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How to spot and resist perfectionism

Reviewed by Robert Bogenberger

A woman taking a selfie at the beach.

Perfectionism is a personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands flawlessness and rejects anything less than that.

Unlike high achievers, who enjoy the flow of putting their best skills to work, aiming for a challenge, and doing the best they can with the time and energy they have, perfectionists focus only on the outcome—and they tend to find it less than perfect, no matter what. As a result, they become trapped in a cycle where each new task is another opportunity for self-criticism, disappointment, and perceived failure.

Where does perfectionism show up?

Social media is just one place where perfectionism flourishes. We don’t always like to admit it, but what we post online isn’t necessarily a true reflection of our lives. 

Platforms like Facebook and Instagram give people the opportunity to carefully curate, stage, manipulate, and edit their content to appear as perfect as possible. For impressionable teens and young adults in particular, this can lead down some deep, dark rabbit holes when they’re constantly exposed to what seem like impossibly high standards for how to exist in the world.

Can perfectionism ever be healthy?

Some people consider perfectionism to be a positive quality. Consider a job interview where the interviewer asks, “What’s your greatest weakness?” 

The person being interviewed answers, “I’m a perfectionist. I’m super organized, I’m very detail-oriented, and I like to make sure that things get done right the first time.”

This type of perfectionism is called “adaptive” or “normal” perfectionism. When perfectionism is characterized by the pursuit of excellence rather than trying to be perfect all the time, it can indeed be healthy. 

A person who’s an adaptive perfectionist may have very high standards, but they’re more concerned with the process of working toward their goals, applying their skills, and overcoming worthwhile obstacles. They’re able to accept imperfections both during the process and when they reach the outcome.

When does perfectionism become unhealthy?

Perfectionism becomes unhealthy when there’s an unrealistic expectation to reach excessively high or impossible goals. This is called “maladaptive” or “neurotic” perfectionism. These types of perfectionists let their accomplishments define who they are, and they often feel deep unhappiness about their self-perceived struggle or inability to achieve their goals. 

Constantly striving for perfect results exhausts and stresses out perfectionists, but mediocrity isn’t acceptable to them either, so they can never give themselves a break. They tend to view every task or interaction as a test that reflects their worth, and they see even small imperfections as possible signs of disaster.

This unhealthy form of perfectionism can lead to other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, low self-esteem, eating disorders, and suicidal thoughts. It can also contribute to physiological effects like high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.

Is perfectionism genetic or learned?

It’s true that perfectionism is influenced by your genes. The first study to prove this was conducted in 2011, and it also revealed a relationship between anxiety and maladaptive perfectionism.1

But genetics aren’t the only factor in perfectionism. A person’s environment, including how they were raised, can matter as much—if not more.

Consider a student raised by parents who expected nothing less than straight As from them in school. As an adult, that person may struggle much more than average with mistakes and failure.

Are you a perfectionist?

If you’re having a hard time telling the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism in yourself, try looking for these warning signs:

  • Fear of failure: You can’t stand the thought of achieving anything less than what you think would be perfect.
  • Procrastination: You constantly put off tasks to avoid the stress of potentially doing them imperfectly.
  • Obsession with results/outcome: You find the process of accomplishing something difficult and exhausting. You just want the reward.
  • Self-criticism and negative self-talk: You pick yourself apart and talk yourself out of believing in your ability to succeed at something.
  • All-or-nothing mindset: You think that if something can’t be done perfectly, any other kind of outcome would be unacceptable.
  • Strong desire to always be in control: Control makes you feel like that perfect outcome is within reach.
  • Difficulty relaxing: You’re always worried or anxious about things not going perfectly.

How to fight perfectionism

It’s not easy getting comfortable with your imperfections—especially in a society that prizes status and offers a million ways for us to compare ourselves to others. Here’s where to start:

Identify what triggers you. Is it your parents? The bathroom scale? Instagram? Whatever it is, try to become fully aware of it so you can work toward setting healthy boundaries.

If you’re procrastinating, just focus on getting started. Some tasks seem daunting before you get started. Once you gain some momentum, you’ll realize it’s not so bad after all.

Adopt a growth mindset. This type of mindset is built on the belief that a person’s talents, skills, and abilities can be developed when you apply them.

Practice self-compassion. Forgive yourself for making mistakes, and look for things to be grateful for.

Study or befriend people who failed their way to success. Many people spent years struggling before they became successful. Their journeys may help teach you that being able to accept and celebrate imperfection can be helpful—and often necessary.

Be perfectly okay with being imperfect

Your real power comes from not only accepting your imperfections, but celebrating them. Embracing what you don’t know or can’t do, creating meaning out of those perceived shortcomings, and learning from them can all help you grow and evolve.

If perfectionism is getting in the way of your work, relationships, health, or any other aspect of your life, you may need some extra help. Browse our therapist directory to find someone to talk to about your struggles with perfectionism or anything else that’s on your mind.

About the author

Elise Burley is a member of the therapist.com editorial team. She has more than a decade of professional experience writing and editing on a variety of health topics, including for several health-related e-commerce businesses, media publications, and licensed professionals. When she’s not working, she’s usually practicing yoga or off the grid somewhere on her latest canoe camping adventure.