Is Being a Perfectionist an Asset?

Either you or someone you know has at one time or another called themself a perfectionist, someone who strives for flawlessness and for things in their life to meet high standards. Some people call themself a perfectionist as a way to explain their strengths in organization, discipline, and focus. On the other hand, some people use the term to describe someone who is particular, averse to mistakes, and sets unrealistic standards. This begs the question “is being a perfectionist an asset?” In this article, I will answer this question, explain the nuances surrounding perfectionism, and look at how to make perfectionism your superpower and not your kryptonite. 

Research on perfectionism shows that like other personality traits perfectionism shows up on a spectrum. This spectrum of perfectionism is mapped out in what is called the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), which identifies three types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism (Hewitt & Flett, 1991). In order to determine which dimension(s) a person could fall into, the MPS looks at specific areas of perfectionism such as concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, excessive concern with parental expectations and evaluation, excessively high personal standards, concern with precision, order and organization and more. Below is a deeper look into each type of perfectionism:

  1. Self-Oriented Perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionists push themselves to be perfect in many if not all areas of their life. In this type, perfectionism is both derived from the self and also direct toward the self. Self-oriented perfectionists tend to be very organized, motivated, assertive, and productive. On the flip side, this can lead to setting unrealistic standards for oneself, avoiding things that could lead to failure, compulsively striving for goals, decreased feelings of satisfaction, and engaging in self-criticism.
  2. Other-Oriented Perfectionist: Other-oriented perfectionists have many of the same behaviors as self-oriented perfectionists, but instead of directing this toward oneself it is directed at others. They generally have very high expectations for others and place a great deal of importance on if these expectations are met. This type of perfectionism can make it very hard to nurture healthy relationships. Other-oriented perfectionists can come across very critical, judgemental, domineering or harsh at times. 
  3. Socially-Prescribed Perfectionist: Socially-prescribed perfectionism stems from the perception that others place certain expectations of perfectionism on you. This type of perfectionist tends to believe that others expect them to be perfect. Many times, their self-worth depends on meeting others' expectations, making mistakes unacceptable, and increasing fears of rejection. 

Some people may fall under one type of perfectionism, while others fall under multiple types. Whatever type you fall under, you are probably wondering if being a perfectionist is a good thing. This brings us back to the question “Is being a perfectionist an asset?” Like most things in life, I think the answer depends on balance and how you choose to react to it. There are many positive qualities to perfectionism - organization, assertiveness, productivity, focus, resourcefulness and more. The key is to make sure you are setting realistic standards for yourself and that your perfectionism is not leading you to decreased life satisfaction. 

If you are a perfectionist and want to work on making your perfectionism more adaptive, there are specific steps you can take, such as:

  • Set realistic standards for yourself and others
  • Try to celebrate small wins or improvements. 
  • Watch out for dysfunctional beliefs or thought patterns occurring like “It is shameful to show weakness” or “That wasn’t good enough.”  
  • Try role-playing exercises to try to react to situations in different ways that allow for failure, acceptance, and resilience. 
  • Do not avoid actions out of fear of failure. Instead, try and give yourself permission to fail and celebrate yourself for trying.
  • Practice relaxation exercises. If you are looking for an easy place to start try these mindfulness cards with individualized techniques for managing stress and anxiety.
  • Seek out help: For perfectionists, long-term therapy is important in order to build trust between patient and therapist. Additionally, research has shown that cognitive behavioral therapy, such as restructuring exercises can be very effective.

Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & American Psychological Association. (2002). Perfectionism : theory, research, and treatment. American Psychological Association.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456.

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