The first time someone ever referred to me as “type A,” I gasped dramatically and glared: I am not that type of person, I thought, insulted — even though, deep down, I knew I was.
For the most part, the traits typically associated with a type-A personality never sounded negative to me: What’s wrong with being somebody who’s ambitious, driven, organized, in control of their lives and who, I’m willing to bet, carries around half a tote bag’s worth of to-do lists? But the reason I got mad wasn’t because there’s no truth to my type-A-ness. It was because I more often experience the dark underbelly of those very admirable traits, and definitely don’t want to be judged for being those things. I can be impatient and competitive, but then feel frustrated for thinking of life as a zero-sum game (it’s not!); if I make a mistake, I can spend days, weeks, months mulling over it, as if it’s the end of the world (it’s not!).
And professionally, I’m so focused on being perfect that it is paralyzing. Take, for example, this article: It took me 20 minutes to type out a first draft of this paragraph that I know I will edit to make better, because I want even my first try to be the most perfect collection of words I’ve ever assembled. I’m frustrated with myself just thinking about it.
So it’s no wonder I don’t want to be associated with all things “type A.” But it’s soothing to know that type A isn’t even a clinical term; it’s a socially constructed description for a cluster of traits, a phrase that gained popularity in the ’70s. Which, in my mind, means it’s something that can be more easily changed, or at least managed. So in order to shift toward a more positive self-conception — and, let’s be real, figure out what the hell I can do to feel more sane — I spoke to Katherine Schafler, a New York–based psychotherapist who specializes in issues surrounding perfectionism, and John Schaubroeck, a professor of psychology and management at Michigan State University. Collating their wisdom, here are five useful ways to manage the worst aspects of perfectionistic personality traits.
According to Schaubroeck, perfectionistic personality traits predispose people to hostile, impatient, and competitive behavior. In the long run, you may need to work on changing your thought patterns “in a way that leads you to interpret potentially antagonizing situations in a more adaptive way,” he says. “If somebody’s behaving discourteously toward you, then that is not something that you necessarily need to take as a threat to your personal identity.”
In other words, it’s more their problem than yours — a good thing to realize, but also something that can take a while to fully absorb. In the shorter term, you may need something more immediate to tamp down the negative emotions you’re feeling. This one can seem like a no-brainer, but there’s merit to the notion of distracting yourself when you’re about to become angry, and it can be as simple as counting to ten or breathing deeply.
Schafler strongly believes that a two-step process — using perfectionistic traits to your advantage, and actively working to minimize the negative aspects of perfectionism — can help you make significant changes toward a more positive lifestyle. Unhealthy perfectionists, she explains, think in terms of: “What would be the best version of a relationship?” But a more adaptive, healthier way of thinking is: “What would be the best version of a relationship for me at this particular point in my life?”
“This way of thinking is individualized instead of always shooting for the platonic ideal,” she says. “It’s a way of incorporating what actually fits in your life and what would actually make you happy. That way, you’re not getting caught up in the ‘bigger, better, more, faster’ vibe of everything.”
When a situation doesn’t go according to plan, take a moment to unpack what went wrong — which means acknowledging responsibility where it’s due, yes, but it also means considering the other factors outside of your control, something that might not come as naturally with a type-A personality.
“Unhealthy perfectionists opt instead to try and maximize control in every way,” she says, “then ruthlessly blame themselves and/or the people around them for not being able to yield the desired result, regardless of how unpredictable or unrealistic the goal was.” Schafler says. Instead, she adds, try to “look for external attributions to get the whole perspective on what happened and why. You typically encounter a feeling of disappointment that goes something like, ‘Well, that was unfortunate, but I can’t control everything. Next time I’ll know to…’ And then you move on.”
Another thing to try, says Schaubroeck, is thinking of yourself as the object of a situation instead of always being the subject.
“So for example, if someone is yelling at you, and you think for a moment, ‘Okay, where am I right now? Who’s on the other side? What’s behind me?’ to get a bearing of where you’re located in space and time. That can center you and make you more aware of yourself in a way that can enable you to be more in control of your emotions,” he says.
“Unhealthy perfectionists treat ideals as goals,” says Schafler, but “healthy perfectionists treat perfection as a North Star, not a destination or directive.” Ideals are supposed to be inspirational, not necessarily achievable — but when you conflate success with perfection, you’re inevitably going to fall short. And when “nothing you do is ever good enough for yourself,” Schafler adds, “often this translates to the similar notion that nothing anyone else does is good enough.”
When you hold yourself to difficult and exacting standards, it’s natural that the people near you come into the firing zone — when you’re tightly wound, it’s easy to miss the fact that you you’re coming across as intense, impatient, or angry. If you find, once you start paying attention, that you’re not quite projecting what you intended to, Schafler advises deploying compensatory behaviors like “monitoring your tone, or adding statements of warmth or consideration of others.”
Even if these tips sound like things that could apply to you, though, it’s important to remember that someone with a type-A personality is still more than those particular traits. “It’s important to not condense or truncate your identity into any one classification. When you say, I’m a perfectionist or I’m type A or I’m whatever, that language is powerful,” says Schafler. “You’re immediately positioning yourself to be closed off to any flexibility of expression or experience. I think being able to say I am a lot of things, and one of the things that gets expressed is that I sometimes have perfectionistic tendencies, is more of a balanced identity framework.”
I find that line of thinking liberating — it’s a relief to not feel limited by labels, or unable to connect with different parts of myself. I may be type A, yes, but that’s only part of the story. And also, whether or not this article is perfect, it’s not often that one can say their work felt like an extended low-key therapy session.