What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is a personality trait that is characterized by flawlessness and the desire to achieve exceptionally high standards in various aspects of life. It is often accompanied by self-criticism and fear of making mistakes.
People with perfectionist tendencies set high expectations for themselves and others, and strive for perfectionism in their work and relationships and other areas.
Prevalence of Perfectionism in Society
The prevalence of perfectionism has been on the rise in society for years. Perfectionist tendencies are becoming increasingly common in younger generations.(1)
The prevalence of perfectionism also varies across different cultures and social contexts. Studies suggest that the younger generation exhibits higher levels of perfectionism compared with the older generation.(2) This may be due to societal factors like increased competition, and pressure to succeed academically and professionally. It may make individuals compelled to constantly strive for perfection to gain recognition and success.
Also, it is observed that women tend to exhibit higher levels of perfectionism than men.(3)
Having an understanding of the prevalence and underlying factors of perfectionism can help in promoting a more balanced approach to achievement and well-being in society.
Types of Perfectionism
Perfectionism can be categorized based on the nature and focus of perfectionist tendencies.
Two psychologists have defined common types of perfectionism as follows:(9)
- Self-Oriented Perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionism refers to setting high standards and expectations for oneself. Such individuals are highly self-critical and have an internal drive to achieve flawless outcomes in their endeavors. They strive for personal excellence and often fear failure or making mistakes. A self-oriented perfectionist often feels dissatisfied with their achievements even while they accomplish significant goals. They always seek to improve and reach higher levels of performance.
- Other-Oriented Perfectionism: This involves the imposition of high standards and expectations on others. People with other-oriented perfectionism are critical of those around them and demand perfection from their family members, friends, colleagues, or subordinates. They may feel disappointed when others fail to meet their standards. This strains their relationships.
- Socially Prescribed Perfectionism: This refers to the perception that others expect perfection from an individual. These people believe that they are constantly being judged and evaluated by others. They place immense pressure on themselves to meet external standards. A study found this socially prescribed perfectionism as the most debilitating of the three forms.(10)
These types of perfectionism may coexist in individuals. A person may exhibit characteristics of more than one type. Also, some levels of perfectionism can be motivational and lead to high achievement. Excessive and maladaptive perfectionism can have negative effects on mental and physical health leading to anxiety disorders, depression, and burnout.
Perfectionism and Mental health
Perfectionism can impact mental health and contribute to various psychological issues and increase the risk of developing mental disorders.
- Anxiety Disorders: Perfectionists experience high levels of anxiety due to the constant fear of making mistakes or falling short of their own impossibly high standards. They may engage in excessive worry and rumination that may lead to generalized anxiety disorder or phobias.
- Depression or Mood Disorders: Chronic stress and feelings of inadequacy may make the perfectionist prone to depression. They may feel that they are never good enough or cannot attain the level of success they desire. A study found 30 percent of undergraduate students experienced symptoms of depression and perfectionism was widely associated with these symptoms.(4)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): Perfectionism and OCD share common traits. There would be an intense need for orderliness and excessive focus on details. Perfectionist tendencies may manifest obsessive-compulsive behavior that may impact an individual’s daily life.(5)
- Eating Disorders: Perfectionists have a strong association with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorders. In a fixate on achieving an ideal body image, perfectionists may adopt unhealthy eating habits.(6)
- Self-Esteem Issues: Perfectionists may often tie self-worth to their achievements. On failing to meet the high expectations their self-esteem may suffer. This may lead to worthlessness and self-doubt.
Perfectionism and Physical Health
Perfectionism can significantly impact an individual’s physical health. The associated chronic stress and pressure can lead to various physiological changes and health issues.
- Chronic Stress: Perfectionists may experience persistent stress due to the constant pressure they put on themselves to meet impossibly high standards.(7) This can lead to a range of health problems, including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, and impaired immune function.
- Cardiovascular Health: Prolonged stress and anxiety can affect cardiovascular health negatively. Perfectionists may be at a higher risk of developing heart problems such as hypertension, coronary artery disease, and cardiovascular conditions.(8)
- Immune System Suppression: Chronic stress and negative emotions associated with perfectionism can weaken the immune system and make individuals more susceptible to infections and illnesses.
- Sleep Disturbances: A perfectionists may struggle with sleep issues including insomnia.(9) There may be constant worry and rumination about mistakes and failures that may disrupt sleep patterns.
- Gastrointestinal problems: Stress and anxiety may disrupt digestive health and lead to gastrointestinal issues such as irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive disorders.
- Headache: Stress associated with perfectionism can trigger tension headaches and exacerbate pain conditions such as migraines and chronic pain.
- Unhealthy Coping Behavior: Some perfectionists may resort to unhealthy coping mechanisms including overeating, excessive alcohol consumption or substance use, or avoiding physical activity. These behaviors can further contribute to physical health problems.
Perfectionism and serious illness have a link as perfectionism leads to stress and stress is a common risk factor for many illnesses.
Intervention and Treatment
A combination of interventions and treatment approaches may be needed to address the mental and physical impact of perfectionism.
- Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (CBT): CBT is a widely used therapeutic approach for treating perfectionism. It helps individuals in identifying challenges and unrealistic beliefs and cognitive distortions related to perfectionism. CBT can be helpful in developing healthier strategies, setting realistic goals, and promoting self-compassion and acceptance.
- Mindfulness-Based Interventions: Techniques such as meditation and mindfulness-based stress reduction can help individuals become more aware of perfectionist thoughts and behaviors. This strategy can teach individuals to be present at the moment without judgment and reduce self-critical thinking.
- Group Therapy: Group therapy can provide a supportive environment where individuals with perfectionist tendencies share experiences and learn from others facing similar challenges. Group therapy fosters a sense of connection and reduces feelings of isolation.
- Self-Compassion Practices: Promoting self-compassion is essential to combat perfectionism. It teaches to treat oneself with kindness and understanding when faced with setbacks or failure.
- Time Management and Prioritization: Knowledge of effective time management skills can be helpful in balancing the pursuits of excellence with self-care and rest. Prioritizing tasks and setting realistic deadlines can reduce pressure to achieve perfection in everything.
- Medication: If necessary, in some cases medications may be prescribed to manage related conditions like anxiety and depression. These can be used in combination with therapy to address underlying mental health conditions.
Overcoming perfectionism is a gradual process and different approaches may work better for different individuals. Seeking guidance from a healthcare professional can help an individual manage perfectionism in a healthier way and improve overall well-being.
Perfectionism is a personality trait that is characterized by a relentless pursuit of flawlessness and exceptionally high standards. Some levels of perfectionism can be motivational and lead to achievement while excessive and maladaptive perfectionism can have a significant impact on mental and physical health. Effective interventions and treatments can help manage perfectionism and its consequences. Promoting a balanced perspective on achievement, emphasizing self-care, and building resilience is essential for fostering a healthier approach to goal-setting and personal growth.
By understanding and addressing the impact of perfectionism on mental and physical health, a society that values growth, self-compassion, and a balanced approach can be cultivated.