Perfectionism is when a person has excessively high personal standards and is overly self-critical.
Many people experience perfectionism, but not always to the extent that it becomes seriously problematic. But for some, perfectionism can affect relationships, participation at work or school, or other usual daily activities. It is a characteristic associated with a number of mental health problems, such as anxiety disorders, depression and eating disorders.
There is an ongoing debate among researchers about whether some level of perfectionism can actually be helpful at times. Some experts have differentiated perfectionism from the desire to excel. They suggest that the desire to excel can be helpful, motivating people to perform well and achieve, whereas perfectionism is usually more problematic.
If you struggle with perfectionism and notice that it is affecting your life negatively, seek help. Effective treatments are available to help you to overcome perfectionism.
Types of perfectionism
There are three types of perfectionism, which differ according to where the perfectionism is directed. People can experience more than one type of perfectionism.
- Self-oriented perfectionism: This is where perfectionistic beliefs and behaviors are directed inwardly towards yourself. You might have excessively high expectations of yourself.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: Where you feel that other people judge you harshly or have excessively high expectations of you. You might feel as though you have to be perfect for others to approve of you or like you.
- Other-oriented perfectionism: This is where you have excessively high expectations of others and judge them harshly.
Prevalence of perfectionism
Perfectionism appears to be relatively common. One study found that almost half of people surveyed had perfectionistic traits, and that those with perfectionistic traits also experienced higher levels of stress.
Research suggests that levels of perfectionism appear to be increasing over time. For example, one study found that all three types of perfectionism increased by up to 33% in college students from 1989 to 2016.
Signs that perfectionism is a problem
Perfectionism can affect people in different ways, but some common signs that your perfectionism could be problematic include:
- Being overly concerned with being perfect
- Having unrealistic expectations of yourself or others
- How you feel about yourself changes according to your achievements
- Feeling that you have to be perfect for others to like you
- Judging yourself or other people harshly
- Feeling anxious or worrying a lot
- Feeling irritable or agitated
- Low self-esteem
- Depression or feeling sad
- Relationship problems
- Feeling helpless or hopeless
- Feeling stressed
Mental health challenges associated with perfectionism
Perfectionism is associated with some mental health diagnoses, including:
- Eating problems, including eating disorders and body dissatisfaction
- Personality disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
What to do if you are struggling with perfectionism
If you are struggling with perfectionism, consider a combination of the following actions:
- Therapy: Talking therapies in both individual and group contexts can help people to overcome perfectionism and any associated challenges. Types of therapy to consider are discussed further, below.
- Practice self-compassion: Being kind to yourself, although difficult, can help to shape perfectionistic beliefs over time and protect against depression (4).
- Experiment: Try to change your perfectionistic behavior and see whether the consequences you fear really do happen. For example, experiment with letting go and try submitting a piece of work even though you think it’s still not good enough. Resist the urge to keep working on the piece and submit it anyway. Then, examine the actual consequences. Or, try deliberately making small mistakes, and then examining the consequences.
- Social supports: Talk to a trusted family member or friend about how you feel. They may be able to offer a different way of looking at things that changes how you feel or think.
- Self-care: Pay attention to your diet, try to maintain a regular sleep pattern, and exercise regularly. Find activities that you enjoy, and make time for them in your schedule. Such lifestyle factors can help to regulate our moods (5,6,7).
- Helplines: If you need immediate support, call 1-800-273-8255, or go the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline website.
Therapy types to consider for perfectionism
Many types of therapy are considered helpful for treating perfectionism, including:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can help change unhelpful behaviors and perfectionistic thoughts, such as black-and-white and all-or-nothing thinking. CBT can also help people with perfectionism to develop more balanced beliefs.
- Mindfulness Practices: Mindfulness helps people to be aware more aware of their bodies and thoughts, and can help people to learn self-compassion.
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): ACT involves components of both CBT and mindfulness as well as other strategies to help people take an acceptance approach.
- Psychodynamic therapy: This therapy explores how the past may influence current patterns of thought, emotion and behavior. It can help you to understand the underlying factors driving perfectionism.
What to look for in a therapist for perfectionism
The best-fitting type of therapist for you will depend on individual factors, symptoms, your location and finances. When selecting a mental health professional, it can be helpful to consider the following factors:
Personal fit: As is the case when you are seeking therapy for any reason, it’s important to consider the potential for developing a strong working relationship with your therapist. The trusting working relationship with a therapist is called the therapeutic alliance, and it’s the number one indicator of treatment efficacy. Try not to let perfectionism get in the way of selecting a therapist and beginning therapy.
Qualifications and experience: It is important to look for a licensed mental health professional. This ensures that the therapist you work with has undertaken the appropriate education and training. In addition, ask your prospective therapist ahead of time whether they have specialized training and experience in treating perfectionism.
Talk in advance: The best way to judge how you might feel about your prospective therapist is to ask for a preliminary phone call. Most therapists will be happy to oblige. This gives you the opportunity to ask about:
- Their qualifications
- Their experience working with people with perfectionism
- Any ongoing training in perfectionism and related therapies
- What type of therapy they suggest, and what that will be like
- Their participation in insurance plans and cost of therapy
Try to speak to a few different therapists before making your mind up.
Sources and references:
- Perfectionism is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016 (PDF)
- Perfectionism: the road to failure
- American Psychological Association, “The many faces of perfectionism”
- How perfectionism affects your (mental) health
- Lifestyle and Mental Health
- Physical Exercise for Treatment of Mood Disorders: A Critical Review
- Sleep: A Marker of Physical and Mental Health in the Elderly