Why the Perfectionist Can Make the Perfect Friend

The common view of perfectionists is that they’re so preoccupied with being flawless that they impose their values onto everyone else, including and especially the people chose to them. If you should fall short of the perfectionist’s unrealistic ideals, you can guarantee, according to this view, that you’ll be unceremoniously dumped or at least made to feel bad about yourself. In fact, the perfectionism social disconnection model (PSDM) proposed by Hewitt et al. (2006) states that the individual seeking to be above all reproach is destined to become socially isolated and downright hostile toward others. 

However, it’s also possible to argue that the person obsessed with perfectionism is also obsessed with becoming the perfect friend.  Consider the possibility that the individual who shows the Type A Behavior Pattern is a type of perfectionist, always seeking to be better than everyone else.  BuzzFeed’s guide to telling if you’re a Type A person suggests that, in fact, valuing friendship is one of its 14 hallmark traits.

On the one hand, the Type A person would seem be too impatient and concerned about winning to have particularly high friend potential. However, the Type A person might be a great friend to help you organize your life, get things done, and count on to be on time if not super-early for get-togethers. Perfectionists, similarly, might value friendship because they can then check the “Be good friend” box on their own list of life accomplishments.

As pointed out by University of Kent’s (England) Joachim Stoeber and colleagues (2017), not all perfectionists are created alike when it comes to the potential to be true friends. Those who are “self-oriented” perfectionists strive for perfection in themselves, and are critical only of themselves if they fail to achieve their inordinately high standards. These individuals should have no problem forming true friendships and, if anything, should appreciate having friends who can calm them down. The “other-oriented” perfectionists are the ones who would be difficult to have as friends. They’re going to criticize guess who? You, if you’re not up to whatever their ideals are, whether it’s in appearance, personal habits, or social position. Finally, the socially-prescribed form of perfectionists believes that other people expect them to have no weaknesses, and are hard on themselves as a result of what they perceive to be their flaws in the eyes of real or imagined others.

The Type A individual, it would seem, could come from any of these categories. If perfectionists are constantly striving to be the best, then wouldn’t they also be most likely to step on other people in order to advance their own interests? Stoeber et al. consider this possibility, but from their review of the literature, conclude that it’s only the other- and socially-oriented types who would make poor friends. People in these two groups show, in their words, “behaviors indicative of social disconnection and interpersonal hostility” (p. 113). Their traits range from the disagreeable to the mean-spirited. The other-oriented perfectionists lack interest in other people’s well-being, and worse, the “dark triad” traits of callousness, deceitfulness, an aggressive form of humor, and Machiavellianism, or being cold and manipulative. Socially-prescribed perfectionists are, additionally, avoidant of close relationships, suspicious, and outright hostile and hurtful. These two type of perfectionists, then, want to be the best and will stop at nothing to achieve this goal.

By contrast, there are far more charitable features of the self-oriented perfectionist’s personality and relationships with others. According to the research that Stoeber et al. cite, they are altruistic, interested in others, and likely to use humor to connect with people; in short, they may feel “more socially connected and less hostile than people low in self-oriented perfectionism” (p. 113). It seems that you might want this variety of perfectionist to be your friend after all.

The hostility factor, then, is the deal-breaker when it comes to the perfectionistic individual’s relationship with others. By definition, this would seem to warrant your excluding the Type A person from your set of close friends, because this individual is likely to undercut you and use you to further his or her own self-interests.

The goal of the British team’s study was to expand on the range of possible personality traits that could be linked to the three types of perfectionism. Toward this end, they recruited 3 sets of undergraduates at their university who completed questionnaire measures of perfectionism, trust/distrust, empathy, aggression, and spitefulness. Self-oriented perfectionism was measured by questions such as “I demand nothing less than perfection of myself;” other-oriented by questions such as “If I ask someone to do something, I expect it to be done flawlessly;” and socially-oriented perfectionism by items such as “people expect nothing less than perfection of me.”

The one other measure worth describing in more detail is spitefulness, a measure rarely used in personality research. This unpleasant quality was assessed by questions such as “If I am checking out at a store and feel like the person behind is rushing me, then I will sometimes slow down and take extra time to pay.” We’ve probably all felt this way from time to time, but the highly spiteful person seems to revel in the opportunity to act on that feeling. Clearly, people scoring high on this measure would not make very good friends.

In line with their predictions, the findings are consistent with previous research showing the more hostile tendencies to be related to other- and socially-oriented perfectionism. Statistical controls used by the authors to take into account overlap among the three types of perfectionism led them to conclude that only the purely self-oriented perfectionists have traits that would make them good friends and nice people to know. Any touch of socially- or other-oriented perfectionism would detract from this altruistic stance. In the words of the authors, it’s only those self-oriented perfectionists who will “play nicely with others” (p. 116).

To sum up, we now know that not all perfectionists are created equal. People with high standards who strive to lives up to those standards would, from this research, appear to hold standards that include being nice to other people, showing commitment to friends and loved ones, and refraining from the less than optimal quality of spitefully back-stabbing in order to get ahead. Who wouldn’t want a friend like that?

Fulfilling relationships with others involve taking their interests to heart and putting their needs if not above, then at a par, with your own. Looking into the perfectionistic tendencies of those near and dear to you should help you find that greater fulfillment.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., 2017

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