Personal Growth

The 3 Types of Perfectionism Are Ruining Your Life

Ah, perfectionism — the most socially acceptable recipe for a total mental breakdown there is. Do you ever feel like everybody is judging you at every moment, just waiting for you to make a mistake? And be honest: Do you ever catch yourself doing the same to them? Worst of all, do you do it to yourself on other peoples' behalf? It's not just you. According to a new study, a lot of us are feeling the strain of perfectionism these days, and it comes in three distinct, anxiety-inducing flavors.

Three Types of Prefectionism (sp?)

The idea that there are three kinds of perfectionism isn't a new one. The concept was first described by Paul Hewitt of Brockville Psychiatric Hospital and Gordon Flett of York University in 1991. In the same paper, they also devised the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, which describes exactly how your neuroses manifest to keep you striving for a standard that's impossible to reach. Other scales have been created since then, as have remixes of the original Hewitt-Flett scale, but the basic test has remained in circulation for nearly 30 years. You can experience any of the three types in varying degrees, but they all come down to the perceived source of your perfectionism. So, do any of these ring a bell?

Self-Oriented Perfectionism

This is probably the closest to the layperson's standard definition of "perfectionism." In short, it's the perfectionism that you require of yourself. If you struggle with this thought pattern, then you're likely to hold yourself to a standard far beyond what you can reasonably achieve. You probably pore over every detail of every action you've ever taken, eager to see where you made a mistake. You probably shoulder a lot of blame when things go wrong, even things that you have no control over. While some might question if this type of perfectionism is really so bad, Hewitt and Flett themselves had no doubts: "... self-oriented perfectionism has been associated with various indices of maladjustment," they write. These include anxiety, anorexia nervosa, and subclinical depression. They also note that the discrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self can give one a depressive affect.

Other-Oriented Perfectionism

Self-oriented perfectionism is when you're your own worst critic. Other-oriented perfectionism is when you're everybody else's worst critic too (or maybe you think you're just fine and it's everyone else that needs to shape up). If this describes you, then you have unrealistic standards for other people — family, friends, significant others, and coworkers. Hewitt and Flett point out that a person with this perfectionism type might struggle with trust, blame, and underlying hostility. However, they also point out that a person like this might just be well-suited to leadership, but they should be careful to keep their judgmental tendencies in check at home.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism

Socially prescribed perfectionism might just be the most insidious type of all. You could think of it as a cursed hybrid of the self- and other-oriented varieties. Basically, it's driven by the perception (whether true or not) that others are judging you by an unrealistic standard. It leads to the belief that you are constantly letting everybody else down, that you are incapable of meeting what society requires of you, and, like other-oriented perfectionism, can lead to a breakdown in your relationships. Your sense of self-worth is determined by your perception of how others perceive you, and you're disposed to think that others perceive you very poorly.

Perfectionism on the Rise

Thanks to Hewitt and Flett's scale, and the fact that researchers have been giving students psychological tests since time immemorial, a new report by Thomas Curren of the University of Bath and Andrew Hill of York St. John University was able to look at the last 30 years of perfectionism in the minds of young people. They looked at examples of more than 41,000 American, British, and Canadian students, each of whom took the test between the years 1989 and 2016. What they found was that while socially prescribed perfectionism increased the most and self-oriented perfectionism the least, all three types showed a clear upward trend in recent years. And that could be bad news for the kinds of ideals that our society engenders.

The researchers tie this increase of psyche-harming perfectionism to the rise of another sort of ethos — the capital-driven philosophy of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism (a mainstay of center- and right-leaning political philosophy) suggests that competition between individuals and strict anti-collectivism lead to a better world. If each of us is trying our level best to out-perform everybody else, the idea goes, then together we all will become better. To many, it's a comforting thought. Everybody who is successful in this system is perceived to be so because of their intrinsic merits, perhaps because they worked harder and perhaps because their ideas are just better.

Unfortunately, say the researchers, it has a corollary downside felt by everybody who doesn't achieve wild success — this alleged meritocracy has found them to be without merit. The result is that each individual, no matter how great their success, is left "more individualistic, materialistic, and socially antagonistic." It's not a recipe for success. It's a recipe for a mental health crisis that also calls for everybody to cut out their social support groups. Is neoliberalism the cause of our rising perfectionism problem? It's impossible to say for sure — but it's worth considering that the social pressure you feel might be doing more to hurt you than to help.

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There's a way out of the spiral of perfectionism but you have to make a lot of mistakes to get there. Stephen Guise's "How to Be an Imperfectionist" (free with your trial membership to Audible) provides a handy, humorous guide to letting go of your impossible standards. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Reuben Westmaas September 12, 2018

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