We talk a lot about self-improvement and growth, but when your desire to better yourself turns into perfectionism, the added stress could take a toll on your well-being. In fact, research suggests there are generally three types of perfectionists:
Self-oriented: expecting ourselves to be perfect
Socially-prescribed: assuming others expect us to be perfect
Other-oriented: expecting others to be perfect
Each type of perfectionist has their own set of pressures and obstacles to overcome, Thomas Curran, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science whose research focuses on perfection, tells Thrive. The stressors are manageable, he says, and Simon Sherry, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Dalhousie University, agrees: “Perfectionism is part of your personality, but there are ways to change it,” he tells Thrive. As with any type of behavior change, the first step towards overcoming a perfectionist tendency is to address it.
Here’s more on how to identify which type of perfectionist you are, and how you can cope accordingly:
If you’re self-oriented:
People who struggle with self-oriented perfectionism inflict high expectations onto themselves, Sherry finds, and those expectations can come with an overwhelming obsession with achievement. “There’s an underlying fear of failure that takes over,” Curran adds. “Self-oriented perfectionists see setbacks as personal failures, and when we take them too personally, we see it as a weakness within ourselves.”
If this sounds like you, turn the table on your inner dialogue.
The key to coping with self-oriented perfectionism stems from self-compassion. “Talk to yourself with the same empathy you’d use with others,” Curran suggests. “If your inner critic tells you something is wrong with you, turn the conversation toward someone else.”
If you’re socially-prescribed:
Socially-prescribed perfectionists think that others expect perfection from them. With the rise of social media, young people are especially prone to this type of perfectionism, Curran says.
If this sounds like you, let go of the metrics.
Because socially-prescribed perfectionists feel that they need to keep up a certain image of themselves (and often, an online presence), Curran notes that overcoming the fear starts with pushing back on cultural norms. “It’s about changing our frame of reference to take the focus away from how people see us on a screen,” he adds. “You’ll slowly realize that not everyone is expecting so much of you.”
If you’re other-oriented:
It’s only natural to experience disappointment when colleagues or loved ones don’t meet our expectations, but if you’re an other-oriented perfectionist, that disappointment is amplified. “People who lean toward other-oriented perfectionism tend to have tumultuous and negative social relationships because they expect so much from other people,” Sherry explains. “They struggle to understand how their standards affect those around them.”
If this sounds like you, work on awareness, and reach out when needed.
When it comes to alleviating the pressure you’re putting on others, awareness is an important foundation. People with other-oriented perfectionism struggle to understand how their personalities affect other people, so it’s important to take a step back and ask yourself if you’re demanding too much of the people around you, Sherry adds. If you find yourself constantly let down by others, try asking yourself how they may be feeling, or consider how you’re coming off to them. And if you have trouble taking a step back, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. “Help-seeking can be difficult for perfectionists because it goes against the expectations they set for themselves,” he adds. “But when you’re experiencing isolation and disconnection, it’s helpful to seek help if you need it.”
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