Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by high standards, rigid expectations, and specific ideas about how to achieve a desired outcome. Perfectionists tend to be driven, organized, and reliable but can also become overly anxious and critical when their expectations are unmet. By becoming more open, adaptable, and tolerant of mistakes, perfectionists can use this trait in ways that are helpful and positive.
What Is Perfectionism?
While perfectionism is described as a personality trait, it usually also involves specific behavioral tendencies. People who are “perfectionists” have high expectations, but they also tend to rely on consistent methods and routines to reach these expectations. Perfectionists are held to strange double standards in our society where they are simultaneously admired for their achievements, while also criticized for being overly rigid, controlling, and “type-A.” This double standard highlights that depending on the situation and the way the trait is expressed, perfectionism can either be very helpful or very harmful.2,3,5,9
Perfectionism is sometimes conceptualized as a comparison people make between their expectations and their reality. Specifically, most perfectionists tend to compare themselves to an ideal or “perfect” version of themselves. The more attached a person is to these expectations, the harder it can be for them to manage their perfectionism and accept reality, especially during times when they make mistakes or when things don’t go as planned. This can lead to unhealthy forms of perfectionism that feed anxiety, insecurity, and patterns of self-criticism.
Signs of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can happen on a spectrum, and can impact one or more areas of someone’s life. Someone with perfectionistic tendencies might exhibit a severe fear of failure, have trouble overlooking small mistakes, or be hypersensitive to negative feedback.
Signs of perfectionism could include:1, 7
- Having high standards and expectations
- Feeling pressured to live up to high expectations
- Needing clear organization and structure
- Exaggerated fear of failure
- Being ambitious and driven
- Higher levels of self-doubt and insecurity
- Difficulty overlooking small mistakes
- Viewing any mistake as failure or incompetence
- Intense fear of being rejected or judged because of mistakes
- Spending excessive time, effort, or energy to improve or reduce mistakes
- Excessive ruminating or self-criticism
- Always being over-prepared or having a plan
- Needing exact rules, expectations, and instructions
- Hypersensitivity to criticism and negative feedback
- Rigid black-or-white thinking patterns
- Self-worth or self-esteem that is contingent upon success
Examples of Perfectionistic Behavior
Perfectionism is easier to spot when it broadly impacts many different areas of a person’s life but many people display specific perfectionistic tendencies in one or more areas of life.
Some examples of the more specific ways perfectionism can manifest include:
Perfectionism is closely linked to eating disorders like bulimia and anorexia, where it shows up as being preoccupied with maintaining a certain weight or restricting to a certain number of calories. People with these disorders tend to have a distorted negative view of their body, and resort to extreme and unhealthy habits in pursuit of attaining a specific goal weight or “ideal body.”
Perfectionists focused on academic achievement are often straight-A students but tend to still be anxious about their grades and distressed at anything less than a perfect score. They might read, revise, and edit a paper, project, or assignment several times to ensure there are no errors, and may even request other people look over it before they submit it.
Perfectionists tend to be hypersensitive to the needs, preferences, and expectations of other people and have an intense fear of upsetting or disappointing others (people pleasing). This can lead them to develop unhealthy and codependent relationships where they neglect their own self-care to cater to the needs and wants of others.
Some parents who struggle with perfectionist tendencies themselves may unconsciously develop perfectionism regarding their children’s accomplishments. They may put a lot of pressure on their children to excel in school, sports, and other settings. While well-intentioned, they may be critical when their child makes small mistakes or isn’t putting in 100% effort. Their disappointment and criticism can cause children to feel as though their parents only love and accept them when they meet all of their expectations.
Perfectionists may rely on a very specific, ritualized routine that involves doing certain tasks at certain times or in certain ways, and they may become upset or anxious when this routine is interrupted. For example, they might take on an extra task at work because they can’t count on others to “do it right” or they might have strict bedtimes, exercise schedules or meal plans that they need to adhere to.
Types of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can originate and present in different ways. Some people will display perfectionist tendencies in almost all areas of their lives, while it may be contained to just school or work for another person.
Some research delineates three different types of perfectionism:
1. Self-Oriented Perfectionism
Self-oriented perfectionism describes someone who sets high expectations for themselves. This kind of perfectionism is more likely to be expressed in healthy ways and tends to manifest in people who are high-achieving and self-motivated.9
2. Socially Prescribed Perfectionism
Socially prescribed perfectionism involves expectations of others or the larger society that someone has internalized. These expectations can come from parents, friends, significant others, work, or society in general, and tend to lead to self-doubt, lack of confidence, and social anxiety. Socially-prescribed perfectionism is driven by a fear of rejection and criticism and is more likely to be maladaptive in nature.5
3. Other-Oriented Perfectionism
Other-oriented perfectionism involves holding other people to high standards and expectations. Other-oriented perfectionists can be overly critical, harsh, and demanding of others. This can lead to anger and hostility, and also has the potential to interrupt their ability to form close, trusting relationships with others.1
Healthy vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism
Whether perfectionism is expressed in healthy or unhealthy ways depends on the overall impact the trait has on a person. Good perfectionism has an overall positive and motivating effect and leads to high achievement and improved performance. People who experience good perfectionism are driven by “perfectionistic strivings,” or the desire to grow, improve, and achieve goals.9
Worrying About Mistakes & Demands
People with unhealthy perfectionism also have perfectionistic strivings, but they also have high levels of perfectionistic concerns and demands, meaning they worry more about making mistakes and place more demands on themselves to be perfect.1, 6 This combination of expectations, concerns, and demands to be perfect often leads people to become more insecure, anxious, stressed and uptight.
Unhealthy or Unrealistic Expectations
The specific expectations that a person sets also seems to influence whether their perfectionism is healthy or not. Unhealthy forms of perfectionism often involve unrealistically high expectations that set people up to feel as though they are constantly falling short or failing. Healthy perfectionists tend to be more realistic about their expectations and feel proud when they accomplish them, while unhealthy perfectionists tend to always find something to criticize, even when they meet their goals. Self-criticism can be a central factor attributed to unhealthy forms of perfectionism.2, 4, 5, 6
Inability to Adapt
People with healthy perfectionism strive to meet lofty goals, but are also able to tolerate mistakes, changes, and problems that they didn’t anticipate. When they encounter these barriers, they are able to change or let go of their expectations which helps them respond in more effective ways. Adaptability to change, tolerance of mistakes, and acceptance of circumstances beyond a person’s control all seem to contribute to the healthy expression of this trait.3, 4, 6, 9
Popular Choices For Online Therapy
BetterHelp – Best For Those “On A Budget”
Online-Therapy.com – Best For Multiple Sessions Per Week
According to 14 Best Therapy Services (updated on 1/16/2023), Choosing Therapy partners with leading mental health companies and is compensated for marketing by BetterHelp and Online-Therapy.
What Causes Perfectionism?
Personality traits like perfectionism are believed to be caused by a combination of both genetics and environment. People can inherit certain perfectionistic traits and they can also learn them. Perfectionism may be learned in a number of ways, such as observing and modeling behaviors in others with these tendencies or developing them in response to specific interactions and experiences.
One of the strongest predictors of perfectionism is parenting style. Children who have critical, harsh or demanding parents or caregivers are much more likely to develop perfectionistic traits and tendencies.7, 9 Sometimes these experiences are the result of abusive or neglectful parenting styles and other times can be the result of well-intentioned parents who had high expectations.
Experiencing Trauma or Emotional Deprivation
Children often make sense of traumatic experiences by developing negative beliefs or “schemas” about themselves. For instance, it is highly common that abused children develop the belief that they are bad or unlovable, rather than attributing the abuse to their parents. People with high levels of perfectionism tend to report schemas related to emotional deprivation, abandonment, mistrust, defectiveness and social isolation.7
High Levels of Neuroticism
Neuroticism is a personality trait that describes a susceptibility to negative emotional states, increasing the likelihood of various mental illnesses (like neurotic anxiety) as well as contributing to unhealthy expressions of perfectionism.10
High Levels of Conscientiousness
Conscientiousness describes the trait of being thoughtful, thorough, and cautious, and contributes to many of the positive expressions of perfectionism.7, 10
The Negative Effects of Perfectionism
Having perfectionistic traits is not inherently harmful, but certain expressions of these traits can lead to secondary consequences on a person’s mental health, functioning, and overall quality of life. Most of the harmful effects of perfectionism are byproducts of tendencies common in people with unhealthy forms of perfectionism. These include high self-criticism, intolerance of mistakes, and negative self-evaluations.9
People who display negative tendencies of perfectionism are more likely to report:1, 5, 8
- Higher levels of anxiety (especially social anxiety)
- Higher levels of depression
- Increased risk of suicide
- Eating disorders and poor body image
- Low self-esteem and conditional self-worth
- More guilt and shame
- Lack of confidence in skills and abilities
- Impaired performance and lowered goal achievement
- Increased self-consciousness and insecurities
- Lower levels of motivation and more procrastination
- Lower resilience to challenges and adversity
- Higher likelihood of giving up when a mistake is made
- Hostility or anger towards others
- Difficulty forming close, trusting relationships
- Inability to feel proud of accomplishments
- Hypersensitivity to criticism and judgment of others
- More illnesses and infections
- More intense fears of failure
- Poor lifestyle choices including diet, exercise, and self-care
- Higher levels of stress and more difficulty regulating emotions
- Lower overall levels of life satisfaction
How to Deal With Perfectionism
Used wisely, perfectionism can be an incredible asset, helping motivate you to reach goals and improve your life. You can learn how to better manage your perfectionism so that you can experience it as a positive and helpful part of your personality, rather than a destructive part.
Here are ten tips for overcoming perfectionism:
1. Practice Self-Compassion
Self-compassion involves being kinder to yourself and more attentive to your feelings, needs, and wants, especially during times when you would normally revert to self-criticism. Self-compassion reduces fears of failure and helps people become more tolerant of mistakes and more resourceful when they occur. Self-compassion can also help to improve people’s mood, performance, relationships, and several aspects of their physical and mental health.3, 4, 9
2. Stay Flexible, Even When Plans Change
Flexibility means being able to accept and adapt to your current circumstances, which many perfectionists find challenging. Flexibility is important because it keeps you from becoming too married to your own expectations or plans, helping to prepare you for the inevitable changes and curveballs life will throw your way. Mixing up routines, being open to last minute changes, letting someone else take the lead, or improvising in the moment are all ways to practice flexibility and become more adaptable to change.
3. Practice Exposure to Situations or Activities You Typically Avoid
In therapeutic settings, exposure describes the practice of repeated confrontation of feared situations to help decrease anxiety and avoidance of these situations. When using exposure to help with perfectionism, the goal would be to expose yourself to situations you normally avoid because of your perfectionism. You might intentionally send an email with typos, do an activity you are bad at, or even just admit a flaw or mistake to a friend or colleague. The goal of these exercises is to become more tolerant to making mistakes, which has been found to contribute to positive, healthy forms of perfectionism.5, 6, 9
4. Accept the Reality That You Will Make Mistakes
Acceptance of reality is another key skill that can help protect against the harmful effects of perfectionism and involves being willing to accept things as they are, instead of as you want them to be.6 This includes accepting that you will sometimes make mistakes and that things will not always go as you hoped, planned or expected. Being accepting doesn’t mean that you don’t form expectations, but it does mean you are able to let go of them when they are getting in the way of responding effectively.
5. Have a Sense of Humor
A good sense of humor can provide an extra layer of protection for anyone experiencing a lot of stress or adversity, including the kind caused by negative perfectionism.4 Often, perfectionism is the result of taking ourselves and our circumstances a little too seriously, and humor can help lighten these mental burdens. Being willing to laugh at yourself when you make a mistake can help blunt the sharp edges of self-criticism while also helping you get a clearer, more helpful perspective on the situation.
6. Stop Excessively Checking & Re-Checking Your Work
Perfectionism can spark a lot of self-doubt, leading to urges to compulsively check and re-check your work for errors. Not only is this time-consuming and exhausting, but excessive checking also reinforces doubt and anxiety, making you less confident. Checking can also manifest as excessive research, advice-seeking, or verification, or even as micromanaging other people.
7. Don’t Ruminate on Mistakes or Negative Thoughts
Unhealthy perfectionism is fueled by rumination on flaws, mistakes, insecurities, or other negative thoughts and stories that provoke self-doubt and anxiety. If you find yourself excessively replaying mistakes, overanalyzing your decisions, or obsessing over your flaws, you are probably ruminating. When you catch yourself ruminating, pull your attention away from these unhelpful thoughts and focus on something more constructive.
8. Don’t Be Overly Critical of Yourself
Self-criticism is another habit linked to harmful forms of perfectionism, and involves negative, judgmental, and critical thoughts about yourself or your behavior.2 Self-criticism exaggerates your flaws, insecurities and mistakes to make them seem bigger, more relevant, and more serious than they are.
This can lead to heightened stress, anxiety, and self-consciousness, as well as making it difficult to focus, be present, and perform at your best. Try to interrupt self-criticism and redirect your mind to the present, focusing on what you need to do at this moment.
9. Stop Comparing Yourself to Others
Comparing yourself to others or to external standards is closely linked to self-criticism, low self-esteem, and harmful forms of perfectionism. Because you can always find someone you think is smarter, better, or more successful than you, self-comparisons tend to intersect with your natural negativity bias, making you much more likely to notice the things about other people that make you feel less-than or “not good enough.” Instead of looking for differences, train your mind to look for commonalities with others, which can help foster compassion and connection.
10. Try Not to Stick to Rigid Rules & Routines
Perfectionists often use rules, structure, and consistency to quell their anxiety and feel more in control. While structured rules and routines are not inherently problematic, relying on them too much can lead perfectionists to become less adaptable and tolerant of change. Consider which rules and routines would make you most anxious to change and try to slowly make changes that help these become more flexible.
When to Get Help for Perfectionism
Therapy can be helpful for anyone interested in gaining more self-awareness, learning new methods of coping, and working to improve their overall quality of life. You should not wait until you are seriously impacted by their perfectionism before seeking therapy. Therapy won’t necessarily get rid of perfectionistic traits and tendencies, but it can help you learn to better manage your perfectionism.
Here are some of the ways therapy can help people deal with perfectionism:
- Exploring early experiences that contributed to perfectionism
- Identifying core beliefs and schemas that drive perfectionism
- Interrupting negative self-criticism, rumination, and self-evaluation
- Developing a more stable sense of self-worth
- Improving self-efficacy and reducing self-doubt
- Evaluating when perfectionism is a strength versus a weakness
- Developing more realistic goals and expectations
- Developing more self-compassion and improving self-care
- Developing resilience to cope with mistakes, criticism, and failure
- Learning ways to respond more effectively to stress and challenges
How to Find a Therapist
You can find a therapist by asking for a referral from your primary care provider or someone you trust, or you can visit an online therapist directory, where you can use filters to narrow your search down to those who accept their insurance or who mention having experience working with perfectionists.
Finding a therapist who you feel comfortable with, who is experienced in the issue you struggle with, and who has an approach that fits your needs is important. Most therapists will offer a free consultation call to help potential clients determine whether they would be a good match. After coming up with a list, it is a good idea to contact several counselors before deciding to schedule an initial appointment.
For Further Reading
Those interested in identifying whether they have perfectionist traits can take the Frost Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, one of the most widely used and reliable inventories for measuring these tendencies.
Self-compassion is consistently identified as one of the most effective ways of managing perfectionism and protecting yourself from its harmful effects.3,4,8 Activities, articles, and exercises to improve self-compassion can be found on this website.
The practice of mindfulness can help interrupt patterns of rumination and self-criticism, which are both closely linked to maladaptive forms of perfectionism.2,5,6 Those interested in learning more about mindfulness and how to practice it can learn more here.
Online Therapist Directory: Sort therapists by specialty, cost, availability and more. Watch intro videos and see articles written by the therapists you’re considering working with. When you’ve found a good match, book an online therapy appointment with them directly.