“What’s your biggest weakness?” You’ve probably heard that it’s no longer considered a wise move to respond to this common interview question by saying, “Well, I’m a bit of a perfectionist”.
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.
The three types of perfectionism
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: 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.
Other-Oriented: 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: 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, motivation.
The shift toward healthy striving
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 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:
- Confront uncomfortable feelings like uncertainty and fear to move past procrastination and negative feedback.
- Enjoy the process of growth regardless of the outcome, instead of singularly focusing on results.
- Set realistic-yet-high career goals for themselves, but adjust when necessary.
- Admit they can’t “do it all” and delegate when necessary.
- Experience a stable sense of self-worth and more easily recover from minor setbacks and mistakes.
Finding the ‘perfect’ balance
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 balance, sustainable version of success:
Identify the hidden payoff in perfectionism. People generally don’t keep repeating a behavior unless they getting some positive benefit from it (i.e. avoiding new responsibilities, getting attention, shielding yourself from failure).
Get radically honest about the costs. Is the payoff of maintaining unrealistic standards worth what you’re sacrificing? While it’s impossible to put a price tag on protecting your mental health and well-being, you can easily quantify what perfectionism costs you in terms of lost time, productivity, and new opportunities.
Let go of the all-or-nothing mindset. You’re not a failure because a project gets shelved or because you get negative feedback. Catch yourself when you veer into worst case scenario thinking. If you find yourself obsessing over a setback or mistake, gain perspective. Try talking to a mentor or supportive figure who can help you brainstorm alternative ways of viewing the situation.
Break down your big goals into smaller, more realistic steps. Creating multiple milestones and check-points give you the opportunity to assess and pivot as you go.
Celebrate your successes. Take time to celebrate your victories and savor them before moving on to the next big goal.
Healthy striving is about learning to appreciate both yourself and those around you more. Ask for help. Delegate and empower those around you to take responsibility instead of thinking that success solely rests on your shoulders.
While perfectionism can be a hindrance, healthy striving can transform your habits for the better. With time, you might be happy to ditch that perfectionist badge of honor for one that ultimately serves you better.
Melody Wilding is a high-performance coach, writer, and speaker.