Being organized and self-disciplined — once considered a desirable quality — has become somewhat of an insult, even a warning sign to employers.
But while it’s true that recent studies link maladaptive forms of perfectionism to higher rates of depression and anxiety, these studies show only the dark side of what happens when consciousness and control are taken to an extreme. There’s another side to the story. As it turns out, research suggests that there are different types of perfectionism, some of which can actually support success and can propel your career.
It’s important to dispel black-and-white misconceptions surrounding perfectionism before they squelch the ambition needed for strong, visionary leadership. Already I’m hearing more frequently from accomplished leaders (particularly women who face double-bind dilemmas) that they are increasingly afraid to hold themselves and others to high standards because they fear being labeled a rigid Type-A perfectionist who is difficult to work with.
Over-relying on any personality trait can go too far. Perfectionism is no different. Finding a happy middle ground is the best way to leverage the upsides of having high standards, while mitigating the negative effects it can have on your mental health, well-being, and relationships.
Putting your striving to positive use first requires understanding where you fall on the perfectionism spectrum, then applying it as a strength in healthier, more flexible ways.
Canadian clinical psychologists Dr. Paul Hewitt and Dr. Gordon Flett have been studying the shades of gray within perfectionism for over two decades. Their research reveals that, as with most traits, there’s a spectrum.
Here are the three types of perfectionism explained by their Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale:
Socially prescribed perfectionists are very self-critical. They feel immense pressure to be the best and worry others will reject them. Perceived external standards (which can come from family, workplace culture, society, etc.) can lead to anxiety and low confidence.
Perfectionists who are other-oriented — as in, they hold others to high standards and can be critical and judgmental — can leave destruction in their wake. It’s hard to build working relationships under these conditions, which is one reason this variety is so detrimental.
Self-oriented perfectionists are organized and conscientious. They set high standards for themselves in their lives and careers, but are able to go after their goals. High self-oriented perfectionism is generally associated with the most “adaptive” traits correlated with greater productivity and success, including resourcefulness and assertiveness. They show higher rates of positive emotion and motivation.
Many people who are perfectionists are fully aware of their tendencies, which is an important first step in evaluating where they fall on the spectrum. Some people may find that they are strictly one subtype, while others may discover that they have a little bit of each type in them.
Regardless of subtype, most perfectionists have a moment when they realize that expecting the world from themselves (or others) is no longer working for them. Maybe they are feeling so burned out at work that they leave the office every day wanting to quit, or the idea of presenting a new idea during a meeting sends them spiraling into anxiety.
Enter a new approach: “healthy striving,” the emerging middle ground between high performance and damaging overachievement. In comparison to perfectionists, healthy strivers tend to:
Achieving healthy striving is a process, but it’s essential if you want to stay sane while pushing yourself to accomplish more. These steps can get you started in dismantling maladaptive perfectionism and over time help you embrace a more balanced, sustainable version of success:
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