Perfectionism: Challenges, Treatments, and Quotes
THC Editorial Team April 20, 2023
- What Is Perfectionism?
- Potential Risk Factors and Causes of Perfectionism
- Examples of Perfectionism
- Potential Negative Effects of Perfectionism
- Potential Benefits of Perfectionism
- Mental Health Conditions Associated with Perfectionism
- Measures of Perfectionism
- Potential Treatments for Unhealthy Perfectionism
- Quotes on Perfectionism
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait or style characterized by a person’s striving for perfection or flawlessness, setting excessively high performance standards, and a tendency to be overly critical of oneself and others.1 Perfectionists often have an intense focus on their work, tasks, or goals and may experience high anxiety, stress, or dissatisfaction if they perceive that they have not met expectations. Excessive unhealthy perfectionism is associated with mental, emotional, and physical difficulties and reduced subjective well-being.2
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Holding oneself to extremely high standards and being overly critical of one’s own performance.
- Other-oriented perfectionism: Imposing unrealistic standards on others and being overly critical of their performance.
- Socially-prescribed perfectionism: Believing that others have exceedingly high expectations for one’s performance and fearing judgment or disapproval if those expectations are not met.
While perfectionism can motivate people to achieve their goals, it can also have negative consequences for mental health, such as increased stress, anxiety, depression, and other conditions. It is important for individuals to recognize when their perfectionism is causing more harm than good and to seek help or support accordingly.
Potential Risk Factors and Causes of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is complex and may be influenced by various factors, including genetic, environmental, and psychological influences. Some of the factors that contribute to the development of perfectionism are:
Parenting practices can play a significant role in the development of perfectionism. For example, children who grow up with overly critical, controlling parents may develop perfectionistic tendencies to cope with their environment or seek approval. An authoritarian parenting style has been associated with the harmful effects of perfectionism, including self-doubt.5
Genetic factors may have a moderate contribution to the development of perfectionistic traits.6
Social and Cultural Factors
Societal and cultural expectations around achievement and success can contribute to the development of perfectionism. For example, individuals living in highly competitive environments or cultures that emphasize accomplishment may be more prone to perfectionism. Socially prescribed perfectionism can be particularly harmful.7
Individual Personality Factors
Certain personality traits, such as high levels of conscientiousness or a strong need for control, may predispose an individual to develop perfectionistic tendencies.8
Examples of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can affect various areas of a person’s life, depending on their specific situations. These can include:
An example of perfectionism in academia is a student who strives for academic excellence and is extremely upset or disappointed when receiving anything less, even if it’s still a good grade. They may spend excessive time studying, revising, and proofreading their work to ensure it meets their high standards.
An example of perfectionism in work is an employee who consistently works long hours to complete tasks with excellence, even if it negatively affects their work-life balance or well-being. They may be overly critical of their work and have difficulty delegating tasks to others, fearing that the results will be less than excellent.
In relationships, perfectionism might manifest as someone who expects their partner or friends to meet unrealistic standards of appearance or behavior, leading to constant criticism, unease, and dissatisfaction.
Sports or Physical Activities
In athletics, perfectionism might resemble an athlete who obsesses over their performance, constantly striving for personal records or perfect form, even at the expense of their physical or mental health. They may experience extreme disappointment or self-blame if they don’t meet their goals or outperform others.
Hobbies or Creative Pursuits
An artist, musician, or writer who is perfectionistic may never be satisfied with their work, continually revising and refining it, and may be hesitant to share their work with others due to fears of judgment or criticism.
Perfectionism may manifest as spending excessive time and effort on dressing well, being well-groomed, and being in excellent physical shape. Their driving fear might be judgment, criticism, or lack of acceptance.
Someone who obsessively cleans, organizes, or maintains their living space, expecting everything to be in perfect order and becoming agitated or stressed when things are out of place.
Potential Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can lead to numerous negative consequences, particularly when it is excessive or maladaptive. Researchers consider perfectionism a “risk and maintaining factor for multiple psychological disorders.”9 Perfectionism may contribute to physical ailments as well.10 Some potentially adverse effects of perfectionism include:
Increased Stress and Anxiety
Perfectionists often experience heightened stress and anxiety due to their high standards and fear of failure.1,9
Perfectionism is viewed as a strong risk and maintaining factor of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.1
The persistent negative thinking and self-criticism associated with perfectionism can contribute to developing or exacerbating depressive symptoms.1
Suicide Ideation and Attempts
High levels of perfectionism, particularly “… self-generated and socially based pressures… ” may be associated with an increased propensity to suicide ideation and attempts.11
Perfectionism has been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as the need for control and excessively high standards can contribute to the development or exacerbation of obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors.1,9
Reduced Coping Ability for Physical Ailments
Perfectionism can effectively reduce one’s coping ability in the face of hardships and difficulties, such as chronic illnesses, and other physical ailments.10
Excessive stress and a fear of failure may cause perfectionists to delay starting or completing tasks.
Persistent self-criticism and dissatisfaction with performance can contribute to low self-esteem in perfectionists.12
Perfectionists often push themselves too hard, working long hours and sacrificing personal well-being to achieve their goals.
Perfectionists may have difficulty forming and maintaining close relationships due to their high expectations and judgmental or critical attitudes toward others and themselves.
Perfectionists may spend excessive time on minor details or revisions, reducing productivity.
Reduced Creativity and Flexibility
Perfectionists tend to be highly focused on getting things right according to unreasonably high standards, which can hinder creativity and situational flexibility.
Avoidance of New Experiences
The fear of failure or imperfection can lead perfectionists to avoid trying new activities or taking risks, potentially limiting their opportunities for growth and development.
Potential Benefits of Perfectionism
While perfectionism can have negative consequences, there are also potential benefits associated with certain aspects of perfectionistic tendencies, particularly when they are adaptive or well-managed. Some of the possible positive associations with perfectionism include:
Self-oriented perfectionism has been associated with greater self-efficacy (the self-belief to achieve desired results).13
Perfectionists are often ambitious and motivated to put forth effort in pursuit of their goals. This perfection can lead to high levels of motivation for achievement.14
Self-oriented perfectionism has also been associated with individual flourishing, including positive emotional experiences, a sense of meaning, and increased engagement.15
Mental Health Conditions Associated with Perfectionism
Perfectionism has been linked to various mental health conditions, either as a contributing factor or as a characteristic that can exacerbate existing conditions. Some mental health conditions that are associated with perfectionism include:
Perfectionism is positively associated with various anxiety and anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, as individuals may experience increased worry and fear due to their high standards and fear of failure.9
Perfectionism has been identified as a risk factor for depression, with individuals experiencing increased negative self-evaluation and rumination due to their excessively high standards and self-criticism.1
Perfectionism has been associated with the development and maintenance of eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder, as individuals may strive for unrealistic body ideals or attempt to gain a sense of control through their eating behaviors.1,9
OCD, which features continuous and uncontrollable, reoccurring thoughts and, or behaviors, is related to aspects of perfectionism, including control and the obsessive desire to perform perfectly.1,9
Measures of Perfectionism
Perfectionism is generally measured using self-report measures (typically questionnaires) that assess different dimensions of perfectionistic beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors. Some of the widely used assessments include:
The Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (FMPS)
The FMPS is a 35-item questionnaire that assesses six dimensions of perfectionism: Concern over Mistakes, Personal Standards, Parental Expectations, Parental Criticism, Doubting of Actions, and Organization.16
The Hewitt & Flett Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS)
The MPS is a 45-item questionnaire that measures three dimensions of perfectionism: Self-Oriented Perfectionism, Other-Oriented Perfectionism, and Socially Prescribed Perfectionism.12
The Almost Perfect Scale-Revised (APS-R)
The APS-R is a 23-item questionnaire that assesses three dimensions of perfectionism: High Standards, Order, and Discrepancy (the perceived difference between one’s expectations and performance).17
The Clinical Perfectionism Questionnaire (CPQ)
The CPQ is a 12-item questionnaire that measures the core features of clinical perfectionism, focusing on the pursuit of personal standards and the evaluation of one’s self-worth based on striving for and achieving these standards.18
Researchers use these assessments to understand better perfectionism and its relationship with various psychological conditions and outcomes.
Potential Treatments for Unhealthy Perfectionism
Recovering from excessive, unhealthy perfectionism can take various forms. These can include a mixture of established and evidenced-based psychotherapeutic measures and various self-care and self-help tools and resources. Some researchers believe that treating perfectionism may help reduce symptoms across a range of mental health conditions in people with more than one such condition.1
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
CBT is an evidence-based form of therapy that helps individuals identify and challenge unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors, such as perfectionism. CBT has been shown to be effective in reducing perfectionistic thinking and symptoms of depression and anxiety.9
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT)
ACT is a form of therapy that uses acceptance, mindfulness, commitment, and behavioral strategies to improve psychological flexibility, helping individuals accept their thoughts and feelings and commit to healthful actions. ACT may have the potential to reduce the psychological inflexibility that is associated with perfectionism.19
Compassion-Focused Therapy (CFT)
CFT is an integrative therapeutic approach that aims to develop self-compassion and reduce self-criticism. It has been shown to be effective in addressing perfectionism and related psychological difficulties.20
Mindfulness practices involve maintaining attention on the mind, body, and behavior and refer to a state of attention and awareness of the present moment, which necessitates a nonjudgmental attitude toward one’s thoughts, emotions, and experiences. These interventions can effectively reduce perfectionism and its negative symptoms, such as anxiety and depression.
Setting Realistic Goals
Adjusting one’s expectations and goals to be more achievable, actionable, and aligned with their values can help mitigate unhealthy perfectionism.
Imperfection, poor decisions, and mistakes are a part of being human. They can be used as learning opportunities and for healing and growth.
Treating oneself with kindness and understanding when encountering setbacks or making mistakes can help buffer the unhealthy effects of perfectionism. Self-compassion can be practiced by acknowledging feelings and offering oneself the same support and encouragement one would provide to a friend.
Making time for activities that promote relaxation, well-being, and personal growth, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, or spending time with loved ones, is a valuable self-help tool.
Challenging Perfectionistic Thoughts
Identify and challenge unhelpful perfectionistic thoughts and beliefs, such as all-or-nothing thinking or catastrophizing. Replace these thoughts with more balanced, realistic alternatives.
Self-acceptance involves embracing oneself in the present moment without conditions, exceptions, or qualifications.
Coping with and improving one’s relationship with perfectionism is a process that takes time, effort, and persistence.
Seek support in addressing perfectionism by reaching out to friends, family, or a mental health professional to share experiences. A therapist or counselor can help develop coping strategies and provide guidance tailored to one’s specific needs.
By implementing these strategies, one can work toward reducing the negative impact of perfectionism and cultivating a more balanced, compassionate approach to their goals and expectations.
Quotes on Perfectionism
To be human is to know that we are imperfect and whole: we will hurt and be hurt; we will feel disappointed and will disappoint; we will stumble and fall and get back up again.The Wisdom of Anxiety
Acceptance of imperfection is attained through utmost emptiness and purest calm, through the return to the primal, to the root.Tao Te Ching
True healing is not a destination, not about ridding yourself of pain, fear, sorrow, and all that, not about becoming perfect, or immune, or untouchable, but has something to do with saying YES to the present moment (the only moment we are ever truly in connection with), and affirming it, even if it is uncomfortable right now.The Self-Acceptance Project
That is really what radical forgiveness is all about — that people can feel better about themselves, accept themselves, love themselves more, and know that they are perfect just the way they are.The Self-Acceptance Project
Mindfulness is not and cannot be about improving yourself, because you are already whole, already complete, already perfect (including all your “imperfections”).Meditation Is Not What You Think
From a Buddhist perspective, when we can regard our mistakes and transgressions with the eyes of compassion, we release the ignorance that keeps us bound in hating and blaming ourselves. We see that our imperfections don’t taint our basic goodness. This is what it means to feel forgiven. Aware of our true nature, we know nothing is wrong.Radical Acceptance
There is no such thing as perfect parents. All parents make mistakes and inevitably leave lesser or greater trails of damage. In later life it is often a painful and difficult task for a person to discern and integrate what occurred in childhood; this can be slow work, but it can yield great fruits of forgiveness, freedom, and tranquility of heart.To Bless the Space Between Us
There’s no ideal partner… There’s only the good enough partner who is perfectly imperfect.We Do
Perfectionism is not the path that leads us to our gifts and to our sense of purpose; it’s the hazardous detour.Daring Greatly
Perfectionism is addictive, because when we invariably do experience shame, judgment, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Rather than questioning the faulty logic of perfectionism, we become even more entrenched in our quest to look and do everything just right.Daring Greatly
Many an artist has failed his calling because he refused a limited, less-than-perfect expression of his original vision.Transformation
We seek not perfection, a chimera, only an ever-blossoming commitment to stay on the healthy path as best we can.Wholeness and Holiness