The term ‘perfectionist‘ is increasingly thrown around as a sort of humble-brag; an uncreative way of telling the people around you that you set extremely high standards for yourself, and do not stop until you achieve them.
In fact, “perfectionism” has become the joke response to the standard interview question, “What’s your greatest weakness?” – because if your worst quality is flawlessness, then surely an employer will hire you on the spot.
But that school of thought, that the perfectionist is hard-working, ambitious and ultimately successful, goes against decades of research in the field of psychology.
Recent developments in the field tell us there are three different types of perfectionism that are as follows:
The self-oriented perfectionist.
Holds oneself to (impossibly) high standards, yet maintains unwavering motivation to achieve perfection. A key incentive is the avoidance of failure. The self-oriented perfectionist engages in comprehensive self-evaluation. They have thoughts, according to research by psychologists P. Hewitt and G. Flett, such as:
“I strive to be as perfect as I can be.”
“I makes me uneasy to see an error in my life.”
“I must work to my full potential at all times.”
“I set very high standards for myself.”
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The socially-prescribed perfectionist.
Believes strongly that others are holding them to unattainable expectations, and experience extrinsic pressure to be perfect. They believe that those around them are constantly evaluating them critically, and they desperately want to impress them. They have thoughts, according to Psychology Today, such as:
“I find it difficult to meet others’ expectations of me.”
“The people around me expect me to succeed at everything I do.”
“I feel that people are too demanding of me.”
“My family expects me to be perfect.”
The other-oriented perfectionist.
Holds other people to impossibly high standards, and are excessively critical and judgements of others’ behaviour and performance. They do not believe that anyone can accomplish a task as well as they can, and will avoid things such as delegation. Their thoughts, according to Psychology Today, include:
“I can’t be bothered with people who won’t strive to better themselves.”
“I cannot stand to see people close to me make mistakes.”
“If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly.”
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A study published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment in 2015 found that one type of perfectionist is far more dangerous than the other two, particularly because they exhibit the ‘Dark Triad’ characteristics that are understood to make someone ‘bad’ or ‘cruel’.
Simply, the other-oriented perfectionists are the ones to look out for.
They are said to belong in their own category, given they hold a sense of superiority over others, and have an aggressive sense of humour, often making fun of others. They possess the ‘Dark Triad’, which are narcissism (being self-centred) Machiavellianism (using manipulation and deceit for ones own advantage) and psychopathy (impaired empathy and remorse, which can lead to criminal acts).
Beware, it would seem, the perfectionist who imprints their perfectionism upon you, and frequently disparages others for falling short of their own standards.
In terms of the most functional, the self-oriented perfectionist actually possesses some highly useful traits, which – in moderation – can help them to succeed.
As easy as it might be to valorise the status of ‘perfectionist’ it’s important to recognise the complexity of the characteristic, often paralysing individuals and impeding them from getting day-to-day tasks completed.
It is conscientiousness, rather than perfectionism, that is a major predictor of success.