When Does Perfectionism Become a Problem and What Can You Do?
Updated: Sep 24
So many people wear their perfectionism as a badge of honor. They associate perfectionism with attention to detail, being a high achiever, and ambitiousness.
But the true picture isn’t always as rosy. When taken to the extreme, perfectionism can become debilitating and hold you back from achieving your goals. It can heighten your anxiety and elevate depression, and you may need to seek external help to deal with the negative impact of perfectionism on your mental health.
If you struggle with perfectionism, you're not alone. I see in my practice that more and more, people are struggling with perfectionism. This doesn’t mean that people are achieving more success, it means that society as a whole is struggling more. Perfectionism is related to a variety of mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
It might be helpful to change our views about perfectionism but first, let’s take a closer look.
What Is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism on its own isn’t an issue. It can become an issue when a person sets extremely high standards of performance and always strives for faultlessness, combined with intense self-criticism. It’s a personality trait often developed in childhood and cemented over the years.
There are three dimensions of perfectionism:
1. Self-oriented perfectionism: Perfectionists who belong to this group set unrealistic standards for themselves. They feel an internal pressure to fulfill their personal expectations.
2. Socially prescribed perfectionism: People who are socially prescribed perfectionists tend to believe that others have high expectations of them and if they fail to fulfill them, they’ll be criticized and seen as a failure.
3. Other-oriented perfectionism: Other-oriented perfectionists believe that other people need to meet their impossible expectations and are often highly critical of themselves and others.
It can be helpful to know which subtype of perfectionism you fit into so that you can begin to make positive changes in your life and develop strategies to manage it. You can also use your natural tendencies to become a more balanced perfectionist—someone who strives for a balance between achievement and mental health.
When Does Perfectionism Become a Problem?
We, in society often admire perfectionists and their constant endeavors toward flawlessness so much that we may overlook the signs when it becomes problematic.
This pursuit for flawlessness can lead to a spiral that the perfectionist is unable to escape and keep up with. This can actually create a sense of pressure that perpetuates perfectionism tendencies in people who are vulnerable to this trait. Perfectionism might start out as something harmless—wanting to get top grades, keeping things in order, or achieving goals. However, it can soon turn into a nerve-wracking problem which renders you unable to get anything done.
When perfectionism is balanced, it isn't an issue. This is referred to as “adaptive perfectionism.” This type of perfectionist is the person who perseveres in the face of adversity and is less dissatisfied with their performance if they are unable to meet the high standards they set for themselves.
On the other side of the coin is maladaptive perfectionism. This kind of perfectionism has been shown to be associated with elevated levels of depression and anxiety. It also leads to lower self-esteem, reduced self-efficacy, and makes the perfectionist person see even a small setback as a catastrophic failure.
For people who are already diagnosed with a mental health condition, perfectionism can make things worse or affect them more than others. For example, a study found that people who have ADHD can be highly perfectionistic. They may get stuck on little details and avoid starting tasks until everything is perfect.
People with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) also show high levels of both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. The tendency to be a perfectionist can cause extreme anxiety in both these groups and hold them back from living the life they want.
Though perfectionism isn’t always a big deal, it can turn into a problem when it starts interfering with your daily life and causes you distress. If you’re not sure whether you are a perfectionist or not, there are certain signs that you can look out for.
What Are the Signs of Perfectionism?
No two perfectionists are exactly alike. However, there are some symptoms that most perfectionists relate to. While we all can show perfectionistic tendencies sometimes, a perfectionist that struggles with the trait may find themselves exhibiting many of these behaviors on a consistent basis:
● Procrastination / Getting “stuck”
For perfectionists, procrastination isn’t just watching a TV show when an assignment is due. Perfectionists try to get every detail right which can be extremely time-consuming and lead to missed deadlines. They may get “stuck on small details and not be able to move on. This is tied to their fear of failure and they often do not even bother starting out of fear of not getting it “perfect” or good enough.
Perfectionists are their own worst critics. They seem to always be on the lookout for mistakes and imperfections, and judge themselves harshly if they spot even a minor one. This kind of intense self-criticism leads perfectionists to doubt their abilities and they often feel like they can never be good enough.
● All-or-nothing thinking
Perfectionists want to either do everything perfectly or nothing at all. There’s no middle ground. A perfectionist is a person who’d rather lose a race than win a silver. This kind of thinking is unrealistic and keeps them stuck in a loop of unhappiness and dissatisfaction. This is also connected to procrastination.
● Self-worth tied to achievements
While it certainly feels great to accomplish goals and make achievements, they should not determine our self-worth. But for a perfectionist, the exact opposite is the case. Their identities are shaped by how successful they are in a pursuit and one single failure can make them feel worthless.
If you find yourself relating to these traits often, there’s a chance you might struggle with perfectionism. This realization could be the first step in your journey toward balance and breaking free from the shackles of perfectionism
Can You Overcome Perfectionism?
If you’re committed to making a change, then yes, you can overcome perfectionism.
But it’s not an overnight process and it may be hard to change your lifelong thinking and behavior patterns alone.
Therapy is a great option for those who want to overcome their perfectionism.
One of the most popular forms of therapy for perfectionism is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). As the name suggests, the main tenet of CBT is to teach people how to change their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Since perfectionism is a mindset that people have lived with for years, CBT can help them gradually reframe their thoughts and let go of perfectionism.
Perfectionists often have trouble accepting setbacks and hold a negative view of themselves. Therapy can provide you with a non-judgmental and compassionate environment where you can accept yourself, find your strengths, and learn to be kinder to yourself.
If you’ve been struggling with perfectionism, you can contact me at (647) 503 - 0271 or click on the contact page book a FREE 15-minute consultation with me.