Many of my patients are highly educated, leaders in their industries, and among the best and the brightest. They're also perfectionists, and for some of them, this is what helps them to succeed. High standards are what lend themselves to yielding optimal results. However, this comes at a cost as the best can often be the enemy of the good. You see, pushing for perfect can be exhausting and lead to feelings of high anxiety, depression, negativity, anger, and often wreaks havoc on relationships, both at work and at home.
You might wonder how someone becomes a perfectionist. Well, for some it starts at a young age. For example, early on, a perfectionist may receive mixed messages from parents: "Good job, Johnny... but you can do better," or "Getting a B is good, but an A is better." This simultaneous criticism and praise sends a mixed message to the child, creating a drive to satisfy the parent: to do better, even when things by most standards are fine. Fear underlies the thinking of the perfectionist as he or she wonders, "Am I good enough?" "Will my project succeed?" "What if I don't get it right?" And so on. Fast forward 25 years, and you have your stressed-out, run-of-the-mill high functioning perfectionist. His or her perfectionism is often driven further by social pressure to succeed.
There are different types of perfectionists that I see in my practice and at large. Although the outcome is similar, each stems from a different type of thinking. Which one do you see in yourself? Try to understand why you might be thinking the way you are. Ultimately you must embrace the concept that there's no such thing as perfect and things can be just good or even just okay rather than being on a perpetual search for achieving drastically high standards, to fulfill either your own or other peoples' expectations.
Here are the three types:
1. Self-oriented perfectionist.
This person adheres to strict standards and aims for perfect to avoid what they perceive as failure. They can be self-critical and this pushes them to continuously find ways to do better. This self-criticism might be offset by humor that enhances their relationships. Obsessiveness is often associated with this person and in an effort to be perfect they may procrastinate while looking for better ways to do things and avoid failure. This is the stereotypical perfectionist and one that likely leads someone to succeed and often associated with the person described in the opening paragraph who might be a leader in their industry and at the top of their game.
2. Socially-prescribed perfectionist.
This type of perfectionist believes that others hold them to a very high standard. This belief is usually unfounded. The external pressure they feel to be perfect stems only from how they perceive themselves and others. They may suffer from low self esteem and their humor can be self-deprecating. They are unlikely to ask for help because it will be seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence.
3. Other-oriented perfectionist.
This type of person has exceedingly high expectations of others. These unrealistic expectations and the stringent evaluation of people may manifest as aggressiveness and coldness, and they may be difficult to work with or for. Their humor might come at the expense of others and be highly critical. Steve Jobs is often depicted as this type of perfectionist in biopic movies that have come out since his death.
So ask yourself, is your perfectionism helping or hurting you and the people around you? Does it improve the quality of your life, or not? If it causes anxiety or depression or interferes with your relationships, work, and ability to enjoy yourself and experience pleasure, then it is worth changing. Separate aspects of perfectionism that might be helpful from those that are not. Just change the unhelpful parts. Ask for feedback to ensure you get honest fact-based information that you can then use to properly evaluate yourself or others. Above all, be okay with imperfection and make friends with it.