The Perfectionist Debate: Is Perfectionism Healthy?

Medically reviewed by Kimberly L Brownridge , LPC, NCC, BCPC
Updated May 22, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

We live in a society that places increasingly high expectations of performance levels on our younger generations. Expectations are so high they nearly demand perfection in some cases. Because of this, perfectionism is rising across countries such as the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. You may have heard someone referred to by the adjective “perfectionist” and wondered what exactly that phrase meant. The subject of what defines perfectionism and whether it is healthy continues to be debated in the field of psychology. 

Psychologists like Dr. Gordon Flett, PhD., are of the belief that perfectionistic thinking correlates with mental health disorders. He believes that when people make the claim that perfectionism is adaptive, meaning it helps an individual adjust to change and better accept new information.

Flett claims they are ignoring a large body of literature that show evidence of it being a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia, and suicide. 

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 988, and is available 24/7.

While perfectionism can have different meanings to each individual, the definition of perfectionism provided by the American Psychological Association describes it as “the tendency to demand from others or of oneself a high or flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.”

Perfectionism is also associated with depression, eating disorders, anxiety, and other mental health disorders. 

Psychologists cannot agree on whether perfectionist behaviors can be used adaptively or whether they are always connected to mental health disorders. Researchers can agree that treatment for perfectionism can be effective in as little as 12 weeks.

Are You A Perfectionist?

Exploring Viewpoints On Perfectionism

Conflicting findings from studies of perfectionism make it difficult to reach a consensus on whether it is adaptive or maladaptive.

Psychologists who believe that perfectionism is maladaptive claim that perfectionists tend to produce new challenges and that perfectionistic tendencies may contribute to psychopathology. In some cases, a person may compromise their moral values to reach their perfectionistic goals. 

Researchers who suggest that perfectionism is adaptive suggest that it can be used to reach goals and maybe a positive asset.

The Maladaptive Perfectionism Perspective

Paul Hewitt, Ph.D., a practicing psychologist and professor at the University of British Columbia, has worked with Gordon Flett, Ph.D., professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, to research maladaptive perfectionism for over 20 years. 

Hewitt and Flett’s research has suggested that perfectionism has a distinct correlation to unipolar depression, suicide, anxiety, eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, and other health problems.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to assist 24/7.

Hewitt and Flett support the idea that there are many examples and kinds of perfectionism, with each one bringing its own challenges. They also note that some issues are less severe than others. In considering the adaptive theory of perfectionism, Hewitt and Flett believe that the theory is too simplistic, and that there’s a notable difference between the need to do well and having distinct perfectionistic concerns. 

Dr. Hewitt provides an example from one of his clients; a university student, diagnosed with depression, was placing a lot of pressure on himself to get an A+ in one of his college courses. The student studied vigorously and did well in the school. When Dr. Hewitt saw the student after the class was over, he found him to be more depressed and suicidal than he’d been before. 

The student explained his thinking and feelings by stating that the A+ was proof that he was a failure. The student believed that if he were truly perfect, he could have gotten an A+ in the class without striving so hard for it.

The Adaptive Perfectionism Perspective

Other researchers stand by the adaptive perspective of perfectionism. They claim that people who are perfectionists can use their perfectionistic tendencies to achieve life goals by tapping into it as needed.

Researchers that support the adaptive theory on perfectionism claim that we shouldn’t label people with perfectionist tendencies as pathological just because they’ve displayed a desire to strive or set highly challenging goals for themselves.

Does Context Play A Role Between Adaptive And Maladaptive Perfectionism?

Still, other researchers have a different take on perfectionism. Psychologist Kenneth Rice, Ph.D., and his colleagues support the philosophy that perfectionism can be either adaptive or maladaptive. 

Psychologist Randy Frost, Ph.D., a professor at Smith College, concurs with Rice. He clarifies his stance by saying that he doesn’t believe that the word adaptive is an appropriate way to refer to perfectionism.

Rice and his colleagues published their findings in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy (Vol. 17, No. 1). They concluded that perfectionists could have adaptive and maladaptive tendencies as well as having high personal standards. Their results indicate there is more stress for maladaptive perfectionists (who may have unattainable standards) than for adaptive perfectionists.

Frost favors considering the context of perfectionism before attempting to put it in a category of adaptive or maladaptive. He explains that a person’s high standards can be adaptive in one set of circumstances and maladaptive in another set of circumstances. 

He adds that some people are more inclined to have adaptive perfectionism, and others have more significant tendencies toward maladaptive perfectionism. Frost agrees that high standards play a role in perfectionism. Still, a person who merely sets high standards for themselves doesn’t necessarily make them a perfectionist, and perfectionist tendencies aren’t always related to pathology.

Is There A Connection Between Perfectionism And Psychopathology?

While the link to adaptive or maladaptive perfectionism is clear in many cases, specific types of perfectionism have been linked to depression, suicide, and other mental health issues. These types of perfectionism include socially prescribed perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and self-oriented perfectionism.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to assist 24/7.

Socially prescribed perfectionism refers to someone’s inclination toward perfectionistic strivings for the purpose that others will value them if they are or appear to be perfect. Flett expands on this philosophy by stating that a person subjected to socially prescribed perfectionism combines pressure with a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. They often feel that the better they do at something the better others expect them to do.

Are You A Perfectionist?

Another variant form of perfectionism is other-oriented perfectionism, which can occur when the pressure to be perfect comes from friends, co-workers, or others. Families can also put this type of pressure on their children. This type of perfectionistic striving to satisfy others can interfere with or damage relationships. Spouses that demand perfection from their partner can be highly critical which can lead to problems in the relationship.

Self-oriented perfectionism refers to a self critical desire for someone to be perfect. Hewitt and his team of researchers make note that self-oriented perfectionism can lead to mental health challenges or an eating disorder. They cited, in a paper in Cognitive Therapy and Research (Vol. 26, No. 6), that links anorexia and self-oriented perfectionism. 

Other studies haven’t supported this connection. Hewitt and Flett believe that it’s due to self-oriented perfectionism presenting as a risk factor or vulnerability for eating disorders rather than being considered a disorder alone.

As an example, Hewitt and Flett report that self-oriented perfectionists do fine most of the time, but when things get difficult, they’re likely to become depressed, anxious, or suicidal. 

Hewitt and Flett point to another study where they found that minor interpersonal and achievement-related problems moderated symptoms of perfectionism and depression in female students.

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to assist 24/7.

In addition, psychologists Rory O’Connor, Ph.D., and Daryl B. O’Connor, Ph.D., found that they could accurately predict that the connection between perfectionism and coping to avoid stimuli would distress college students and make them feel hopeless. 

College student perfectionists who demonstrated positive coping styles in the study weren’t any more depressed than the average student. O’Connor and O’Connor reported their results in the Journal of Counseling Psychology (Vol. 50, No. 3) which support the notion that perfectionism interacts with various other traits and life events to result in psychopathology.

Can Perfectionism Be Measured?

In the interest of measuring perfectionism, Hewitt and Flett developed a scale called the Perfectionistic Self-Presentation Scale (PSPS). PSPS rates the dimensions of three perfectionistic behaviors:

  1. Advertising their own perfection
  2. Avoiding situations where they might appear to be imperfect
  3. Not saying situations where they’ve been imperfect

Using this scale, they’ve found that it predicts psychological distress above and beyond what their original tool, the multidimensional perfectionism scale, was able to find. Hewitt notes people who are afraid to make it known that they’re imperfect are challenging to treat because they are scared to do the one thing they’re trying to prevent.

Hewitt also notes that he’s found it beneficial to stay away from focusing on high personal standards when treating his perfectionist clients because they’re already tired of being told to lower their perfectionistic expectations.

He finds that helping them work on their need to be accepted and cared for is a more effective form of treatment than helping them see how perfectionistic behavior can help them achieve their life goals.


Whether perfectionism is considered adaptive or maladaptive depends on the circumstances and context of a situation. Due to the intricacies of perfectionism, it’s difficult for many people to sort through their challenges without assistance from a licensed professional therapist. If you believe that your perfectionism is causing problems in your life, you may benefit from talk therapy sessions.

At BetterHelp, you will have access to thousands of qualified therapists that can help you better understand your unique perfectionist tendencies. A therapist can work with you to create a treatment plan that can help guide you toward living a less stressful life. No matter where your perfectionism may stem from, a BetterHelp therapist can help you find the root cause of it and all from the comfort of your home.

Online therapy is a great way to introduce yourself to the world of therapy and mental health awareness. It can offer you a safe place to begin something new.

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