While the word “perfectionist” is thrown around a lot, it’s a relatable label that makes many of us feel anxious and inadequate. A study published in Psychological Bulletin found rates of people identifying as perfectionists increased between 1989 and 2016. And for women of color, being perfect can seem like the only option.
But did you know there are actually three types of perfectionists? To understand yourself and your perfectionism better, figure out which of the three types — self, other or social — you are, as well as how it affects you.
Here’s some insight from a therapist and each type of perfectionist.
Self-oriented perfectionism is about expecting the best from yourself.
“Some signs of self-oriented perfectionism are being too hard on yourself, feeling burned out or feeling like you or your accomplishments consistently fall short of your expectations,” said Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the head of learning at Thriveworks in Washington, D.C., who specializes in self-esteem issues, depression and anxiety.
It can feel especially frustrating because even your best doesn’t feel like enough. “This type of perfectionism can lead to high levels of productivity, but often, self-oriented perfectionists tell themselves stories about how their achievements are not good enough and feel overwhelmed or dissatisfied instead of celebrating their successes,” she continued.
Natasha Rose Mills, an actor, yoga teacher and mindfulness stress reduction teacher, identifies this way, saying it has its pros and cons. “I have attention to detail and I’m so focused on getting things right; on the downside, it has had implications on focusing too much attention to the failure. … Through my childhood leading into adulthood, I was very self-critical,” she said.
How to cope
Were you vigorously nodding your head while reading that? We’ve got you covered with some helpful tools.
First, when everything feels like too much, take a step back before your hard work backfires. “If you notice yourself getting overwhelmed, identify one area in your life where you can pull back or ask for help and support from others,” Simonian suggested. “Practicing good self-care and leading a balanced life that includes social and leisure activities will help as well.”
Then, practice self-compassion. “Try making statements that separate your behavior from who you are, like, ‘I don’t like that I missed my workout today, but I generally lead a healthy life, so missing a workout here and there is OK,’” Simonian said.
Other-oriented perfectionism is one you may not have heard of but experienced at work or school. It’s “when you believe that those around you should be a certain way, and you become upset when people don’t meet your expectations,” Simonian explained.
She added that it’s based on unrealistic assumptions and can lead to conflict. “If you assume or expect someone to always think, behave or do things precisely the way you prefer, you will likely create a judgmental environment where sustaining relationships become difficult to both parties involved due to frustration, dissatisfaction and emotional pain.”
Isabel Ludick, the marketing director of Excited Cats, said she has a subtle case of it. “I’d say I hold others to a certain high standard because I always try to provide a level of professionalism, trustworthiness, empathy, care, etc., toward others. I always expect to get back what I give, and that’s not always the case,” she shared. “It’s not destructive, per se, but I do get called out on it quite often and it does cause issues here and there, mostly in my personal life.”
How to cope
If you’re an other-oriented perfectionist and it’s impeding your relationships, try to be more understanding. “A great exercise in empathy and understanding is to seriously consider the answer to the question,” Simonian said.
She gave this example: If you feel annoyed about your partner never picking up their shoes by the door, some potential reasons are they’re tired after a long day of work, it’s easy to forget, or they’re just not as tidy as you — which is OK.
Then, practice thankfulness and mindfulness. “Make a gratitude list with all the things that are good about someone close to you that you tend to be too hard on,” she recommended. “Mindfulness helps increase relationship satisfaction by focusing on subtle joys instead of expecting too much from others all the time.”
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Do you obsess over what people think and fear rejection? You might be a socially prescribed perfectionist, or someone who believes others expect you to act or look a certain way.
“It’s normal to care what people think about you to an extent, but true perfectionism takes the opinions and approval of others to extremes,” Simonian said. “Signs of socially prescribed perfectionism are based on appearance, like wanting to appear in control, smart, attractive, etc., to others so badly that it affects your self-esteem and sense of self-worth.”
In other words, your self-image comes from what others think of you. “[They] generally believe, ‘I’m only good enough if I think other people perceive me as good enough,’” she added.
Nancy Landrum, a relationship coach and the author of “Your Inner Child: a Path to Healing and Freedom,” knows these signs too well. “Growing up in my home, it seemed like the only thing that was important was looking good to others,” she said. “The lesson I took to heart was to be nice, obey, perform well and look pretty.” When she felt less attractive, she believed she was losing herself.
How to cope
To avoid getting tangled up in those thoughts, strengthen your positive inner voice. Simonian encouraged making a list of your strengths, positive features and accomplishments to help you feel proud of yourself. If that’s too hard, she said, you can also list neutral aspects.
Realize your worries may not have any basis. “Do you have any proof that others are judging you or thinking that you aren’t good enough? More often than not, you will find that your perceptions are not based on fact,” she said.
You can note the stories you’re telling yourself versus what’s objectively true. Simonian gave this example: “‘My boss hasn’t told me that I’m not doing my job well. … As a matter of fact, my boss actually complimented my work last week.’”
Remember: You Aren’t Stuck As A Perfectionist Forever
Tips like these can help you struggle less over time. “A perfectionist of any type will likely want a ‘big win’ quickly if trying to recover from perfectionism, but baby steps are key. … [Recovery] is very much attainable with practice,” Simonian said.
She has her clients focus on one small, specific thing to work on improving by making measurable changes. All the while, she encourages them to enjoy the journey, saying, “Remember to enjoy ‘the hike up the mountain,’ not just the view from the top.”
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