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How do I know if I’m a perfectionist? Six kinds of perfectionism

AlethiaPerfectionist arranging pencils, by AntonioGuillem/iStock

“Put on your happy face,” “Second place is the first loser,” “I must not make any mistakes,” “This is all wrong.” Sound familiar? How about “I’ll never be good enough,” no matter how successful, beautiful, or wealthy? Are these sayings that motivate you or bring you down? If any of this hits close to home, more likely than not, you are a perfectionist. Perfectionists often hear an “inner critic,” a voice urging them toward unattainable ideals. In this article, we’ll cover two traits of perfectionists and types of perfectionism.

Am I a perfectionist?

You might be a perfectionist if:

  • Mistakes of any kind seem of great importance.
  • You feel a lack of pride in genuine accomplishments.
  • Satisfaction with your work always feels out of reach.
  • Flaws of any significance instill anger in you.
  • You can’t seem to escape the “inner critic.”
  • You split the world, even little, inconsequential things, into good and bad.
  • It feels like there is no such thing as inconsequential mistakes.
  • You can’t express anything but positive emotions.
  • After achieving something, you move straight to improvement or the next task.

The surest way to know is to ask others around you or consult with a therapist if it leads to relationship conflict, depression, anxiety, or anger.

Shades of being a perfectionist

“Now hold on,” you might say, “a perfectionist has to have everything straight or in order.” Some might call that obsessive-compulsive. At its worst, this manifests as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).

Even if you have thoughts like the ones we listed, you might protest that you’re not a real perfectionist. “You should see my room and my car. I have last month’s McDonald’s wrappers floating around every time the window is rolled down.” Being orderly is not the only type of perfectionism. Many shades of perfectionism can cause depression, anxiety, anger, and relationship problems.

Two main factors make up perfectionism. (We go more in-depth in “What is perfectionism?” if you’re interested, but these will suffice for now).

1.    Unrealistic expectations

Perfectionists seem to share this underlying idea: “Things need to be different than they are.” This concept often stems from unrealistically high expectations, one of the key ingredients to perfectionism. I believe these expectations are closely tied to the rules of our culture or ideas passed down to us from significant relationships. If you had parents who constantly belittled you or were perfectionists themselves, then you probably heard this message: “I’m not good enough until I’m perfect.” It can be draining if you’re in any relationship with a perfectionist because no matter how hard you try, your attempts are never good enough. Ironically, if you press perfectionists to define their expectations, they have difficulty saying what they want.

2.    Clinging to mistakes

The second ingredient of perfectionism is the inability to let little mistakes go. So many people I meet have an internal list of everything they and their loved ones have done “wrong.” In this case, “wrong” is a relative term, again, usually linked to our unrealistic expectations.

This fear of failure drives a perfectionist. On a scale of one to ten, the mistake might be a three to others, but to a perfectionist, it’s a ten. Learning from mistakes is important, but it’s impossible if everything you do is “never good enough.”

Six kinds of perfectionism

These two ingredients are combined and manifested in many ways.

  1. A moral perfectionist has a strict set of “rules” to live by and feels unforgivable if they fall short. An emotional perfectionist has always to be happy.
  2. A relationship perfectionist believes if you love someone, you will not fight or be disappointed by the other person.
  3. A physical perfectionist has to have the perfect body.
  4. The perceived perfectionist is always worried that others perceive them as having it all together.
  5. A performance perfectionist feels that to be worthwhile, they must succeed in everything they do.
  6. An obsessive-compulsive perfectionist (the most commonly thought of as a perfectionist) has to have everything in its right place. If you suspect you or someone you know has OCD or OCPD, you should seriously consider mental health therapy.

There are many other shades of perfectionism, and all forms create a sense of defeat because no matter how hard they try, they always run from failure. While some perfectionist feel justified in their ways, perfectionism is ultimately harmful and dangerous.

If you’re a perfectionist, you can heal.

If you are a perfectionist, there is hope! By redefining your life and outlook, you’re not doing less quality work or lowering your standards. You can alleviate the self-imposed stress by seeing how you learn from your mistakes and restraining yourself to a realistic understanding of what it means to be human. You can harness your personality to pursue excellence without perfectionism.

Accept that disappointment and mistakes are a part of the universal human condition! By focusing on the positive, letting go of the idea that your worth is determined by your accomplishments, cultivating a real sense of pleasure in your life, and challenging destructive thought patterns, you have some new ingredients to a healthy pursuit of excellence.