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  • When Perfectionism Becomes Harmful

    Many people see perfectionism as a strength. The “type A personality” who is highly driven and strives to achieve every goal they have while looking for more. This can be positive in many aspects, but the problem occurs when it never feels like enough and there is rarely satisfaction in your accomplishments. If you are always searching for the next goal, never feeling satisfied, and highly critical of yourself along the way, your perfectionism might be doing you more harm than good.

    Perfectionism is not just pursuing excellence, but feeling the need to set unrealistic expectations where the success or failure of those expectations determines your own self-worth. It is often relentless, exhausting, and creates low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness that make it challenging to enjoy life.

    Perfectionism comes in different forms:

    Self-oriented perfectionism: You set unrealistic expectations for yourself and are highly self-critical. You are driven, have a strong desire to achieve your goals, but feel like a failure if you don’t achieve these goals. You focus more on what you did wrong as opposed to what went well.

    Other-oriented perfectionism: You set unrealistic expectations on those around you. You feel disappointed and critical of others when they ultimately cannot meet those expectations. You may feel that you’re better off doing something yourself so it is done “right”.

    Socially prescribed perfectionism: You feel that others have unrealistic expectations of you and demand perfection. There is a need to achieve these goals in order to get their approval or you are a failure in their eyes.

    I often see clients that struggle with one or more of these and it may impact all aspects of their life or just a few. Regardless, perfectionism has a tendency to create anxious high-achievers that often struggle to find balance and feel productive. There is often all or nothing thinking that limits what perfectionists can achieve and can create an unhealthy cycle that can perpetuate a depressive state.

    It is important to challenge perfectionism and recognize its limitations in order to create more lasting change. The goal is to utilize your perfectionism so that it is adaptive and flexible in order to make progress and develop a sense of satisfaction in your accomplishments. After all, what is the point of reaching the highest peak or tackling these goals if you can’t enjoy them!

    Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.