The Dangers of Striving for Perfection
Many people view perfectionism unequivocally as a positive. It’s often considered admirable, perhaps even healthy. It’s equated with success. But the pursuit of perfection comes with serious risks to mental and physical health, including the development or worsening of eating disorder thoughts and behaviors.
In this article, we explore the trait of perfectionism, including common signs, thought patterns, and health risks. Learn the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving, as well as ways to challenge perfectionism to protect against the negative toll it can take on a person’s life.
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a temperamental trait commonly defined as the tendency to hold unrealistically standards—to strive for perfect at all costs. Despite popular thought, it is not the same as healthy striving. “Perfectionism is not striving for excellence,” as researcher Brené Brown explains. “It’s not about healthy achievement and growth.” Instead, it is a self-destructive and unattainable goal.
Often, those who identify with the trait of perfectionism feel pressure to meet extremely high standards to avoid feelings of shame and judgment. If they are perfect, the faulty thinking goes, then they can avoid or minimize these painful feelings. Paradoxically, impossible standards will inevitably only set up feelings of failure and self-defeat, because they are just that—impossible. Rather than recognizing them as such, people who struggle with perfectionism will often blame themselves for not meeting the unattainable expectations, only to continue a debilitating cycle of even more judgment and blame.
The signs of perfectionism
Perfectionism can impact people at any age. Some common signs include:
- Unrealistic expectations
- Constant comparison
- All-or-nothing thinking (perfect vs. failure, good vs. bad)
- Thinking in “musts” and “shoulds” (“I must be perfect,” “I shouldn’t make any mistakes”)
- Procrastination or avoidance of tasks
- People pleasing
- Giving up quickly
- Highly critical
- Fear of rejection or disapproval from others
- Fear of failure
- Defensiveness, especially in response to perceived criticism
- Low self-esteem
Perfectionistic thinking may sound like:
- “I must do things right the first time.”
- “I must do everything well, not just the things I know I’m good at.”
- “If I can’t do something perfectly, then there is no point even trying.”
- “Nothing good comes from making mistakes.”
- “I don’t deserve credit for the things I do well because there’s always something more I could do.”
Where does perfectionism show up?
While sometimes perfectionism affects only one area of a person’s life, it can cut across multiple domains. Some environments where perfectionism may manifest are:
- School or work: Taking much longer than others to complete tasks; procrastinating due to a lack of confidence; believing that a less-than-perfect score or feedback is a sign of failure
- Personal relationships: Demanding perfection from loved ones; expecting oneself to be a “perfect” partner, daughter, etc.
- Physical activity: Dwelling on mistakes, experiencing little enjoyment from the sport or physical activity; athletic burnout
- Hygiene and health: Needing to eat a “perfect” diet; rigid exercise routines
- Personal environment or possessions: Needing one’s home, car, office, or other environment to be immaculate; excessive money and time spent perfecting one’s environment
- Physical appearance: Excessive worrying about personal style or appearance; spending excessive time getting ready before going out
The health risks of perfectionism
Perfectionism poses significant health risks and has been linked to several mental health conditions, including eating disorders. Research shows that people with anorexia or bulimia have higher levels of perfectionism than those who don’t. Perfectionism has also been identified in patients with binge eating disorder, though less research is available for that diagnosis.
In addition to eating disorders, perfectionism can cause or exacerbate depression, anxiety, symptoms of OCD, insomnia, and social isolation, among other conditions.
How to manage perfectionism
Like all temperamental traits, the traits associated with perfectionism can be used in both productive and destructive ways. The persistence (even in the face of frustration and little success) common in those affected by perfectionism, for example, can help a person overcome adversity and hardship.
Key is identifying how to channel such traits in productive ways. To challenge perfectionism in your own life or to support someone who is doing the same, consider the following strategies:
- Recognize perfectionistic tendencies.
- Identify behaviors that are unhelpful and how they could be helpful if standards were changed
- Recognize any roadblocks to change – what are the fears or concerns about modifying excessively high standards?
- Notice and challenge perfectionistic self-talk.
- Make a thoughtful action plan to target behaviors.
- Lean on support.
In the end, remember that perfection is unachievable, and perfectionism has the potential to lead to eating disorders and other health concerns. Let’s recognize the beauty that comes in imperfection in ourselves and others.
Bulik, C. M., Tozzi, F., Anderson, C., Mazzeo, S. E., Aggen, S., Sullivan, P.F. (2003). The relation between eating disorders and components of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 160(2), 366-368.
Beattie, K. (2019, January 7). Destructive traits of perfectionism, from Dr. Brené Brown. https://www.thegrowthfaculty.com/blog/4destructivetraitsofperfectionismfromDrBrenBrown
Benson, E. (2003, November). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10). http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces
Hasse, A. M., Prapavessis, H., & Owens, R. G. (2013, June 24). Domain-specificity in perfectionism: Variations across domains of life. Personality and Individual Differences, 55(2013), 711-715.
Scott, E. (2020, February). 10 signs you may be a perfectionist. https://www.verywellmind.com/signs-you-may-be-a-perfectionist-3145233
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Krista Crotty, LMFT, PsyD
Krista is the Director of Clinical Outreach Education at The Emily Program and Veritas Collaborative. Clinically she draws from a variety of methods, including TBT-S, EMDR, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), FBT, and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and often incorporates the use of the creative process in conjunction with the more traditional therapeutic process. She earned her Masters of Science from Fuller Theological Seminary, School of Psychology and her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology with an emphasis in family and pediatrics from Azusa Pacific University. She trained at Harbor UCLA Medical Center and Loma Linda Children’s Hospital in neuropsych. Away from work, Krista loves being a mom to her three boys, playing outside, going on adventures with her family, skiing, hiking, biking, and camping.