Many of my clients are highly educated, accomplished, and high achievers.  But they’re also perfectionists. For some of them, this is what helps them to succeed: high standards lead to optimal results. However, this comes at a cost as the best can often be the enemy of the good. You see, pushing for perfection can be exhausting and lead to other problems such as anxiety, depression, stress, anger, and relationship issues.

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?”  Fast forward 25 years, and you have your stressed-out, run-of-the-mill, high functioning perfectionist. 

There are three types of perfectionists that I see in my practice.  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. 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.

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. 

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 and try to 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, make friends with imperfection!

Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days by Jonathan Alpert.

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  • Jonathan Alpert

    Psychotherapist, executive performance coach, and author of Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days. Twitter: @JonathanAlpert

    Jonathan Alpert is a psychotherapist, columnist, performance coach and author in Manhattan. As a psychotherapist, he has helped countless couples and individuals overcome a wide range of challenges and go on to achieve success. He discussed his results-oriented approach in his 2012 New York Times Opinion piece, “In Therapy Forever? Enough Already”, which continues to be debated and garner international attention. Alpert is frequently interviewed by major TV, print and digital media outlets and has appeared on the Today Show, CNN, FOX, and Good Morning America discussing current events, mental health, hard news stories, celebrities/politicians, as well as lifestyle and hot-button issues. He appears in the 2010 Oscar-winning documentary, Inside Job commenting on the financial crisis. With his unique insight into how people think and their motivations, Alpert helps clients develop and strengthen their brands. He has been a spokesperson for NutriBullet, Liberty Mutual insurance, and Enterprise Rent-A-Car. Jonathan’s 2012 book BE FEARLESS: Change Your Life in 28 Days has been translated into six languages worldwide. Alpert continues to provide advice to the masses through his, Huffington Post, and Thrive columns. @JonathanAlpert