The Ultimate Guide to Understanding Your Perfectionism

Updated: Oct 13

What is a Perfectionist?

Before we dive into the nitty gritty stuff, let's start by first understanding what exactly a perfectionist is.

A perfectionist is someone who is never satisfied with their performance and strives to achieve something unrealistic to attain. Perfection is impossible, but that doesn’t deter an overachiever from reaching for flawless success. This can be considered an admirable trait for athletes, inventors, financial experts and many other professions. Going above and beyond is applauded in private and corporate business.

Even young children exhibit perfectionist qualities, and many learn when they’re only a few years old that failing is the worst thing imaginable. Although some mental health professionals believe that perfectionism isn’t healthy or beneficial for anyone, others claim it has positive attributes, and they separated it into different categories according to their negative and positive aspects.

Can you relate to any of this? Or maybe it sounds a little like someone you know?

Then let's keep reading...

Types of Perfectionism

The positive aspects of perfectionism include a high probability of success, punctuality and financial security. When a manager sets a reasonable goal for employees, an overachiever is likely to meet the goal and surpass those who are less ambitious. In school, children are praised for perfectionist behavior with overachiever and perfect attendance rewards.

However, some researchers claim that a perfectionist’s success is often short-lived. Depending on the type of perfectionists, some overachievers become burnt out and can’t keep up with their less-ambitious co-workers and friends.

There are two different kinds of perfectionists:

Adaptive and maladaptive.

Adaptive Perfectionism: Someone who works hard, sets high, yet realistic, goals and feels driven by achievements rather than by the fear of failure is an adaptive perfectionist. They’re highly motivated and do not let their drive for success interfere with their relationships or mental health. Some studies suggest that adaptive perfectionism occurs more in gifted individuals than maladaptive perfectionism.

Maladaptive Perfectionism: A person who lives in perpetual fear of failure, recoils from reality, and places unreasonable goals on themselves is a maladaptive perfectionist. Although they may experience short-term success, they aren’t stable in the long run and will likely go into a downward spiral after repeated failures.

Dividing perfectionism into separate groups has caused a lively debate among researchers. One of the most comprehensive studies of perfectionists, authored by Andrew Hill and Thomas Curran, observed diverse groups of perfectionists from several generations from 1989 to 2016. The results alarmingly showed more negative consequences from perfectionism than positive ones. The study contends the old belief that perfectionism equals success is not entirely true. Hill and Curran found perfectionists were often less productive than their counterparts due to burnout.

Repeated failures are devastating to perfectionists. Compared to an average achiever, perfectionists have poorer health, relationship problems and a shorter lifespan. Another study conducted on working-age adults from the 1980s to 2018 concluded that perfectionists are not more productive than average workers, and some may be considered less desirable to hiring managers when they succumb to depression or other medical conditions.

The Causes of Perfectionism

Since more evidence has shown that perfectionism has increased significantly since the late 20th century, researchers are studying the causes of perfectionism. Most agree that perfectionism is brought on by internal pressure that often begins at an early age. Perfectionists may convince themselves to adopt the behavior, but they’re also influenced by family, friends, environment, and social media.

A lot of attention and research is focused on the adverse effects of social media, and some

researchers believe that the platforms have increased the occurrence of perfectionism in children and young adults. Videos, likes, posts and comments put too much pressure on our young people. Social media allows for criticism in real-time- and the whole world can see.

When children try to live up to a perfect image that’s not possible, risk of anxiety and depression increase. In response to the growing concern over social media’s negative influence, Instagram decided that likes would be removed from their platform to create a healthier online environment.

While other social media companies are not making drastic changes, they are more aware that children are suffering from online attacks, and some, like Facebook, have pledged to do more. Facebook is planning to release a separate platform for children with more protection from cyber-bullying and inappropriate posts. Hopefully this will be a step in the right direction...

The Adverse Consequences

Before the world was connected with mobile phones and devices, a rise in perfectionism may have seemed like a good thing. More people striving for perfection could mean that job performance, production levels and success could rise.

However, researchers have a grim assessment of perfectionism. They believe it’s detrimental to your health and harmful to society. Maladaptive perfectionists are more likely to suffer from psychological disorders than non- perfectionists. Some of the harmful effects include:

• Depression

• Anxiety

• Self-harm

• Eating Disorders

• Suicide

This is, sadly, only a portion of conditions perfectionists have higher risk of suffering from. Although some researchers point to the positive aspects of adaptive perfectionism in a person’s life, others suggest that adaptive perfectionism is not perfectionism; it’s simply conscientiousness. Highly motivated people do not set unrealistic goals like perfectionists, and they are able to typically live longer, healthier lives.

Overcoming Perfectionism

Professionals have taken a compassionate approach to treat perfectionism. They work with people to reframe their perception of failure, and teach them that failure is not destructive. They work towards turning off the self critical voice in their head that pushes them to be perfect. Treating perfectionism is a slow process, and it may involve treatment for depression, anxiety and other co-occuring conditions.

Since criticism over failure often begins at an early age, professionals use positive reinforcement to compliment perfectionists even when they fail. The idea is to shift the limiting, fixed mindset to an abundant, growth mindset. It's essential that perfectionists start seeing life as happening for them, instead of to them. This way they will start seeing their mistakes as learning opportunities and areas for growth, and eventually build their emotional resilience.

Decreasing perfectionism in society may take several years, but the increased focus and research on perfectionism is a positive sign.

If you are someone who is suffering from perfectionism and want to learn more about how to manage it, check out my eBook: End Perfectionism Now

I hope this read was helpful for you as you figure out how to navigate your perfectionism. As always, if you have questions, comments, or feedback, please feel free to reach out or leave a comment below!


Jessie T.

Want to learn more? Here are the sources I used to formulate this post!