There are different ways to be a perfectionist, and their psychological effects differ greatly.
Human beings have always been a very competitive animal, but the circumstances in which we live seem to be accentuating this trait. The increasing demands that are imposed on us in areas such as academics or work give a good account of this, fostering an insatiable and exhausting desire to improve.
Society encourages the achievement of success and excessive ambition, and even a multitude of parents and teachers directly transmit this message to children practically since they arrive in this world, so they develop rocked by the will to “excel” in the facets which they judge as more relevant.
This is the “seed” of perfectionism, which is planted in the fertile soil of an environment that promotes it, and which is fed by messages that we receive over time. At the end, a timid plant springs up that orients its branches to the fleeting light of acceptance (own or others), but it does not take long to grow and become a vine that is very costly to get rid of.
The aim of this article is to delve into the types of perfectionism that have been classified, and the way they are expressed. At the end, there will also be a brief review of the basic characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism. This seeks to understand a problem that affects more people every day.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is an attribute that is usually understood in two very different ways: either as a virtue that leads to excellence, or as a defect that drags us to frustration and failure. It is expressed as the determination of high personal standards that can become difficult to achieve; or as the tendency to evaluate oneself or others in an enormously critical and negative way. All this ends up translating into hypervigilance against any possible error, which reduces the spontaneity of our actions.
Despite the fact that perfectionism is not considered by itself a pathological trait, its contribution as a factor of vulnerability to multiple psychopathologies has been proven; Among those that stand out are those of mood, anxiety and food. And it is that unbridled perfectionism can imply an extraordinary rigidity, which conditions life and emotions to the extreme of “damaging” those who make it theirs. From the total inability to recognize fallibility (own and / or someone else’s), to well-being subject to self-control or hypervigilance; all are very frequent examples of the harmful tendencies of clinical perfectionism.
On the other hand, there are also authors who do not conceive perfectionism as a problem or inconvenience, at least when it is adjusted to a series of parameters. Thus, adaptive and maladaptive forms have been described, depending on the specific way in which goals and concerns interact. When both are high, an exaggerated imposition arises that torpedoes the life project, but if ambitious objectives are reconciled with a healthy way of approaching them, a constructive balance is reached. In this case we would speak of the adaptive mode.
Research on the latter issue confirms that adaptive perfectionism is associated with an intense sense of fullness with respect to existence, and that it also stands as a protective factor against very diverse emotional problems. Pathological perfectionism, for which high goals and concerns converge (both), is related to the opposite: life dissatisfaction and increased risk for psychological suffering.
In addition to this distinction between adaptive and maladaptive, perfectionism has also been classified into three subtypes based on the way it manifests itself. Let’s get to know them a little better.
Types of perfectionism
Three different forms of perfectionism have been described, depending on who it is that receives its influence (oneself or others) and the origin of the self-imposed demands. They are not mutually exclusive, and the same person is likely to present several at the same time. Hereinafter, its characteristics and effects will be explored.
Self-oriented perfectionism is the one that most closely resembles the idea that is usually had about what this trait is. It implies the strict imposition of objectives and methods to which it is necessary to adhere to carry out the tasks in which responsibility is assumed, and from which the image that is had about who we are rises. That is why, in this case, the self-evaluation criterion is located at an unaffordable point; although it only applies to the subject that presents the attribute, and not to the others.
When this trait is related to low worry, and therefore adaptive, it usually leads to extraordinary performance. But if it goes through difficult emotional reactions, it can condemn those who “suffer” to constant states of despair, and little personal self-realization, regardless of the achievements.
2. Oriented towards others
In this case, perfectionism implies rules that do not apply to the designer, but are projected only to their social environment. Those who present this subtype impose on others how they should act, demanding levels of performance that become overwhelming and generators of overwhelming stress. In this case, a position of privilege that evolves into tyranny and is not governed by democratic principles is usually assumed, with or without motive. It is common in cluster B personality disorders, such as narcissistic or antisocial.
In its adaptive version (which lacks any anxious component), the nuance of emotional empathy is added to relationships with others, resulting in good leadership skills. However, a certain horizontality in communication would be required, despite maintaining a clear hierarchical structure.
3. Socially prescribed
Socially prescribed perfectionism is a subtype that is closely linked to interpersonal anxiety. In these cases, whoever lives with him assumes high standards without arising from his own initiative, but rather from the belief that it is what others expect of him. It involves two different processes: a misperception of the expectations of others and an attitude of obedience to them. This perfectionism is related to a low assertiveness, as well as a severe panic to abandonment or rejection.
Of all the subtypes described here, it is the one that most frequently precipitates problems in the area of mental health, especially anxiety disorders. It is also usually the social substratum of personality disorders included in cluster C, especially the dependent one.
How is maladaptive perfectionism expressed?
Next we will review the basic characteristics of maladaptive perfectionism, or what is the same, the way it is expressed and suffered. It is in this case that the trait is spoken of as a problem that requires clinical attention, given that its consequences can be dramatic for affective health and quality of life.
1. High standards
Extremely perfectionist people set very high and sometimes difficult goals for themselves in the short term, often making them a common source of frustration and pain. They extend to almost all areas of daily functioning, although they are especially common in work and academics.
In the end, they are “ideal models” of behavior / thinking that subtract naturalness and add a forced component to day-to-day activities. The way in which the person perceives herself and her practical skills (self-esteem / self-efficacy) would be associated with such subjective norms, harming herself as a direct consequence of her dissatisfaction.
2. Worry about making mistakes
Extremely perfectionists tend to keep a constant eye on the possibility of making a mistake, which prevents them from fully enjoying what they spend time on. Although a certain degree of caution is common for the result of an action to be optimal, its excess leads to a recurrent check that does not produce an objective improvement in the final product, but the sacrifice of many cognitive resources and an unfathomable feeling that something is “not quite right”. At the end of the process, the emphasis on the negative outweighs the appreciation for the positive.
3. High expectations
Perfectionists expect the results of their actions to be equivalent to the investment they make, neglecting in the process all the confounding variables that can contribute to these. Because the world is not always fair in the way it dispenses rewards / punishments, it is not surprising that unfavorable consequences are interpreted as an unacceptable failure that undermines the self-image. And it is because there tends to be an iron, internal, stable and general attribution of the negative things that happen; This is why it is often difficult for them to work in a group (since it is a context where they do not control everything).
4. Parenting styles
The overly perfectionist person’s life history review often leads to a pattern of family interaction characterized by rigidity and achievement-restricted reinforcement. These are styles marked by rectitude and extreme demands; in which positive behaviors are usually ignored, as they are judged as “normal”. Deviation from an exemplary standard imposed by parents, sometimes without detailing any why, brings with it penalties of all kinds. As time passes, these norms would become their own and would condition the way in which the person treats himself.
5. Hardness in self-judgment
All of us embrace a discourse within ourselves regarding the way events happen. For example, in a difficult situation we can try to fuel our forces of improvement by saying things such as “sure everything will work out” or “it is not as bad as it seems”.
However, those who are excessively perfectionists are always faced with a titanic task, which requires the massive investment of all their energies. That is why when the expected purpose is not achieved, his speech becomes extremely harmful to the inner life (dissonance between effort and result). When it is achieved, however, only mental silence or temporary relief is observed.
6. Excess of organization
Maladaptive perfectionism translates into a negative perception of the problems that occur in daily life, which are valued as a threat to the image that one wishes for oneself. This poses a risk of a discrepancy between the ideal self and the real self, which would be interpreted in an absolutely catastrophic way. In order to avoid such a circumstance, a thorough prior preparation is usually chosen; that is, due to an excess of organization and planning. That is why activities that others develop without difficulty can be done “uphill” for those who live with this trait.
- Besser, A., Flett, G. and Hewitt, P. (2004). Perfectionism, Cognition, and Affect in Response to Performance Failure vs. Success. Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 22, 297-324.
- Slaney, R., Pincus, A., Uliaszek, A. and Wang, K. (2006). Conceptions of Perfectionism and interpersonal problems: Evaluating groups using the structural summary method for circumplex data. Assessment, 13 (2), 138-53.