Written by David Heitz | Published on January 21, 2014
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD, MBA on January 21, 2014

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a form of irrational thinking. People with perfectionism hold themselves to impossibly high standards. They feel that what they do is never good enough. Perfectionism makes people feel unhappy with their lives. It can also cause them to stop trying to succeed. Perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and self-harm. Even mild cases can interfere with quality of life, affecting personal relationships, work, and/or education.

What Are the Symptoms of Perfectionism?

A desire to achieve is healthy. But an irrational desire to always be perfect can cause problems. Perfectionists feel that they fail at everything they try.

A common sign of perfectionism is procrastination. A perfectionist may be unable to begin a task because he or she fears being unable to complete it perfectly.

Another sign of perfectionism is an inability to relax and share thoughts and feelings. A perfectionist can become very controlling in personal and professional relationships.

Perfectionists often become obsessed with rules, lists, and work. At another extreme, they may become extremely apathetic.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism’s cause is not always clear. It is often a learned behavior. People with perfectionism believe that they are valuable only because of what they achieve or what they do for other people.

Academic settings can bring out perfectionism in young people.

Perfectionism in Children

Children and teenagers are often driven to be overachievers, with schoolwork as well as activities such as sports, school clubs, jobs, and community service. This can cause an obsession with success. Perfectionism may ultimately interfere with their ability to achieve it (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2013).

Although it once was believed that perfectionism could be a healthy motivator, modern research shows this is not the case (Benson, 2003).

How Is Perfectionism Treated?

Perfectionists work to hide personal problems. This can make the disorder difficult to treat. Therapy, especially cognitive-behavioral therapy, can help many people learn new ways of thinking about goals and achievements. Some psychologists say that focusing on a perfectionist's need for acceptance is an effective strategy. Reducing reactions to negative feedback can also be important (Besser, et al., 2004).

Self Care

The following things may help lessen perfectionism (University of Illinois, 2007:

  • setting realistic, attainable goals
  • breaking up overwhelming tasks into small steps
  • focusing on one activity or task at a time
  • acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes, and that most mistakes present learning opportunities
  • confronting fears of failure by being realistic about possible outcomes

If perfectionism is interfering with your ability to live a full and happy life, consult a mental health professional. If you’re thinking of harming yourself or others, seek emergency medical attention.

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