The Problem with Perfectionism

Many people describe themselves as perfectionists.  Some perfectionists wear this label like a badge of honor.  Students tell me all the time, “I am a perfectionist.”  In my conversations with students, I point out that having high standards for yourself is a good thing, but the very definition of being perfect, indeed means that you have failed since nothing can actually be 100 percent all of the time. 

Emotional Consequences of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be defined as having excessively high standards and being overly self-critical.  I would argue that the second part of this definition, self-criticism, is the most harmful.  There is a stark difference between being self-reflective and understanding how to admit to and learn from your own mistakes versus judging yourself so harshly that mistakes are intolerable.  The emotional consequence of this kind of self-judgement is often shame which is damaging and can erode our ability to have a positive sense of self.

Types of Perfectionism

A 2019 study by Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill, explored the increase in perfectionism in birth cohorts 1989-2016.  These authors defined 3 different types of perfectionism:  self-oriented, socially-prescribed, and other-oriented perfectionism.

Self-oriented perfectionism was defined as attaching irrational importance to being perfect, having unrealistic expectations of one’s self, and holding punitive self-evaluations.  Socially-prescribed perfectionism exists when individuals believe that their social context is excessively demanding, others judge them harshly, and that they must be perfect to get approval from others.  Lastly, other-oriented perfectionism happens when individuals impose unrealistic standards on those around them and evaluate them critically.

Mental Health Consequences of Perfectionism

Research has demonstrated that high rates of perfectionism, especially self-oriented perfectionism can lead to significant mental health consequences such as depression, general anxiety, socially-specific anxiety, lower life satisfaction, and feelings of low self-worth.  Additionally, highly perfectionistic individuals struggle with the ability to emotionally self-soothe after they do not reach self-imposed perfect standards.

How to Recover from being a Perfectionist

When someone is a perfectionist, they are constantly feeling pressure to perform or prove what they can do to themselves and others.  Recovery starts with recognizing how harmful constant perfectionism can be and to recognize that one can still hold high standards for one’s self and achieve them without being perfect.  Other ways to combat perfectionism include letting go of the need to compare yourself to others.  When we compare ourselves to others, we make judgments that we can rarely actually confirm, especially through socially media (e.g. she looks like she has the “perfect” life).  We often compare how we feel inside to how we think others look on the outside (e.g. he is so happy because he is always smiling).  This is a faulty comparison and frequently a damaging one.  Other strategies such as mindfulness (trying to stay in the moment), having gratitude for what we have and those that love us, examining our own harsh self-judgements and negative internal dialogue, can all be helpful antidotes to harmful perfectionism.  Finally, having self-compassion is important as is truly learning how to see mistakes and challenges as valuable opportunities for growth.

About Dr. Katherine Helm

Katherine is a Chicagoland native, professor, and psychologist who enthusiastically wants to help people have strong mental health and healthy, fulfilling relationships. Katherine is a licensed psychologist with over 24 years of experience working with adolescents, adults, couples and groups in multiple clinical settings including college counseling, psychiatric hospitals, community mental health, and private practice. She has authored multiple books on working with couples, sex education for high school and college students, and mental health issues in the African American community. Currently, she is the Director of a Clinical Mental Health Graduate Programs for Lewis University. You can learn more about her areas of expertise at: drkhelmconsulting.com

2 thoughts on “The Problem with Perfectionism

  1. Mary Lisa
    November 1, 2022 at 7:51 pm

    I always felt like I carried the weight of the world on my shoulders in my marriage. It got to where I couldn’t bear that burden any more and that I wasn’t cut out for marriage. After 35 years of never being right or having compliments with an added “but” or “if” I left my husband and grew 10 yrs younger instantly. I have no desire to be a wife anymore and our son doesn’t want children. (Not a surprise to me but a bit of a heartache) I always knew my husband was a perfectionist but never put the two things together until a friend responded to “the weight of the world“ by saying, “so you felt inadequate“. Wow it hit me like a ton of bricks. I have been living with him again for a few months now because he became gravely, but i’ve never been so unhappy in my life. should get counseling? We don’t sleep together . We are not a couple. he’s a good man that i can’t stand to be with.

  2. Roxanne
    October 26, 2022 at 9:34 am

    This is a really succinct and clear sum up of perfectionism as I have ever read.

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