I was recently asked to comment on the media’s effect on women’s self-image. While I reprove the tactics advertisers use to draw customers – by basically telling you in subtle terms that you’re a loser if you don’t use their product or service – it’s not a cause and effect relationship. Seeing size two runway models posing in the latest fashions while sipping the latest 0 calorie soda won’t make you feel bad about yourself…unless your body image and self-esteem is already low. The media creates standards that pretty much no one can live up to. Without the protection of a strong sense of self, however, you’re more likely to be drawn in by their wily ways, and believe that the $30 tinted concealer you bought will look like airbrushed perfection. I can tell you from experience that it did not.
This brings me to the topic of perfectionism, and how unhealthy and unrealistic standards can really mess things up. This isn’t to say that you should have absolutely no standards at all; however, if the standards you set leave you feeling disappointed or leave others feeling like they’re not good enough, you’re setting them way too high.
There are four types of perfectionists:
The Blanket Perfectionist (23% of our sample)
Blanket Perfectionists set high standards for themselves and for others. If you’re this type of perfectionist, you’re more likely to:
- Experience constant disappointment in yourself and in others
- Feel that nothing you or anyone does is good enough
- Have difficulty praising others or giving yourself a pat on the back
- Want everything done your way
- Have trouble dealing with disappointment and change
- Feel like the world is against you
- Be overly critical or play the devil’s advocate
- Have trouble with deadlines
- Slip into the temptation of procrastination
- Have a fear of failure and a fear of success. You can’t enjoy your achievements.
- Be pessimistic and focus on what’s going wrong in your life
The Subjective Perfectionist (8% of our sample)
Subjective Perfectionists have a strong inner critic and are constantly striving to live up to their own unrealistic expectations. They are much more critical of themselves than they are of others. If you’re this type of perfectionist, you’re more likely to:
- Have low self-esteem or achievement-oriented self-esteem (i.e. you’re happy with yourself when you succeed, but hard on yourself when you don’t)
- Feel like nothing you do is good enough
- Find it difficult to enjoy your success, and might feel like an imposter when you do succeed
- Dismiss compliments
- Be sensitive to criticism and rejection
- Be influenced by peer pressure or pressure from the media
- Have selective attention – you focus more on negative situations or comments than positive ones
- Be prone to depression, anxiety, or social awkwardness
- Emanate insecurity, which others pick up on. This may lead them to believe that you can’t handle a challenge.
The Nitpicky Perfectionist (1% of our sample)
Nitpicky Perfectionists turn their critical eye towards others. Ironically, this tendency to find fault may be rooted in Nitpicky Perfectionists’ own deep-seated insecurities. If you’re this type of perfectionist, you’re more likely to:
- Find it difficult to get along or work with others
- Adapt a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do attitude
- Be difficult to please
- Put down others, which in turn makes you feel better about yourself
- Let power get to your head
- Blame others for problems or mistakes
- Be harsh with people, particularly those you don’t like
- Have difficulty complimenting people because you just can’t see any good in them
- Avoid admitting mistakes or when you don’t know something because you hate feeling that degree of vulnerability
The Non-Perfectionist (68% of our sample)
Non-Perfectionists have a more balanced outlook. They don’t set unreasonably high standards. If you’re this type of perfectionist, you’re more likely to:
- Take pride in your accomplishments
- Praise others for their accomplishments
- Recognize your strengths and faults
- See strengths in others that they may not recognize
- Be realistic about what you can and can’t accomplish
- Be patient with others and yourself – you recognize that learning is not just a process that takes time, it’s a lifelong process
Of course, some Non-Perfectionists can be viewed as lazy underachievers, but I don’t think a lack of ambition is synonymous with a lack of standards. If anything, Non-Perfectionists have the mental flexibility that allows them to appreciate the little things in life, or the small victories. They’re not bogged down by what they believe family and society expects of them and instead, live their life as they see fit.
If you’ve been bit one too many times by the perfectionist bug, here are some tips to inoculate yourself:
- Remember that life isn’t black and white. Don’t approach a challenge or goal with an “all-or-nothing” attitude (e.g. saying something like “I have to get this promotion or else I’ll never be satisfied with my job”; “I have to get married or I’ll be a miserable loser”). If you only see the outcome of a situation as a success or failure, you’re already sabotaging yourself. If things don’t turn out the way you wanted them to, learn from your mistakes, and try not to repeat them in future. Life isn’t a myriad of good or bad decisions, it’s just a whole lot of learning experiences.
- Set realistic goals. If it’s your resolution to stop world hunger in five years and climb Mount Everest backwards, then you might end up disappointed. These goals may sound a little extreme, but the point is that if you set your sights too high, your fall will be harder. You can challenge yourself reasonably though. Strive to do that extra mile on your daily jog or turn that B+ paper into an A. Even if you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, the fact that you tried is something to be proud of.
- Don’t make assumptions. If your boss doesn’t compliment your work, don’t assume that he or she isn’t satisfied with it. Rather than stew in doubt, ask! “What did you think of my work on that last assignment?” Remember, the way you interpret “truth” may not come close to the reality of the situation.
- Remember that what is perfect is subjective. Ask five different people what they consider the perfect life and it’s a guarantee that you’ll receive five different answers. For some, the perfect life entails fame and fortune. For others, it’s health, a job that contributes to the world, or simply living every day with joy. Even what we consider beauty is constantly evolving.
Tend to be a little too critical of others? Keep the following tips in mind:
- Cut a deal. When it comes to day-to-day concerns, work on compromise. If, for example, you are very tidy and orderly and your partner is on the messier side, you have to learn to meet him or her halfway. Constant nagging about insignificant details is a real turn-off that can put a lot of strain on your relationship. Remember that the people around you will never be able to meet your standards if you only look for what’s missing.
- Set a good example. “Do as I say not as I do” really doesn’t cut it. Rather than make demands of others, why not show them? For example, rather than criticize your child for failing a test, try helping him or her develop better study habits. If you don’t give people a chance to prove themselves, you’ll never know what they’re capable of.