The Pressure to Be Perfect (Part 3): The Three Types of Perfectionism

This post is the third in my ongoing series related to perfectionism in women, The Pressure to Feel Perfect. So far I have focused on the insidious cultural messaging that feeds women’s tendency towards perfectionism. In this post, I do a deeper dive into understanding the different types of perfectionism that tend to plague us.

In the last several decades, levels of perfectionism have substantially increased. Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, in their 2019 study, explored this increase in perfectionism in birth cohorts that spanned the years 1989 to 2016. In the course of studying this explosion in perfectionistic tendencies, Curran and Hill discovered that it was not just the degree of perfectionism that had increased but that there were several breeds of perfectionism that appeared to be taking on a life of their own.

Curran and Hill defined three different types of perfectionism that tended to plague individuals: self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism. The first type, which Curran and Hill coined self-oriented perfectionism” was described as attaching irrational importance to being perfect, having unrealistic expectations of oneself, and harshly criticizing oneself. The second type of perfectionism, the authors observed, was deemed “socially-prescribed perfectionism.” Socially-prescribed perfectionism refers to individuals feeling like their social environment is placing excessive demands upon them and judging them harshly. In response to socially-prescribed perfectionism, these individuals often feel that they must be perfect to get approval from others. The third, and last, type of perfectionism that Curran and Hill identified was “other-oriented perfectionism.” According to Curran and Hill, “other-oriented perfectionism” happens when individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate them critically.

For now I will be focusing on the first two types of perfectionism defined by Curran and Hill: 1) self-oriented perfectionism and 2) socially prescribed perfectionism. In fact, these two types of perfectionism seem invariably intertwined in many ways. Adopting a world view informed by socially prescribed perfectionism (where a person feels the world expects too much of them) seems like it could easily produce traits of self-oriented perfectionism (where a person begins to irrationally demand perfection of themselves). In other words, self-oriented perfectionism can be viewed as the flip side of socially prescribed perfectionism.

This marriage of self- and societal- expectations seems to manufacture the garden variety perfectionism that I have observed in so many of the women that I have encountered. We can refer to this garden variety breed of perfectionism as the “self-in-society” brand of perfectionism. Just like the body cannot be separated from the mind, it is similarly nonsensical to try to separate a person from his or her surroundings and look at the person in isolation.  I have witnessed the myriad ways in which fear of disapproval and judgment from others can inadvertently constrain women’s range of free expression and behavior. Even women who think of themselves as modern, liberal women are not immune to the effects of these pervasive cultural messages. We are all porous beings; none of us is an island. This “self-in-society” breed of perfectionism renders us all vulnerable to the effects of others (whether in the flesh or the digital world).

My subsequent post will take a look at how this “self-in-society” brand of perfectionism tends to impact our self-worth and how to combat these pressures. In the meantime, just know that if this post resonates you are in good company. The next time you are experiencing negative self-talk, remind yourself to show compassion to yourself just as you would try to show compassion to a friend or loved one. Remember, you are listening to you -– so be polite! If this feels impossible, then therapy can provide a space to gain a better understanding of what is making it so difficult to be kinder to yourself.

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My services focus on the challenges women face in the demanding culture. If you resonate with the pressure to be perfect I’d love to work with you to help lighten the burden.


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