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Trying to be Perfect Can Have a Negative Impact on Mental Health

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February 17, 2016
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Perfectionism - Measuring Grass Blade

Perfectionism - Measuring Grass Blade Credit: Wikimedia

It’s physically and emotionally healthy to want to achieve and succeed. Having a good education, a satisfying job, vibrant health, friends, family, home, community activities and vacations are among the many things that add up to a good life.

Some people, however, tend to confuse high standards and achievable goals with perfectionism.

Perhaps a partner or spouse doesn’t clean to thoroughly enough, so the perfectionist partner does it alone, even while having lots of other responsibilities.

At work, a perfectionist may not delegate, believing that others don’t work up to high enough standards. The perfectionist, therefore, may take on too many responsibilities and multiply the stress of the job.

Working out at the gym or running can be good for health, but a perfectionist may overdo these activities or think it’s never enough. In that case, the stress or self-criticsm may outweigh the health benefits.

Some perfectionists may be afraid to speak in public, or sing, or may be overly concerned about how they dress, worrying that if they’re not perfect, they’ll be criticized by others.

Perfectionist parents can affect their children by making the child feel they’re never good enough. When a child comes home with a report card with 5 A’s and one B, a perfectionist parent may say, “What happened? Why did you get a B?”

“Perfectionism is a form of social anxiety,” according Martin M. Antony and Richard Swinson in their book, When Perfect Isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism.

The negative impact of perfectionism is that is it often associated with problems such as anxiety and depression, according to Anthony and Swinson.

Characteristics of perfectionism include:

  • People who are perfectionists tend to have standards and expectations that are difficult or even impossible to achieve.
  • Perfectionists can have standards so high that they actually interfere with performance.
  • Perfectionists may be prone to anger, frustration and irritability because of the way they think things should be, but people and situations don’t meet their expectations.

It’s not all or nothing. People can be perfectionist in some situations and not others. Someone may be a perfectionist at work, but be rather relaxed at home about standards for cleaning or cooking.

Perfectionism becomes a problem when it has a negative effect on relationships or happiness or functioning.

Some perfectionists have trouble developing long-term relationships because they tend to look for flaws in others. Those “flaws” are likely to be just people being human, with all the common flaws and frailties that go along with that.

The constant images of perfect movie stars or famous people may cause some people to think that unless they are beautiful as the media portrays beauty, or as thin as fashion models, they’re not perfect. They may develop anorexia or other eating disorders in a misguided and dangerous attempt to be perfect.

Releasing the grip of perfectionism

A sense of perspective, balance and moderation can ease the tension or mental health disorders brought on by perfectionism. Sometimes balance can be achieved individually, if a person can identify and reflect on the areas of perfectionist behavior and find workable ways to modify those behaviors to bring about a more balanced outlook.

Some steps suggested in the book to ease the pressure of perfectionism include:

  1. Isolate the triggering behaviors. Catch yourself in the act of perfectionism. It may be telling a co-worker that you’ll take on a project, thinking only you can do it right. It may be telling your spouse you’ll do the dishes because that’s the only way you’re sure they’ll be clean enough.
  2. Determine the benefits of change. Consider that if you are less critical of people, your family and friends may enjoy spending more time with you. If you are able to be less concerned about what other people think of you, it may ease your depression.
  3. Understand the concept of human imperfection. When people make a mistake, they often say, “Well, I’m only human.” It may be hard for a perfectionist to accept, but most people admire someone who tries, even if they fail. Most people also have admiration for someone who can admit to making a mistake.

Perhaps one of the often-quoted sayings perfectionists can remember to help ease the stress of perfectionism is from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Criticism: “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” That could include forgiving others, as well as forgiving oneself for not being “perfect.”

Therapeutic Approach for Moderating Perfectionism

In some cases, working with a therapist is important to identify the roots of perfectionism and to develop strategies to ease its strangulating effect on relationships and the joy of life. A therapist can also help a perfectionist set realistic goals for change and to see improvements being made in behavior.

In a video series, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Perfectionism over Time,” Martin Antony demonstrates his approach to working with clients whose perfectionism has had a negative impact on adapting to the challenges of daily life.

The effect of perfectionism is shown in a case of overly focus on organizing, planning and succeeding in educational and family life. The therapeutic strategies for healthy change are not on how to meet often unrealistic goals, but to deal with and minimize the stress and ease the desire to be perfect.

In the common wisdom of social media, a saying on Pinterest applies: “There’s no need to be perfect to inspire others. Let others be inspired by how you deal with your imperfections.”


Antony, Martin M. and Swinson, Richard P., When Perfect Isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism, New Harbinger Publications, 2009.

Antony, Martin M., Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Perfection over Time, American Psychological Association, 2008.

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