Understanding the Psychology Behind Perfectionism

Perfectionism refers to the tendency to set excessively high standards for oneself and others. Some perfectionists are able to achieve high levels of success because of the lofty goals they strive to meet. Others struggle with low self-esteem and problems in daily functioning when they inevitably make mistakes. 

Perfectionism is a personality trait, not a mental health condition. However, people who exhibit perfectionistic traits are more likely to develop certain mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. 

Learn more about perfectionism, including the definition, causes, types, and coping methods.

Man feels stress in writing a report due to his perfectionism

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Definition of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a personality trait that is characterized by a tendency to set extremely high, rigid, or "flawless" goals and place excessive demands on oneself and others. 

People with perfectionistic traits typically have high standards. Those standards may be related to almost any area of life, such as:

  • Athletic or artistic performance
  • Academic achievements
  • Career and/or financial success
  • Organization, cleanliness, timeliness, and/or orderliness
  • Physical appearance
  • Fitness and health
  • Relationships and family
  • Adherence to a moral or religious code

Striving for a high degree of success isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, adaptive perfectionism—which involves conscientiousness, organization, striving for excellence, and ambitious goals—is linked to career success, high self-esteem, happiness, and greater life satisfaction. 

However, maladaptive perfectionism—which involves an intense desire for others’ approval, unrealistic expectations, negative self-talk, pressure from others, and guilt—is unhealthy. Maladaptive perfectionism is tied to low confidence, fear of failure, and poor outcomes in relationships and overall well-being.

Medical Understanding

Medical researchers have pinpointed several potential causes for perfectionism. The following factors may increase your likelihood of having perfectionistic traits:

  • Genetics: Research suggests that perfectionism sometimes runs in families. Twin studies have found that both genetic and environmental factors play a role in perfectionistic characteristics.
  • Upbringing: High parental expectations, parental pressure, and controlling parenting styles are linked to perfectionism among some children and adolescents.
  • Trauma: Many perfectionistic adults report having experienced trauma, such as abuse or neglect, during childhood.

Perfectionism is not a mental disorder. However, having unhealthy perfectionistic tendencies increases your risk of developing certain mental health conditions, including: 

  • Anxiety and depression: Perfectionism, anxiety, and depression symptoms often go hand in hand with one another. Perfectionists are significantly more likely to meet the diagnostic criteria for conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and major depressive disorder (MDD).
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is a mental health disorder that involves both obsessions (intrusive, unwanted thoughts) and compulsions (repetitive rituals that someone performs to manage their anxiety about an obsession). The trait of perfectionism plays an important role in the development of OCD. Children and adolescents who exhibit perfectionistic traits have a higher chance of developing OCD symptoms during their lifetime.
  • Eating disorders: There is a well-established link between perfectionism and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN). Researchers believe that perfectionists may be more likely to strive for extreme thinness, feel dissatisfied with their body or weight, and try to match unattainable standards of beauty.

Cultural and Social Causes

Personal factors—such as genetics, past trauma, and comorbid mental health disorders (those you have at the same time)—often play a role in the development of perfectionism.

Certain occupations, social environments, cultures, and subcultures are more likely to foster perfectionism or to attract perfectionistic people. Common examples include:

  • Colleges and universities: Academic environments often increase the risk of maladaptive perfectionism. Studies have found that students in certain high-pressure areas of study, such as medicine, law, and pharmacy, are especially prone to perfectionism.
  • Athletics: Many athletes are faced with intense pressure to perform at high levels, which can sometimes be harmful. Research suggests that both perfectionistic athletes and athletes with perfectionistic coaches are more likely to experience burnout.
  • Arts: Professionals in artistic fields often deal with intense scrutiny and competition. A 2020 study indicated that professional dancers who were especially self-critical were particularly likely to lose their motivation and passion for their art.
  • Social media: Representations of the “ideal” body on social media and unrealistic cultural beauty standards can lead to unhealthy perfectionism and problems with body image, especially among young women.

Is Perfectionism Becoming More Common?

There is some evidence that perfectionism has become more common over the past several decades. A 2019 meta-analysis of self-demanding behaviors and traits among college students in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom revealed that rates of perfectionism increased significantly between 1989 and 2016.

3 Types of Perfectionism

Researchers have identified three main types of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed.

Self-Oriented

Self-oriented perfectionism refers to the tendency to place excessively high demands on yourself. 

Self-oriented perfectionists are extremely critical of themselves and rely on external achievements in order to feel satisfied and worthy. People with self-directed perfectionistic traits are often highly motivated, conscientious, and neurotic (prone to obsessive thinking, anxiety, and worrying).

Other-Oriented

Other-oriented perfectionists set high expectations on another person or people—often a partner or children—and pressure them to fix their perceived flaws. 

For example, a perfectionistic parent may constantly criticize their child’s academic performance. Some other-oriented perfectionists exhibit controlling behaviors in an attempt to push someone else to “be the best” at what they do.

Socially Prescribed

Socially prescribed perfectionism refers to the perception that others expect you to be perfect. 

For example, someone with a tendency toward socially prescribed perfectionism may have internalized familial, societal, or cultural expectations more than their peers. Others may be influenced to develop perfectionistic traits in a high-pressure environment, such as a competitive career field.

Traits and Symptoms

Perfectionism may involve an overwhelming fear of failure. In addition to an intense fear of making mistakes, common signs of unhealthy perfectionism include:

  • Setting unattainable goals: People with perfectionistic tendencies often set excessively high standards of performance for themselves at all times. They might even strive for flawlessness. This creates a negative cycle; when a perfectionistic person inevitably fails to meet their impossibly lofty personal standard, their self-esteem may plummet.
  • Criticism: Perfectionism is linked both to critical self-evaluation and overly critical assessments of others. Perfectionists often beat themselves up for small mistakes and/or expect too much of other people.
  • Obsessive thinking and reassurance-seeking: Many perfectionists think constantly about their past failures or future goals. To manage their anxiety, they may frequently ask partners, mentors, or employers to reassure them of their worth and aptitude. Meanwhile, some perfectionists are so afraid of receiving negative feedback that they avoid it at all costs. 
  • Overidentification with achievements: People with perfectionistic traits often rely too much on external measures of success (such as grades) and others’ assessments of them to validate their identity and self-worth. For example, a perfectionistic person who makes a mistake may feel overwhelming guilt, embarrassment, shame, and regret. They may even think they are worthless or label themselves a “failure” in life.

Effect on Everyday Life

Research suggests that many people with perfectionistic tendencies experience lower levels of life satisfaction, higher rates of stress, and decreased psychological well-being. 

If left unchecked, perfectionism can interfere with important aspects of your day-to-day functioning, including: 

  • Time management: It may seem contradictory, but studies have found that perfectionism is linked to various forms of self-sabotage, such as procrastination and poor time management. Fear of failure and obsessive thinking can make things take longer than they should or lead you to avoid starting a dreaded task. Perfectionism can also stifle your creativity, increase self-doubt, and make you afraid to take on new challenges. 
  • Relationships: Perfectionism can have a negative impact on your ability to maintain healthy, high-quality relationships. Partners, children, and other loved ones may become frustrated with your critical comments, workaholic tendencies, or constant requests for reassurance and approval.
  • Stress levels: Perfectionists often become burned out, overextended, and distressed over time. Studies suggest that medical students who report high rates of perfectionism consistently experience significantly heightened levels of stress.
  • Physical and mental health issues: Chronic stress and neglect of self-care can increase your risk of physical conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS), as well as mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Perfectionism and Sleep

Research suggests that certain aspects of perfectionism (such as underlying shame and guilt) may affect your ability to get a good night’s sleep. A 2018 study found that people with perfectionistic traits were significantly more likely to experience insomnia.

Examples of Perfectionist Behaviors

Perfectionism has been linked to certain disruptive patterns in thinking and behavior, such as:

  • Overactivity: Perfectionism often leads people to engage in excessive performance-related behaviors and overactivity, such as overworking, grooming excessively, or studying for hours into the night. This behavior is often counterproductive, as it can lead to burnout and exhaustion. 
  • Rumination: Rumination is a type of obsessive thinking, often around a central theme or topic. For a perfectionist, these unwanted, time-consuming, and intrusive thoughts may involve fears of not meeting a certain goal or feelings of shame about past mistakes.
  • Excessive attention to detail: Perfectionists often get "lost in the weeds" and fail to see the bigger picture because they are concerned about small details. This can make even everyday tasks feel daunting, as their work isn't complete unless it is flawless.
  • Inflexibility: To achieve their goals, perfectionists often adopt rigid routines or "rules." For example, they may be afraid to skip a single workout or take a break once in a while. This inflexibility may also lead to controlling tendencies toward other people.

Overcoming Perfectionism

Perfectionism can sometimes help you to achieve great things. However, it can also negatively affect your relationships, well-being, and overall view of yourself. 

Here are a few ways to overcome perfectionism if it’s getting in the way of your daily life:

  • Set realistic goals. If your goals are unattainable, it’s easy to get discouraged. Make a point of setting realistic goals on a manageable timeline. Break each larger goal down into smaller tasks so you don’t feel overwhelmed along the way. 
  • Try new things. Identifying too strongly with your performance in a certain activity can set you up for failure. Picking up a brand-new hobby or interest can help you make peace with making mistakes, boost your creativity, and discard the idea of being “perfect” all the time.
  • Practice mindfulness. Perfectionism is often related to anxious thinking—ruminating on past mistakes or worrying about the future. Staying grounded in the present moment through mindfulness exercises, such as meditation, may allow you to let go of some of those fixations.
  • Try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). A therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy can help you identify your negative patterns of thinking, plan for the kind of future you want, foster self-acceptance, and develop greater empathy for others and compassion for yourself.

Healthy Habits to Build Self-Worth

For many people, perfectionism is strongly linked to low self-worth. Building your self-esteem is an important step to overcoming the tendency to strive toward an unrealistic ideal.

Here are some simple ways you can work to improve your self-esteem:

  • Stay connected. Spending quality time with family and friends will remind you of your positive traits. Make sure to carve out time to engage in meaningful activities with the people you care about. 
  • Help others. Serving others is a great way to boost your mood and build your confidence. Volunteer with a local nonprofit, ask a neighbor if they need help, or offer to do a favor for a friend or relative. 
  • Challenge your negative thoughts. Face your self-critical thoughts head-on with a journaling exercise. Write down a few negative thoughts you have about yourself on a regular basis. For every negative thought, list three to five positive things you like and value about yourself. This can help you to develop a more well-rounded, optimistic self-image. 
  • Use positive affirmations. It might feel silly at first, but repeating positive affirmations into a mirror before you leave for work (or leaving Post-it notes to find around the house as you complete your daily tasks) can help you start your day off on the right foot.

Summary

Perfectionism is defined as the tendency to place unrealistic demands on yourself and/or others. Common traits include fear of failure, self-criticism, obsessive thinking, reassurance-seeking, and unattainable goal-setting. The three main types of perfectionism are self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed.

Perfectionism is a personality trait rather than a mental health condition. However, it is linked to a higher likelihood of developing an eating disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, or depression. It can also lead to increased stress and lowered self-worth.

Overcoming perfectionism typically involves building self-acceptance, improving self-compassion, and building self-esteem. Talk therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can help to disrupt negative thinking patterns and boost self-confidence.

A Word From Verywell

Perfectionistic thinking can be a difficult cycle to break. Remember that it’s completely normal to make mistakes, and don’t be afraid to seek help if necessary.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do perfectionists have high-functioning anxiety?

    According to recent research, perfectionism is often tied to high-functioning anxiety. A 2019 study found that many high-achieving employees reported wrestling with anxiety, perfectionism, and overthinking. People who are successful in their chosen careers may nevertheless struggle with insecurity, low self-esteem, and self-doubt.

  • At what point should you get help for perfectionism?

    Perfectionism becomes a problem when it interferes with your daily functioning. While some degree of perfectionism may be healthy, maladaptive perfectionism can lead to stress, burnout, and relationship conflicts.

    Red flags include frequently feeling like a “failure,” overthinking, doubting your decisions and abilities, and intrusive thoughts related to your performance at work or school.

  • Is there a genetic aspect of perfectionism?

    In most cases, research suggests that genetics and environment interact to increase the likelihood that someone will develop perfectionistic traits. Studies have found that genetics may account for around 23%–42% of the variance in terms of perfectionism. Both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism have been linked to genetics.

  • What can parents do to support perfectionist children?

    Parents can help their perfectionistic children by letting them know that they are loved unconditionally. Make sure that your child knows you value them for who they are—not just their grades, achievements in sports, or personal goals. If your child is consistently struggling with low self-worth, it may be necessary to seek counseling.

  • When is perfectionism a good trait?

    Adaptive perfectionism has been linked to certain positive personality traits, such as conscientiousness, effective goal-setting, and assertiveness. Perfectionism may also help you meet your goals in an academic, athletic, or artistic setting. Some research indicates that perfectionists are likely to achieve high standards of personal success.

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