As I clinically see it there are 4 types of perfectionism:
- Neurotic Perfectionism
- Narcissistic Perfectionism
- Principled (Puritanical) Perfectionism
- Hyper-Attentive (Compensatory) Perfectionism
The first three of these are essentially "software" problems. The solution to "software-type" perfectionism is "re-programming." The Hyper-Attentive type of perfectionism is a "hardware" (brain) issue.
Neurotic perfectionism is motivated by "the need for approval" (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 24). Neurotic perfectionism parallels the Conscientious Compulsive variant of OCPD (Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder, not to be confused with OCD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).
Such individuals exhibit "a conforming dependency, a compliance to rules and authority, and a willing submission to the wishes, values, expectations and demands of others." They have "a strong sense of duty, which masks underlying feelings of personal inadequacy." They fear "that failure to perform perfectly will lead to both abandonment and condemnation" by others (Millon et al., 2000, p. 176-177).
Neurotic perfectionists aren't wimps. They are wounded egos. They are casualties of poor parenting, societal pressures, and possibly of abuse. They have been programmed and conditioned to feel bad about themselves and to please, appease, accommodate others. For example, a neurotic perfectionist might spend a sleepless night worrying about the gift he bought his wife for their anniversary, and convince himself, by the end of the night, that it's insultingly cheap, that she'll hate it, and he must return it for something better, more perfect, or else she might leave him which will confirm that he is unlovable.
Remember that Greek myth of Narcissus who was so enamored by the reflection of his own image in a pond that he was unable to stop marveling at it? Narcissists thrive on mirrors. No, not necessarily on the physical mirrors, but on the mirrors of social feedback.
Contrary to the common misperception, narcissists aren't arrogant even if they act arrogant. They simply don't feel good about themselves. If you are recognizing yourself in this, chances are you grew up with a narcissistic parent. Most narcissists are tragically the children of narcissists. Growing up with an insecure parent, you might have lost your sense of self because your sense of self was in the service of being a mirror for your parent's frail ego. And now, just like your parents, perhaps, the only way for you to feel special is to command special treatment, to insist on unquestioning compliance with your wishes from others, to demand nothing less than perfection from others.
Clinically, narcissistic perfectionism parallels the Bureaucratic Compulsive variant of OCPD. Bureaucratic Compulsives, as the name suggests, thrive on hierarchical superiority. For example, they are eager to show off their "knowledge of the rules;" they are "effectiveness with red tape;" "punctual and meticulous;" they tend to appraise "their own and other' tasks with black-and-white efficiency, as done or not done" (Millon, 2000, p. 179).
In sum, they are intolerant of imperfection as they feel it reflects unfavorably on them. If they are perfect and everything around them is perfect, then others will respond to them as perfect, and then, and only then, will they buy into the perfect reflection in the social mirror and finally feel good about themselves, if only for a brief moment.
Principled perfectionism is perfectionism about ethics and morality. Principled perfectionists feel so passionately about what they believe that they run the risk of imposing their beliefs onto others. They strive for moral perfection and demand nothing less of themselves. As a result not only are they really hard on themselves but they may be also rather judgmental of others' imperfections.
Principled perfectionists run a close parallel to Puritanical Compulsives who can be characterized as self-righteous, zealous, uncompromising, indignant, dogmatic, and judgmental (Millon, 2000). Principled perfectionism also parallels the so-called "world-oriented perfectionism," which is defined as "the belief that precise, correct, and perfect solutions to all human and world problems exist" (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 14, my italics). If you are recognizing yourself in this, don't feel too bad: idealism is just innocence and righteousness is, in essence, enthusiasm. You aren't bad for wanting to save the world.
Perfectionism may be related to a particularly hyper-attentive cognitive style. It has been noted that some compulsives are so good at concentrating that they cannot stop concentrating, that "they can't skim a page, they must scrutinize every word" (Maxment & Ward, 1995, p. 417). Individuals with this type of stimulus-bound cognitive style are "easily distracted and disturbed by new information or external events" (Beck et al., 2004, p. 323-324). David Shapiro (1965) suggested that this information-processing style might be related to social deficits and inability to grasp "'the emotional tone' of social situations" (Millon, 2000, p. 190-191).
So what we have here is a situation in which an attentional deficit leads to a social deficit, at which point the person relies on trying to be perfect so as to avoid social disapproval, rejection and isolation. The solution to this "hardware" type of perfectionism is attention-training and possibly, psychotropic medication.
Update Your Mindware
One thing is clear: whichever type of perfectionism you have, you got it by accident. Whether you were born into a macro-culture of Western perfectionism or merely thrown into a particular dysfunctional microcosm of your family (that required you to be perfect to survive), your perfectionistic personality style is an accident. Correct it.
Related Post: You Are Not Your Personality