A Perfectionist’s tendency is to view only two possible outcomes: total success or abject failure.
And Perfectionism is a common self sabotaging behaviour of Imposter Syndrome, if you feel like you can never make a mistake because everyone will know ‘you’re a fraud’ or you just ‘fluked’ your way into your role.
Perfectionism can be a good thing when it’s an internal motivation to do your best.
Take school for example. In our formative school years, the level we need to achieve to say it was a “perfect” result is usually clear cut. Nailed it with that A+
But as we move into adult life, the measure of perfection isn’t always so clear:
What is the perfect sales result?
What do you call a perfect success?
Is my “best effort” good enough?
You see, it’s harder to say what’s perfect.
And at some point, perfectionism can move from healthy to unhealthy.
Let’s take a deep dive into Perfectionism:
What Perfectionism is.
The different types of Perfectionism that exist.
When Perfectionism can be a good thing, and when it’s not.
As a disclaimer: This topic is close to my soul because I’m a recovering Perfectionist.
I am recovering because my Perfectionst tendencies were sabotaging me.
Perfectionism used to cause me extreme stress. I was so fixated on every minute detail that I would often get stuck in self sabotaging procrastination cycles.
That is because my Perfectionism was linked to Imposter Syndrome. I was so fearful of making a mistake and so fearful of being ‘exposed as a fraud’ that I scrutinised everything: external and within myself.
I am happy (and relieved) to say those days are behind me.
So I wanted to unpack the pros and a lot of cons of Perfectionism. So you can recognise Perfectionist tendencies in yourself (or others) and understand which type of Perfectionism you’re/they’re dealing with:
- Perfectionism that is healthy and helps you strive to do your best
- Perfectionist tendencies that mean you’re never satisfied or happy
- Perfectionism as a common self sabotaging behaviour triggered by your Imposter Syndrome
Most importantly you’ll discover whether Perfectionism is serving or sabotaging you, and how to tackle Perfectionism if it’s holding you back.
First, let’s look at some of the psychology and science behind Perfectionism.
What are the 3 main types of Perfectionism?
Psychologists Dr Paul Hewitt and Dr Gordon Flett defined three main types of Perfectionism in the 1990s. (If you’re interested, you can read the full scientific paper here).
- Self-Oriented Perfectionism (high expectations on yourself)
- Other-Oriented Perfectionism (high expectations of others)
- Socially Prescribed Perfectionism (belief that others have high expectations of you)
Self-Oriented Perfectionism shows up as setting extremely high (and often unrealistic) expectations on oneself.
For some people, this can be motivating, to a point: it gives them a drive to be the best. But in other people, Self-Oriented Perfectionism can lead to self-sabotaging behaviours.
The question here becomes: is the goal achievable and measurable?
If the goal is to achieve 100% on a maths test, or a perfect 10.0 score in a gymnastics competition, there is an objective measure of success to aim for. Whether the person achieved the perfect score – or not – is possible to measure. In addition, more than one person can achieve a perfect score on the same test.
But if the goal is vague or subjective, a person with Self-Oriented Perfectionist tendencies can find themselves pursuing a goal they will never satisfy. This behaviour can be toxic.
Self-Oriented Perfectionism can show up as procrastination, indecisiveness, shame and low self esteem.
Other-Oriented Perfectionism places high importance on other people in their lives being perfect.
Such as unrealistic expectations for a subordinate’s performance at work, or unrealistic expectations on a partner’s behaviour in a relationship.
This can show up in two ways:
At a healthy level, Other-Oriented Perfectionism can drive people to be great leaders and motivators for their team. They have high expectations for their team, and with a supportive and inspiring attitude, their team can excel.
At an unhealthy level, it can show up as blame, lack of trust and hostility towards others. The kind of leader who is never satisfied, even when the team achieves the goal they were aiming for, and keeps moving the goalposts.
Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
In cases of Socially Prescribed Perfectionism, a person believes that significant people in their lives have high expectations of them, and these people are exerting pressure on them to be perfect.
They feel that no matter how hard they try, they will never meet the other person’s unrealistic expectations. This can be particularly hurtful when it’s a family member or loved one who has impossibly high expectations.
This can result in feelings of anger, anxiety and depression. They fear negative evaluation and avoid disapproval of others.
Other factors of Perfectionism
Some people experience thoughts and behaviours that overlap all three types of Perfectionism. People who are high on all forms of Perfectionism have been described as Neurotic Perfectionists. (Hamachek 1978)
People with narcissistic personality traits often strive for perfection, both for themselves and for other people in their lives.
Where do Perfectionist tendencies come from?
With coaching, or therapy it is possible to pinpoint the origin of your own Perfectionist tendencies.
In most cases, Perfectionism starts in early childhood and is then impacted (or compounded) by social and environmental factors as we grow.
When someone’s parent, guardian, relative or teacher is a Perfectionist or worse a narcissist who has high (and unreasonable) expectations of the child, the person can develop Perfectionist tendencies of their own. This is likely to show up as Socially Prescribed Perfectionism.
Every Perfectionist’s behaviour and origins are different. So it’s important to seek personal help if you think Perfectionism is causing you problems and you’d like to understand and address it in your own life.
Another key factor (despite it being 2021) is that large parts of society continue to encourage girls to be perfect, well mannered, obedient, ‘a good girl’ rather than be brave, boundary pushing risk takers, like they do young boys.
In an inspiring TED Talk “Brave, Not Perfect”, Reshma Saujani talks about how our society expects young girls to be perfect.
We encourage boys to leap, try difficult things, and fail.
But we teach girls that their value lies in looking, behaving and performing perfectly. So girls learn not to try unless they know they can complete a task perfectly.
Reshma’s TED Talk is wonderful, and I encourage you to watch it for the full story (12 minutes), or read her book, Brave, Not Perfect.
Reshma founded a not-for-profit called Girls Who Code, to teach girls how to be brave: take risks, try new things, and discover that it’s OK to fail. Because with failure, comes learning.
Most importantly, Reshma’s work attempts to undo the Perfectionist expectations our society inflicts on young girls.
But this said, can Perfectionism ever be a good thing?
Perfectionism, at its extreme, can be debilitating. But there are some situations where Perfectionism can be healthy and help you strive to be your best.
I want to help you know the difference, so you can recognise the benefits and warning signs in your own behaviour.
I have personally redirected my own sabotaging Perfectionism into more positive and productive behaviours. I still put a lot of pressure on myself and at times my ‘old’ Perfectionism tries to take over but I have developed the skills, awareness and experience to push past it and move to confident action.
Here are some situations when a healthy amount of Perfectionism can serve you.
Only if it is possible to get a perfect score
Think of a high school maths test. There’s an objective point at which you can say you’ve achieved perfection: 100% correct answers. Striving for a perfect 100% on your maths test is a noble aim that pushes you to study hard and do your best.
On the flip side, in a situation where there’s no objective measure of perfection, you are at risk of getting stuck in the negative side of Perfectionism. Aiming for “the perfect body” or feeling like you “must never make a mistake” can be unhealthy forms of Perfectionism.
Perfectionism supports your efforts rather than derailing you
In some situations, Perfectionism can drive you to try harder and do better than last time. This can be wonderful, because it might be the final push you need to go beyond what you thought was possible.
But if your pursuit of perfection leads to self-sabotaging behaviours like procrastination, indecisiveness, negative self-talk, extreme fear of failure then it’s no longer supporting you.
You feel good about yourself
When you aim for – and achieve – the perfect outcome you set as your goal, do you feel good about yourself? If you feel great and you can celebrate your epic achievement, you are enjoying a positive aspect of Perfectionism.
But if achieving your goal makes you feel awful or deflated, your Perfectionism isn’t healthy. If you tell yourself that you didn’t set a goal that was high enough, your Perfectionist traits are making you miserable instead of happy.
So how can you draw the line between healthy and unhealthy Perfectionism?
These are the questions I want you to ponder:
Do you recognise any of these traits in yourself or those close to you?
Do you believe your perfectionism is serving or sabotaging you?
Where do you believe your Perfectionism comes from?
And is your Perfectionism tied to Imposter Syndrome?
Becoming aware is a key first step. Because when we are aware we can analyse our behaviours and actions. And when we analyse our behaviours and actions we can make better decisions and/or seek the help we need from others.
Hewitt, P and Flett, G (1991) Perfectionism in the Self and Social Contexts: Conceptualization, Assessment, and Association With Psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 60, No. 3, 456–470