Perfectionism: When does it help, when does it hurt?


Healthy Living - September 20, 2016
David Prescott, PhD - Acadia Hospital 
Defining Perfectionism: 
How good is good enough?  Do our own strivings for perfectionism help us to improve our performance, or do we inadvertently sabotage our efforts and allow high standards to leave us full of anxiety and apprehension? 
Experts on perfectionism describe two parts of human personality that lead to perfectionistic strivings.  First, perfectionists set extremely high standards for themselves on the job, in relationships, and in their personal activities.  Second, perfectionists are highly self-critical, and tend to be overly critical of their own performance.  Taken together, high standards and a tendency to be highly self-critical create the foundation for perfectionism.
Is Perfectionism a Mental Disorder? 
Perfectionism in and of itself is not considered a mental disorder.  However, people with a strong perfectionistic personality traits are at higher risk for developing anxiety disorders or significant depression. 
One factor that seems critical in turning perfectionism into a mental health problem is the degree to which people evaluate themselves negatively, or worry that others are evaluating them negatively.  Perfectionism becomes a problem when you begin to tie your self-worth to always doing your best.  In these cases, doing less than your best becomes a weight that diminishes self-worth and self-confidence.
How do I know if My Perfectionism is a Problem?
The following are situations in which perfectionism may be hurting more than helping. 
Perfectionism leads to Procrastination:  Perfectionists often procrastinate until they have the time and space to do things perfectly.  If these conditions aren’t present, they put off starting tasks or projects.  If things that are important to you are not getting done because you’re waiting for the perfect moment, your perfectionism has probably gotten out of hand.
Excessive Anxiety in Social Situations:  Perfectionists fear that they will so something dumb or embarrassing when out with peers.  Taken to its extreme, this leads to constant high anxiety in social settings, and sometimes to avoiding them altogether.
You avoid trying new things: Perfectionists may avoid things that are enjoyable, but which they don’t do all that well.  It can become a habit that perfectionists only want to do things where they have had a great deal of practice and experience.  They avoid new things because they are embarrassed at the thought of doing poorly.
Perfectionism wears on Your Relationships:  Being in a close relationship with a perfectionist can be difficult, particularly when the perfectionist is chronically anxious, critical, or caught in a procrastination cycle.  Not being able to pull back on perfectionistic strivings, even when it is causing problems with a person you care about, suggests perfectionism may be getting out of hand.
Potential Remedies for Perfectionism:
If your perfectionism is causing undue anxiety or too much procrastination, consider the following:
  • Deliberately do things that you are not very good at doing:  Try making yourself do something that is inherently fun to you, even if you can’t do it very well.  For most people, enjoyment and achievement are not the same thing.
  • Watch out for Thinking Traps:  Changing what we say to ourselves or what we expect can help with perfectionism.  For example, you might say “I’m not very good at bowling but I enjoy it” rather than saying to yourself “I’m terrible at bowling and nobody will want to bowl with me.” 
  • Try to Start Things You are Putting Off:  Perfectionists who procrastinate spend lots of time waiting for the right moment to start.  As a game, try starting something at the wrong moment.  See how far you get!
For Additional Information: 
Research by Dr. Patricia DiBartolo:
American Psychological Association Help Center: