The three strands of perfectionism: their alarming impact on your life

Perfectionism is not a concept you’re unfamiliar with. It’s not a foreign notion to most of us. The requirement, the need, to be perfect. That’s what it means to be a perfectionist. It is an impossible goal to aim towards, yet some even think of it as a positive trait to endorse on themselves. 

Sure, striving for perfection and ending up with something that’s great doesn’t sound too bad. For some, it might even be an effective method of improving things around them. Still, to aim for the impossible is not the healthiest of approaches to life. It can be a path to destruction and psychological disarray. But it’s not all black and white. In fact, not every person who wants everything to be perfect has the same mentality. According to the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, there are actually three strands of perfectionism, and each of them has a distinct impact on our lives. 

Nowadays, more and more people consider themselves perfectionists at some level. This is due to the (rising) internalization of the contemporary myth that everything, including themselves, should be perfect. The unrealistic expectations that people, especially the youth, are repeatedly exposed to only contribute to this increase of perfectionism over time. Because, indeed, there has been a significant rise in perfectionism. A study from the American Psychological Organization indicates that the drive to be perfect has increased compared to prior generations. This study also details how much each of the three strands of perfectionism has increased and its statistics will be used when describing each strand below. 

1. Self-oriented perfectionism: 

The first of the three strands of perfectionism is directed inward on the self, as in your desire for perfection is concentrated mostly on yourself. Somebody experiencing this kind of behavior have excessively high expectations and are extremely critical of themselves. The rise of this type of perfectionism was 10% from 1989 to 2016. Still, this strand is the one with the most “adaptive” traits that correlate with success and greater productivity, like resourcefulness. These individuals have high levels of motivation and their drive to be perfect is less likely to get in the way of their goals. 

2. Other-oriented perfectionism: 

The imposition of perfection outwardly onto others can be a path for destruction. Individuals with these traits hold others around them to high standards and can be harshly critical and judgemental. This not only complicates working relationships but personal bonds as well. It’s considered to be the most detrimental strand in an interpersonal way, and it has increased by 16% from 1989 to 2016. This kind of perfectionist behavior should be attempted to tone down by those who showcase it given its damaging nature and the harm it can bring to someone’s personal, professional, and social life. 

3. Socially prescribed perfectionism: 

This is the strand that saw its biggest increase, augmenting a considerable 33% from 1989 to 2016. Those with these traits have a sense of an imposed need for perfection by others around them. They feel the need to be perfect because others require it from them. For these people, their self-esteem is dependent on what those around them think. There is a pressure to be the absolute best and stand out from the crowd, as well as a fear of rejection. This dependence on external validation and standards can lead to social anxiety and very low self-esteem. 

Which one is more problematic, the negative effects of the perfectionism rise, and the role social media plays in all of this: 

There is a clear distinction between the three strands of perfectionism. Self-oriented perfectionists can adapt to a more positive and motivational mindset that doesn’t detriment their life but they still have to watch out on behalf of their mental health. The other-oriented perfectionism involves deeper disarray of interpersonal relationships and has the potential to destroy them altogether. Meanwhile, socially prescribed perfectionism seems to be more common among younger demographics and can do much harm to someone’s confidence in themselves. 

The three strands are all problematic in their own way. Yet there is something to be feared about the 33% rise of socially prescribed perfectionism. To quote LSE professor, Dr. Thomas Curran… “Socially prescribed perfectionism is especially damaging because significant hopelessness can emerge from tying one’s self-worth to others approval.” There might not be a finish line to that need for external validation, as many only raise the bar higher with each small victory they believe to have. This is because the better they do, the better they think they are expected to do. In the hyper-connected world that we live in, this inner dialogue can only seem to be getting worse. 

As expected, social media has a controversial part to play in the increase of perfectionism in recent years. Whilst it brings us closer than ever before and has a tremendous potential to do good, social media also encompasses a key element regarding external validation. Its exact role in all of this hasn’t been scientifically established yet, but one can dare to guess its doing. Platforms like Instagram can trigger someone’s vulnerabilities, including perfectionism, when they are exposed to unrealistic standards and pressure to be liked and fit in with their peers. Still, if used to showcase a message of acceptance and genuineness, social media can help to lessen the detrimental effects of perfectionism. 

The negative effects of the rise of all three strands of perfectionism are also quite transparent. According to the World Health Organization, more and more young people worldwide are already suffering from depression and anxiety disorders. This way, mental health and adjustment issues will only keep increasing among the youth. It can be seen as a foreshadowing of potential problems waiting ahead unless this perfectionistic narrative is swapped by one about authenticity and self-acceptance.

Sol Natalia Dieguez
Sol Natalia Dieguez

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