Is Perfectionism Healthy?

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated March 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988. Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” Some mental health experts view this tendency on a spectrum from healthy to “maladaptive,” or unhealthy. Read on to learn about this argument, the potential mental health consequences of unchecked, maladaptive perfectionism, and advice on seeking help if you’re experiencing negative impacts of this tendency.

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Having trouble with perfectionism?

What perfectionism can look like

Perfectionism is often marked by a few key elements: 

  1. Impossibly high or strict goals or standards with a focus on results over effort
  2. Avoiding failure at all costs (through excessive work, a strong need for control, procrastination, avoidance, etc.)
  3. Harsh criticism of the self and/or others when standards are not met

A tendency toward perfectionism can manifest in many different ways. For example, for some individuals, it applies primarily to their work or school life. This could look like striving to never miss a deadline, upset a coworker or classmate, or get negative feedback or a low grade on a project or test, and feeling distraught and even worthless when any such situation does occur.

For others, it appears especially strongly in romantic relationships, which can look like overthinking every decision, constantly seeking reassurance, reacting defensively, or being highly critical of oneself and one’s partner(s). However it may manifest, the root fear is often that the individual will be deemed worthless and unworthy of love or good things if they ever make mistakes or exhibit flaws—a classic example of all-or-nothing thinking, which is a common cognitive distortion.

Types of perfectionism

Two psychologists who are well-known for their work on perfectionism, Gordon Flett, Ph.D, and Paul Hewitt, Ph.D, categorized this tendency into three main types. These are: self-oriented (holding yourself toward perfectionistic standards), other-oriented (holding others toward these standards), and socially prescribed (believing that others—bosses, partners, coaches, parents—expect you to be perfect or they won’t like, love, or value you). 

An individual might display one, two, or all three types, and each comes with its own set of risks. For example, socially prescribed perfectionism may be more likely to lead to mental health challenges like low self-esteem and depression. Other-oriented perfectionism may be more likely to result in difficulties in interpersonal relationships. 

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What causes perfectionism?

Perfectionism commonly has its roots in childhood. In general, it often stems from an individual learning in their formative years to falsely equate their self-worth with their performance. This could result from a number of different scenarios or a combination of multiple, such as:

  • Extremely high standards of performance explicitly set by parents
  • Disdain, name-calling, or even abuse for falling short of high standards
  • Constant comparison to the achievements of siblings or peers
  • Excessive praise for achievements rather than efforts
  • Being raised by parents who are very accomplished and/or who perform perfectionism
  • A volatile household where perfectionism becomes a method of control
  • Impossible standards communicated by media and other cultural messaging
  • Pressure to adhere to strict religious or cultural standards 

Regardless of the cause, perfectionism has the potential to lead to complications with one’s life, relationships, and self-image. While unearthing where your tendency toward perfectionism might come from is not necessary in every case, many people find it to be a helpful step towards healing from it.

Is perfectionism always unhealthy?

As with many elements of the human experience, perfectionism can be thought of as a spectrum. A small, manageable dose of perfectionism could help a person challenge themselves, perform better, and learn from failure. However, perfectionism that is too intense or not managed in a healthy way—also known as maladaptive perfectionism—can lead to a variety of negative health outcomes, as research has suggested. For example, it may increase the risk of:

  • Unhealthy stress levels
  • Low self-worth
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Depression
  • Eating disorders
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Becoming familiar with the potential negative health outcomes of perfectionism may now be more important than ever, since statistics suggest that this tendency seems to be on the rise. A 2018 analysis of statistics about perfectionism in American, Canadian, and British college students suggests that all three types of perfectionism (self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed) had increased by statistically significant amounts since 1989. 

Plus, though it’s difficult to point to perfectionism as an explicit cause, eating disorders have also been on the rise in recent years, as has depression and deaths by suicide. Many mental health disorders often have complex causes that stem from many factors. That said, since perfectionism can contribute to conditions and behaviors like these, raising awareness about this tendency and its possible harms could have the potential to improve mental health outcomes—particularly among more vulnerable populations, like teenagers and young adults. 

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Having trouble with perfectionism?

How therapy can help with perfectionism

For many people who experience it, perfectionism is a deeply ingrained pattern of thinking. That’s why seeking the support of a counselor—particularly one who practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—can be a helpful way to address this tendency. They can help you learn to use CBT principles to recognize distorted thought patterns that relate to perfectionism and eventually learn to shift them in a healthier direction. For example, they might encourage you to learn to question the way your brain has equated your performance with your worthiness of love and belonging. Over time, distancing these two things in your mind can help release some of the pressure and allow you to give yourself and others more grace in life.

Not everyone feels comfortable meeting with a therapist in person, which is where online therapy can come into play. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging to address the challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that online CBT can be an effective intervention for those experiencing troubling perfectionism, so you can generally feel confident in choosing this method of support if it’s more convenient for you.

Takeaway

Perfectionism is the tendency to hold yourself and/or others to an impossible standard of achievement. While a small, managed dose of this tendency can help you challenge yourself and learn from failure, too much has the potential to negatively impact your life and mental health. If you’re looking for support in managing a tendency toward perfectionism, you might consider meeting with a therapist online or in person.

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