We often hear this word used casually to describe someone who is hardworking and displays good attention detail, or someone who doesn’t accept failure and holds themselves to the highest of standards. Chances are you know someone who claims to be a perfectionist. This person probably believes this is a positive attribute.
In Western society, we tend to view perfectionism as an indicator of achievement, ambition, and social ranking. For many years, researchers thought that perfectionism could be either good or bad1. The popular idea was that perfectionism could lead to pleasure of achievement or to great distress in failures. Recent research has indicated that healthy perfectionism is a myth: It has been closely linked to a variety of anxiety disorders, depression, and neuroticism2, 3, 4.
Not Good for Your Mental Health
The idea of healthy perfectionism has been questioned by a growing body of research over the past several years. The overwhelming conclusion of this research is that perfectionism, in all its forms, is unhealthy. The rigid standards that perfectionists set for themselves and others lead to strong efforts to conceal any failures that they see in themselves5.
Because perfectionists tend to become very focused on their self-imposed high standards, they often come to expect that others hold them to the same ones. If a perfectionist achieves anything less than perfection (even 99 percent success), he or she sees it as a failure and comes to believe that others see it as a failure, too.
University of Western Ontario researcher Martin M. Smith discussed this recent shift away from the theory of healthy versus perfectionism. “There is a difference between striving for perfection and striving for excellence,” Smith says. “Perfection is problematic because it’s in the eye of the beholder. Whatg one person sees as perfect, another person will see as riddled with flaws. The perfectionist will see the flaws and be their own worst critic, with little errors being seen as monumental catastrophes that cause a great deal of distress.”
The result of this extreme degree of perfectionism is an increase in the risks for developing symptoms of anxiety disorders6. Attempts to be perfect or being overly concerned with avoiding mistakes not only increases anxiety at the time, but also makes it more likely that anxiety will develop in the future. Furthermore, when perfectionists set such unrealistic standards of performance, they often experience symptoms of depression when they fail to achieve perfection7.
How to Overcome Perfectionism
If you feel that you set unreasonably high standards for yourself, or you are overly perfectionistic in some other way, you may wonder if it means you’re destined to be anxious and depressed. The answer is a resounding “NO!”
You can take several steps to overcome perfectionism and prevent the anxiety it would cause.
Step 1. Start with understanding it and recognizing what aspects of perfectionism you display9. This begins with knowing that having high standards is not the same thing as having perfectionistic beliefs. For example, an appropriate high standard is giving a good presentation in front of your employer. But a perfectionistic belief might be “my presentation is a success only if I recite my script word-for-word without saying ‘um’ or ever looking down at my notes”.
Several aspects of life are particularly prone to perfectionism. Read this list to identify where yours comes from9.
- Performance at school or work — e.g., a carpenter who spends all day trying to get the exact measurement and never finishes her project.
- Neatness — e.g., a homeowner who sees dust on the mantelpiece and believes that this means that the house is disgusting.
- Appearance — e.g., someone who takes hours and hours every day to get ready before going anywhere; or someone who won’t date anybody who isn’t perfect.
- Organization — e.g., a traveler so concerned with packing a suitcase just right that they rearrange it over and over again and miss their flight.
- Writing — e.g., a student who finishes only the first page of a 10-page term paper because he keeps rewriting the first sentence.
- Speaking — e.g., the quiet person at the office who seems shy, but really is too afraid of misspeaking to say anything at all.
- Personal hygiene — e.g., a self-described “health nut” who refuses to eat any foods that contain saturated fats.
This first step in overcoming perfectionism is an important one. As Smith observes:
“It’s important to identify perfectionism because a lot of subtypes fly under the radar. Perfectionists won’t tell people that they’re distressed because they don’t want people to see them as flawed, weak, or otherwise imperfect. This results in mental illness or suicide that occurs ‘without warning'” because although the individual has been depressed or anxious for a long time, they’ve worked very hard to keep it hidden from view …. A huge identifying factor (of perfectionism) is someone who strives to maintain an image of perfection to others, someone you’ve never seen sick or grumpy.”
Step 2. Overcoming perfectionism involves exposure to your perfectionistic concerns. Exposure therapy has long been used as a very effective treatment for phobias, although it is uncomfortable at times. For a perfectionist, this means forcing yourself to be less than perfect. For example, that employee who was so focused on giving the perfect presentation may choose to intentionally say “um” five times during the presentation. Exposure works because it challenges the thoughts that perfection is a requirement. After exposure to imperfection, you are forced to realize that imperfection does not have the dire consequences that you fear.
Step 3. Success requires reward. Identifying your perfectionistic thoughts or behaviors is hard work, and exposure is stressful at the beginning. A great way to stay motivated is to put a light at the end of the tunnel. Every time that you do an exposure activity, schedule a movie night, book a massage, or just take some time for yourself.
Perfectionism can cause a whole host of psychological difficulties. Although we are often surrounded by suggestions that perfectionism is good or something we should strive for, this is not the case. Working to set realistic goals, challenging your perfectionism, and taking good care of yourself are great ways to actively prevent the negative outcomes associated with perfectionism.
1. Hamachek, D. E. (1978). Psychodynamics of normal and neurotic perfectionism. Psychology, 15(1), 27–33
2. Anxiety (Flett & Hewitt, 2014; social anxiety review) Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (2002). Perfectionism and stress processes in psychopathology. In G. L. Flett, & P. L. Hewitt (Eds.), Perfectionism: Theory, research, and treatment (pp. 255-284). Washington: American Psychological Association.
3. Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Rnic, K., Saklofske, D. H., Enns, M., & Gralnick, T. (2016). Are Perfectionism Dimensions Vulnerability Factors for Depressive Symptoms After Controlling for Neuroticism? A Meta‐analysis of 10 Longitudinal Studies. European Journal of Personality, 30(2), 201-212.
4. Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Dyck, D. G. (1989). Self-oriented perfectionism, neuroticism and anxiety. Personality and Individual Differences, 10(7), 731-735.
5. Hewitt, P. L., Flett, G. L., Sherry, S. B., Habke, M., Parkin, M., Lam, R. W., … & Stein, M. B. (2003). The interpersonal expression of perfection: Perfectionistic self-presentation and psychological distress. Journal of personality and social psychology, 84(6), 1303.
6. Vidovic, V., Smith, M., Sherry, S., Stewart, S., & Saklofske, D. (2017). Perfectionistic Concerns Confer Risk for Anxiety Symptoms: A Meta-Analysis of 11 Longitudinal Studies. Manuscript Submitted.
7. Joiner, T. E., & Schmidt, N. B. (1995). Dimensions of perfectionism, life stress, and depressed and anxious symptoms: Prospective support for diathesis-stress but not specific vulnerability among male undergraduates. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 14, 165-183.
8. When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony & R. P. Swinson (New Harbinger Publications).
9. Perfectionism: What’s Bad about Being Too Good? By M. Adderholdt-Elliott, M. Elliott, & J. Goldberg (Monarch Books).
Christian Hahn is a Doctoral Candidate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Western Ontario. His research centers on understanding how cognitive and behavioral aspects of social anxiety affect the sustainability of romantic relationships. He also has clinical interests in adult tertiary care, particularly focusing on mood, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorders.