What is Perfectionism?

Practice makes perfect, or so the saying goes; however, for some people, the intense belief in and desire to reach perfectionism goes beyond the typical desire to be perfect.

Purpose of Perfectionism:

Perfectionism can serve two general purposes.

On the one hand, the desire to be perfect can drive and motivate an individual to greater heights and goals than they may otherwise achieve or attempt.

Often we see this in high-achieving individuals such as pro-athletes, scientists, and artists. These individuals achieve a great deal and are motivated and pushed by their desire to reach perfection. Often perfectionism overlaps with optimism and the belief that anything can be achieved.

On the other hand, perfectionism can become a pathological issue in which it can become detrimental to every day life. For example, individuals who have an intense desire to be perfect may find themselves procrastinating because they are unable to start and complete a project perfectly. The delay may fall under a desire to understand the project or issue more or to achieve unrealistic goals.

This procrastination can lead to productivity issues, disengagement from relationships, and low self-esteem. A person may also become socially isolated. If a person believes that they should be able to conduct or achieve a certain goal and they find that they cannot, the individual may become depressed. Further, for those who channel their perfectionism into work or other activities, they may sport negative relationships.

What Does Perfectionism Look Like?

Individuals who struggle with perfectionism often have an "all or nothing" mindset. Their world view is often very black and white, in that they achieve their goal and are successful, or they are an utter failure. This fear of failure can be paralyzing.

Attributes Common in Individuals with Perfectionism

These attributes are all common with perfectionism:

Perfectionism can also be manifested in the self and is viewed as a form of perfectionism, often called narcissism. When an individual believes that they are the embodiment of perfectionism, they may be at increased risk for other mental disorders.

Risk Factors for Perfectionism:

Perfectionists are at an increased risk to have overlapping psychological issues. In addition to issues such as anxiety and depression, those with perfectionistic mindsets are at greater risk of suffering from:

The body is not meant to operate under intense amounts of stress at all times, and it can take a great toll on the body. Those who struggle with perfectionism should seek treatment before developing these other issues and disorders. 

Treatment for Perfectionism:

Two types of treatment exist for perfectionism: therapy and medications.

Psychotherapy is very often used with those who are perfectionists.

Cognitive behavioral therapy can target the negative thinking and ultimate behaviors associated with perfectionism. Changing behaviors includes setting realistic goals, taking small steps, recognizing potential failure, and diminishing or eliminating black and white thinking.

Therapy also allows the individual to build self-esteem and a sense of mastery, reducing negative perceptions about personal failure.

Medications such as anti-anxiety medications, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors such as anti-depressants, and other medications may be helpful in treating the symptoms associated with anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and compulsions.

Tackling self-esteem and a fear of disapproval or disappointment are often the goals in treating perfectionism.

Situations that Encourage Perfectionism:

Perfectionism may be the result of an individual being in a situation that is:

  • emotionally invalidating
  • demanding
  • highly pressured to succeed
  • fraught with physical or emotional abuse
  • extremely focused on body image
  • viewed as black and white.

Related Resource Pages on Band Back Together:

Self-Loathing

Self-Esteem

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Eating Disorders

Body Dysmorphic Disorder

Depression

Anxiety

Substance Abuse

Stress

Resources for Perfectionism:

The CounselingCenter.Illinois provides a thorough description of perfectionism and describes a therapeutic model of treatment involving realistic goals, negative thoughts, and expectations for success.

Psychology Today offers information about related thoughts and disorders to perfectionism.