There Are 3 Types of Perfectionists — and One May Have Psychopathic Tendencies

What kind of perfectionist are you? (Photo: Getty Images/Jonathan Knowles)

Not all perfectionists are alike. In fact, there are three subtypes — and one of them is “darker” than the others, according to a new study.

The study, published in the Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, included 229 college students who all fell under the three perfectionist categories: “self-perfectionists,” or those who set high standards for themselves; “socially prescribed” perfectionists, those who think others want them to be perfect; and the “other-oriented” perfectionists, those who have super-high and possibly unattainable standards for other people.

The University of Kent researchers found that “self-oriented” perfectionists had an interest in others and favored so-called “affiliative humor” — meaning, joke-telling not used at one’s own expense. Meanwhile, the “socially prescribed” perfectionists often had self-esteem issues and tended to make more self-deprecating jokes.

But those in the “other-oriented” perfectionist group had a sense of superiority and an aggressive sense of humor, used at the expense of others. They also had the “Dark Triad” characteristics of narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (using deceit in order to get ahead), and psychopathy (lacking empathy and using manipulation that may or may not lead to criminal acts).

There are many ways to think and talk about perfectionism, says Martin Antony, PhD, a professor of psychology at Ryerson University and author of When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough. He explains that the multi-dimensional model used in the study, created in the 1990s by Canadian researchers, involves three sub­types of perfectionism, and not three disparate kinds of perfectionism — meaning “people can be high on all three subtypes or they can be high on two or just one.”

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Antony also notes that the “self-oriented” subtype of perfectionism is actually helpful, because “it helps people to succeed. It’s not generally associated with a lot of psychological problems, with maybe the exception of eating disorders, where there’s some evidence that self-oriented perfectionism is elevated.”

The “socially prescribed” perfectionist, though, may have some challenges. “Since they hold the belief that others hold high standards for them, this subtype tends to be correlated with problems like anxiety and depression,” he explains.

And then there’s the “other-oriented” perfectionist, who expects a lot – from others. “It’s generally not associated with problems like anxiety and depression, but it may be associated with problems like anger, and like in this recent study suggests, there may be this sort of dark side,” Antony says.

“However, these are all correlations, so there will be people who may be elevated in ‘other-oriented’ perfectionism who don’t have that dark side. We want to be careful not to generalize,” he adds.

But there’s another way of looking at perfectionism. “When many of us talk about perfectionism, we talk about the obsessive-compulsive perfectionism, the people who tend to be very detail-oriented, like Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory,” explains Antony. “These perfectionists may need to have things lined up in a certain way, a need for completion, a need to have things just right, and have a tendency to focus on details. And that kind of perfectionism is very different than the kind that the [scale used in the study] measures.”

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So is being a perfectionist a personality issue that needs to be addressed and dealt with? It depends, says Antony. “The first question you want to ask yourself is, ‘Is it enough of a problem that it’s affecting my quality of life — my relationships, my work, my ability to enjoy things?’” he says. “You’ll also want to ask yourself, ‘Is it making me depressed, anxious and feel unnecessary pressure?’ If the answer is ‘no’ to all of those things, then you don’t need to do anything.”

But for the person who answers yes to any of the posed questions, Antony says counseling could help. “There are treatments available that teach people to reframe the perfectionists’ situations,” he says. “It can help someone shift their thinking to think more flexibly and to challenge themselves by doing things that make them uncomfortable and anxious, until they learn that nothing terrible happens.”

He adds that treatment will help indentify one’s positive and negative qualities, as well. “There may be aspects of their perfectionism that is working for them, yet other aspects that are getting in the way,” says Antony. “So it can also help a person to recognize that they don’t need to change everything about themselves.”

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