The problem with perfectionism

Perfectionism sign.
Perfectionists are very self-critical if they don't meet their demanding standards.

Are you a perfectionist?


If you’re not – well, that’s great. Perfectionism is sometimes seen as a positive trait, but the reality is the psychological downsides to perfectionism can be very grave indeed.


How exactly do we define perfectionism? Prof. Roz Shafran, an expert in the cognitive-behavioural treatment of perfectionism, defines perfectionism as ‘the setting of, and striving to meet, very demanding standards that are self-imposed and relentlessly pursued despite this causing problems.’ One’s self-worth, she notes, is based ‘almost exclusively on how well these high standards are pursued and achieved’.


Essentially, there are three main parts to clinical perfectionism. One, you have very demanding standards and are self-critical if you fall short of these standards.


Two, you strive to meet these demanding standards despite the fact that doing so negatively impacts your life.


Three, you base your self-evaluation on these high standards.


Unhelpful perfectionism should not be confused with conscientiousness or the healthy pursuit of excellence. A conscientious, hard-working person who fails to achieve his or her goal might respond by saying: “Oh well, I gave it everything and did my best, that’s all I can do”.


In contrast, the perfectionist will berate themselves for being a failure. The perfectionist’s sense of self is more fragile and is too dependent on meeting their own demanding standards. Similarly, the perfectionist continues to pursue these standards despite negative consequences.


Despite these obvious downsides, perfectionists are often resistant to the idea of change, for two main reasons. Firstly, if you are a perfectionist, you likely have strong positive beliefs about your methods. “Others will judge me if I loosen my standards”, “I’m afraid I will become a slacker”, “I will lose my edge”, “I would not be able to cope with the anxiety if I didn’t do what I do” -- these and other beliefs keep you trapped in a vicious cycle of fear and striving.


Secondly, perfectionism is often reinforced socially. Some hypothetical examples: John stays behind at work for hours every day and is praised for doing so by his boss; Emma spends hours cleaning her house prior to having visitors, who then compliment her on how immaculate the place looks; Mary spends hours trying on clothes and putting on make-up before meeting her friends, who then tell her how amazing she looks; Conor studies seven days a week and is praised by teachers and parents for his academic results.



Perfectionism is linked to many emotional problems, particularly anxiety.
Perfectionism is linked to many emotional problems, particularly anxiety.

If you can relate, it’s crucial you recognise the very serious downsides to perfectionism. These can be physical (for example, exhaustion and tiredness, muscle tension, insomnia).


They can be cognitive (ruminating over and over about perceived mistakes, impaired concentrations, increased self-criticism and poor self-esteem).


They can be behavioural (for example, repeated checking, such as repeatedly reading and editing an email before sending it; delaying or avoiding tasks because you are afraid you won’t do them perfectly; always being too busy because you hate to waste time; being too thorough and spending too much time on various tasks).


Perfectionism can leave you socially isolated and narrow your range of interests. Your focus on achievement may result in you devoting almost all of your time to a particular area whilst limiting pleasurable activities.


Note too that perfectionism is strongly associated with a host of serious emotional problems and disorders. These include depression, every form of anxiety ranging from generalised anxiety and chronic worry to social anxiety and panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD thinking tends to be extremely perfectionist, with sufferers often having impossibly high moral standards), body dysmorphic disorder, and eating disorders, amongst others.


Perfectionism is also linked with an increased risk of suicide. Indeed, one meta-analysis (a study that combines the findings of previous relevant studies) found almost all perfectionist tendencies – for example, being concerned over mistakes, doubts about actions, feeling you’re not good enough, parental criticism, perfectionist attitudes and strivings – were correlated with more frequent thoughts of suicide.


In other words, perfectionism is not a good thing. It’s a serious problem that can have serious consequences. It drives and maintains real unhappiness and pain.


My next two columns will also explore this subject, offering CBT tips and advice on how to tackle perfectionism.


(First published in Southern Star on 05/8/2021).