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Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by excessively high standards. According to Thomas Greenspon, PhD, perfectionism is ”a desire to be perfect, a fear of imperfection, and an emotional conviction that mistakes are signs of personal defects, and that being perfect is the way to be acceptable to others.”
Many people experience perfectionist tendencies, but not always to the extent that it becomes problematic. Healthy perfectionism, or adaptive perfectionism, can motivate you. It can also help you set goals, and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success.
On the other hand, unhealthy perfectionism, or maladaptive perfectionism, can lead to a fear of failure, unrealistic views of achievement, and high standards that are impossible to meet. Perfectionism becomes maladaptive when an individual becomes so preoccupied with ”perfect” performance that nothing is ”good enough” to meet their excessively high standards.
If perfectionism is taking control of your life, you’re not alone. Fortunately, treatments are available to help you overcome maladaptive perfectionism and improve your mental health.
Forms of Perfectionism
Psychologists Paul Hewitt and Gordon Flett suggest that there are three forms of perfectionism. They vary according to where the perfectionism is directed. Perfectionists can experience more than one form of perfectionism.
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionism leads people to be more conscientious and to hold high personal standards, and is associated with greater productivity. According to the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, high self-oriented perfectionists are constantly striving to be as perfect as they can be and set unrealistic goals and high standards for themselves.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: Socially prescribed perfectionism is driven by a sense of constant pressure to be perfect in everything you do. Consequently, you might feel like your self-worth is tied with a sense of high standards that others hold for you. For example, you might be afraid of missing points on a test because of your parents’ high expectations or failing to score a goal because of judgment from fellow athletes.
- Other-oriented perfectionism: You judge others harshly and have unrealistically high expectations of others. Other-oriented perfectionism can lead to problems in interpersonal relationships and intimate relationships.
How common is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is relatively common. In one study, almost half of all survey respondents had perfectionist traits, and those with perfectionist traits experienced higher stress levels.
Research suggests that levels of perfectionism have increased over the past decades. According to a recent study, from 1989 to 2016, all three types of perfectionism increased by up to 33% in college students.
When does perfectionism become a problem?
Perfectionism affects everyone differently. Some common signs that perfectionist tendencies are negatively affecting your life include:
- Feeling preoccupied with being perfect
- Having unrealistic expectations of yourself or others
- Allowing your accomplishments to influence how you feel about yourself
- Judging yourself or other people harshly
- Procrastination due to fear of failure
- Feeling like you have to be perfect for other people to like you
- Anxiety, depression, and other forms of psychological distress
- Relationship problems
- Feeling overwhelmed or under constant pressure
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Mental Health Challenges Related to Perfectionism
Research has linked maladaptive perfectionism to common mental health conditions, such as:
- Anxiety disorders, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Depression, low self-esteem, and suicide ideation
- Eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa, and body dysmorphia
What should you do if you’re struggling with perfectionism?
If you’re struggling with perfectionist tendencies or behaviors, help is available. Some common treatments for maladaptive perfectionism include:
- Seek therapy. In both individual and group settings, talk therapy can help you overcome your perfectionistic behavior, identify your perfectionist tendencies, and navigate any associated mental health challenges.
- Practice self-compassion. Although difficult, being kind to yourself and accepting your flaws can help combat depression and reduce the influence of perfectionistic beliefs. Additionally, taking care of yourself by getting enough sleep, exercising regularly, and eating a balanced diet can help boost self-esteem.
- Surround yourself with social support. Opening up to a trusted friend or family member can help you express your thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities. Your loved ones may be able to offer different perspectives of looking at things that can help change how you think or feel.
- Call a helpline. If you need immediate mental health support, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
Finding the Right Therapist
Many types of therapy are effective in treating perfectionism, including:
- Psychodynamic psychotherapy: Psychodynamic therapy can help you navigate past experiences that influence current patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. It can help you identify the underlying factors of your perfectionism and self-esteem issues.
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT can help maladaptive perfectionists identify unhelpful behaviors and perfectionistic thoughts, such as black-and-white thinking, and replace them with more balanced thoughts and beliefs.
- Interpersonal therapy (IPT): IPT can help you develop better communication and problem-solving skills to improve both your interpersonal relationships and intimate relationships.
- Mindfulness practices: Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your body and thoughts. Mindfulness practices can help you learn to practice self-compassion, reduce anxiety and depression, and accept your flaws and imperfections.
If perfectionism is interfering with your everyday life, reach out to a therapist through WithTherapy. We’ll connect you to a therapist you feel comfortable with, regardless of your personal preferences and requirements.
One of the mental health professionals on the WithTherapy platform can help you explore alternative ways to cope with stress, overcome your fear of failure, and learn to separate your sense of accomplishment from your self-worth.