfunction and lower quality of life compared to domain-specific perfectionism. Global perfectionists have trouble compartmentalizing, so perfectionistic pressures end up coloring their entire life experience.
Tips for Working Through Perfectionism:
Practice self-compassion. Nobody is perfect. Be kind to yourself when you make mistakes and remind yourself of your accomplishments and achievements.
Try journaling or reflecting on your expectations. Ask yourself whether your expectations seem reasonable? Would you have the same expectations for others? Do others have similar expectations for themselves?
Practice mindfulness and staying in the present moment. Many perfectionists ruminate on past mistakes or future worries. Staying in the present moment can help you focus on what’s going on right now and reduce past and future oriented anxiety.
Get support. You don’t have to struggle with perfectionistic thoughts and feelings on your own. Talking to a trusted friend or family member can help you gain a different perspective.
Consider professional support. Reflecting, journaling, and talking to friends are all helpful, but sometimes we could use a little extra boost. Therapists are specialized in helping people process their thoughts and feelings and shift unhelpful thoughts or behaviors. Plus, many people like having someone to talk to who is impartial and removed from their personal life.
For additional tips on overcoming perfectionism, check out our other article: Embracing Imperfection & Overcoming Perfectionism.
It's clear that perfectionism is multidimensional. There are different types of perfectionism, and many shades of gray, not just black and white categorizations. Perfectionistic tendencies exist on a spectrum, and can take different forms in different people.
But in general, the more that perfectionism causes anxiety, procrastination, self-criticism, guilt, or relationship difficulties, rather than motivation, pride, and accomplishment, the more damaging it is. Adaptive perfectionism can be motivating, while extreme perfectionism, especially maladaptive or socially prescribed perfectionism, can lead to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, obsessive compulsive tendencies, and even suicide risk.
If you find yourself struggling with perfectionism, one of the most important things to remember are self-compassion and self-acceptance. Perfectionists are often the hardest on themselves. It’s important to remind yourself regularly that you’re only human, no one is perfect, and you’re doing the best you can. The path to health involves learning how to set reasonable standards and accepting “good enough”, rather than striving for the impossible goal of perfection. With empathy and mindfulness, we can silence our inner critic and create a more balanced relationship with achievement.