Not all perfectionists are made equal.

In fact, “perfectionism” or the strong desire for each task to be completed with the utmost excellence describes a trait, as opposed to a constant state of being. And like all traits, it’s one that we all have to varying degrees.

If that is the case, though, why is that we can all feel like perfectionists? To answer this we first need to be aware of the three kinds of perfectionists: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-prescribed [1].

Self-oriented perfectionists are those we commonly refer to when speaking about perfectionism – these are the individuals who hold themselves to extraordinary standards and engage in substantive self-evaluation.

Other-oriented perfectionists refer to individuals who have unattainable standards for significant others in their lives (e.g., family members, friends).

However, the least publicized group is that of the socially prescribed perfectionists. These individuals feel an overwhelming external pressure – usually from significant others – to be perfect. This shift in motivation – that is, from internal to external pressure – is the key distinction between the self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionist.

That being said, in a society emphasizing the balance of exceptional grades, extracurricular activities, volunteering, and the oh-so-feared “job experience”, there must be a point at which we accept that we have become a bit of a perfectionist culture.

But what does this mean for our three types of perfectionists?

The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale was developed by Hewitt and Flett [1], and it includes questions, such as “I strive to be the best at everything I do”, “I must always be successful at school or work”, and “It makes me uneasy to see an error in my work”. Now, these three items are all indicative of the “self-oriented perfectionist”, however, these are also items that can be checked off by virtually every post-secondary student.

As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine the source of one’s perfectionist traits – are young adults inherently motivated to strive for perfection? Or, are the expectations of society what motivate and fuel their need for excellence?

At the very least, research shows that parental expectations play a large role in the development and persistence of socially prescribed perfectionism [2]. So, it isn’t too far-fetched to believe that the influence of friends, teachers, TV shows, and secondary/post-secondary institutions could play similar roles.

So much so, in fact, that post-secondary students consider all three forms of perfectionism as desirable traits [3], suggesting that this perception of perfectionism is positive. And who’s to say that striving for perfection isn’t just another way of striving for a socially desirable trait?

Now, whether this “socially desirable” trait is ultimately adaptive or maladaptive remains highly contested [4, 5]. Yet, some research claims that socially prescribed perfectionism is less likely to be adaptive than self-oriented perfectionism [6].

Regardless, the lines defining the origin of any given individual’s perfectionism are understandably blurred, especially in a growing perfectionistic society.

So, does any of this mean that you’re not really a perfectionist?

Of course not.

Just maybe not for the reasons you think.


By: Alisia Bonnick
Edited by: Veerpal Bambrah
Image by: Shauna Springer



[1] Hewitt, P. L. & Flett, G. L. (1991b). Perfectionism in the self and social contexts: Conceptualization, assessment, and association with psychopathology. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(3), 456-470.

[2] Damian, L. E., Stoeber, J., Negru, O., & Baban, A. (2013). On the development of perfectionism in adolescence: Perceived parental expectations predict longitudinal increases in socially prescribed perfectionism. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(6), 688-693.

[3] Stoeber, J. & Hothman, S. (2013). Perfectionism and social desirability: Students report increased perfectionism to create a positive impression. Personality and Individual Differences, 55, 626-629.

[4] Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (1991a). Dimensions of perfectionism in unipolar depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 100(1), 98-101.

[5] Klibert, J. J. & Langhinrichsen-Rohling, J. & Saito, M. (2005). Adaptive and maladaptive aspects of self-oriented versus socially prescribed perfectionism. Journal of College Student Development, 46(2), 141-156.

[6] Bieling, P. J., Israeli, A. L., & Antony, M. M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality & Individual Differences, 36(6), 1373-1385.