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Understanding perfectionism: Causes, impact, and treatment

Understanding perfectionism: Causes, impact, and treatment

In some settings, perfectionism can be an excellent asset to have, allowing someone to be extremely detailed and precise in their work. However, maintaining this level of precision can be exhausting and stressful. 

Many things can cause someone to become a perfectionist, but it’s important to manage the high expectations that come with it. Creating healthy coping mechanisms and ways to mitigate stress are great ways to avoid the negative impact of intense perfectionism.


What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism refers to a personality style that often requires the execution of an action to be free of flaws — or perfect — far more than what is necessary. It’s theorized that there are two forms of perfectionism: healthy and maladaptive.

Healthy perfectionism refers to an adaptive or helpful type of perfectionism in which the person enjoys the devotion of their endeavor. Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, refers to a dysfunctional or harmful type of perfectionism where the person suffers from the devotion and attention to detail they feel they need to complete their endeavor. 

Unlike healthy perfectionists, maladaptive perfectionists are more likely to experience disproportionate or excessive distress, self-criticism, or self-doubt when considering perceived failures or the idea of not living up to their high expectations. This can apply to both themselves and the actions of other people.

What Are the Traits of a Perfectionist? Signs that Someone Is a Perfectionist

Signs that a person is a perfectionist can include a general sense of doubt regarding their performance (or others’) without evidence to support otherwise. This can result in an overreliance on how other people evaluate them, a need to be graded or assessed to see if they’ve lived up to standards.

People who tend to score high on perfectionism measures such as tests tend to also experience disproportionate fear or anxiety about making a mistake, failing, or disappointing themselves or others. This can bring out other traits like: 

  • Overcriticizing behaviors 
  • Thinking in terms of black and white (“all or nothing” perspective)
  • Procrastinating (due to fear of failure)
  • Being defensive
  • Using fear as a motivator
  • Being result-oriented
  • Experiencing low self-esteem

Perfectionists tend to maintain a high personal standard for performance which may be motivated more by a fear of failing than a desire to succeed. It is common for a person who is displaying perfectionistic traits to value orderliness, precision, and structure — all things they can control.

Common traits of perfectionism are being hypercritical, an "all or nothing" perspective, procrastination, defensiveness, and low self-esteem

What Are the Three Factors of Perfectionism?

Three factors of perfectionism surround the direction of perfectionistic thoughts and actions. Perfectionism can be directed from the individual toward themselves, from the individual toward others, or it can be perceived that others are directing it toward them. This can look like:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: When someone exhibits this trait, they often struggle with the importance they place on being perfect, having unrealistic expectations for themselves, and being critical when self-evaluating.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism: This kind of perfectionism is generated by and perpetuates a stressful social context in which people are judged harshly by others and require perfection to be approved of. This environment can cause instances of peer pressure, bullying, judgment, and exclusion when someone doesn’t meet a socially prescribed standard.
  • Other-oriented perfectionism: This occurs when someone personally judges or places high standards on other individuals due to their own disproportionate expectations, usually expressing criticism and perhaps going so far as to make adjustments to their work or behavior themselves.

However one’s perfectionism manifests itself, the intense pressure to achieve such high standards and expectations can have a negative impact on oneself or others

What Is the Root of Perfectionism?

Though there is no official or direct “root” of perfectionism, many emotions, thoughts, and insecurities can cause someone to start exhibiting perfectionistic traits.

A widely held idea is that a fear of negative judgment and exclusion contributes to perfectionistic behaviors. This can develop due to issues in early childhood: If a child feels as though their parents’ approval and care are contingent on their performance or level of success, the child will likely strive for perfection to achieve positive regard and, in the end, acceptance. This can be due to poorly defined measurements for achievement or high expectations, either for a child’s academic or athletic performance, for their emotional intelligence and control, or a number of other aspects.

This dynamic can also cause perfectionists to be driven by a fear of abandonment, as they might believe their loved ones will leave them or stop caring about them if they fail to meet expectations.

Perfectionists often have a strong association between being perfect and the importance or “goodness” of themselves or others. This idea can be tied to the factors above, causing them to be incredibly hard on themselves or others due to their ideas of perfection being equated to being good, worthy, or important.

What Is the Main Cause of Perfectionism?

The study of perfectionism is relatively new and still not completely understood therefore it is difficult to say with certainty what causes perfectionism to develop. 

Parenting styles can be a factor in the development of perfectionism. Oftentimes, overcritical and demanding parents or authority figures or, conversely an absence of standards, parental indirect criticism, and unclear expectations can both contribute to a child developing perfectionist tendencies.

Mental health literature tends to lean towards the role of a person’s formative years early environment, specifically the parent-child dynamic. However, it is difficult to tease out the role of culture.

These parenting styles may be a component of a larger societal factor that rewards perfectionistic behaviors and may be overly punitive of human error. Perfectionism, at its core, is a desire to avoid a negative evaluation or consequence. Because of this, societal factors such as a meritocracy (power based on ability), bias within the criminal justice system, cancel culture, and competitive educational and occupational institutions can reinforce perfectionistic thinking.

Is Perfectionism Caused by Trauma?

Trauma can be a factor that leads to perfectionistic behaviors, though not always. Trauma is a distressing event or series of events that have caused significant emotional, psychological, or physical harm. This can range from intense trauma caused by physical harm, abuse, or loss to milder examples like emotional mistreatment or other distressing events. However intense or mild, though, trauma certainly leaves a mark on those who experience it, and the resulting symptoms can be difficult to manage.

A traumatic event, which is a physical or emotional injury, can evoke feelings of confusion, fear, and helplessness. Sometimes, a person might attempt to regain control through perfectionism, using it (either consciously or subconsciously) as a means of making their reality safe and predictable in an effort to cope with the effects of what happened to them. This is also known as a trauma response.

Perfectionist tendencies caused by traumatic events can be triggered by feelings of guilt and self-blame. They may blame themselves for what happened to them to some degree, causing them to use perfectionism as a way to ensure that another bad outcome like the one they experienced will never happen again. This can cause a person to feel as though they are constantly walking on eggshells or that their personal performance is tied to their physical and emotional safety, leading to extreme amounts of stress.

Is Perfectionism Rooted in Anxiety?

Perfectionistic behaviors can certainly cause certain amounts of anxiety, as well as be driven by it. Since perfectionism is a desire to avoid negative judgments or consequences, anxiety can be a driving force behind a perfectionist’s work ethic and attention to detail that they implement in order to avoid negative outcomes. Also, depending on what a person’s perfectionism is tied to, anxiety surrounding abandonment issues, losing their value as a person, or not being accepted can lead to someone developing perfectionist tendencies and striving to reach the high standards of performance that they believe will prevent these outcomes.

Anxiety can also occur as a result of perfectionism, as the need to perform to a high standard can cause intense stress. In this case, though, the anxiety taking place will more often than not be emotions alone, not disordered thinking as with specific anxiety disorders

In terms of mental health disorders, perfectionism may be more closely aligned with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as the two conditions share the belief that something awful can be prevented based on a specific set of actions. Where it differs slightly is that, with perfectionism, that idea may or may not be true, while with OCD, it’s likely that the action has no relationship with the feared outcome.

Is Perfectionism a Mental Problem?

While the traits and symptoms of perfectionism can sometimes meet the criteria for different mental disorders, perfectionism itself is not a diagnosis recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). Therefore, it is not a diagnosable condition.

However, perfectionist tendencies can still have a negative impact on one’s mental health. If you believe you are experiencing perfectionistic traits and feel that they are inhibiting your ability to function and live well, consider speaking with a mental health professional about how you’re feeling. They can help you work through the feelings and experiences driving your perfectionism and find new coping skills to help you manage it.

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Are There Any Mental Illnesses That Can Be Caused by Perfectionism?

No mental conditions or disorders have been directly linked to perfectionism. However, perfectionism can be associated with depression, anxiety, OCD, disordered eating, sexual dysfunctions, and suicide. Perfectionism can also promote sadness, stress, self-criticism, and an overall low sense of self-worth, which can put someone more at risk of developing certain disorders or conditions.

Perfectionism also has implications in certain physical illnesses such as high blood pressure and other stress-related conditions.

Is Perfectionism Part of Bipolar Disorder?

Perfectionism is not a specific symptom of bipolar disorder (BD), nor is it necessarily attributed to BD. However, there is growing research suggesting that there could be a relationship between bipolar disorder and perfectionism — specifically maladaptive perfectionism.

More specifically, the lack of self-compassion that maladaptive perfectionists display can negatively impact bipolar disorder symptoms, worsening a person with BD’s ability to regulate their emotions.

How Do You Break Perfectionism? Treatment and Coping Skills

To modify perfectionistic behavior, it helps to acknowledge the nature and harmful aspects of perfectionism and practice acts of self-compassion. Behaviorally, this can start with small actions, like building up coping skills and distress tolerance so that the stress and anxiety caused by perfectionism have less of an impact on you. 

Some helpful ways to start adjusting negative perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors are:

  • Take note of your tendencies: Perfectionism is pervasive and can affect many aspects of a person’s life. Notice when you feel your perfectionism coming to the surface and be mindful of what’s driving you. If you can find the source of your perfectionism, it becomes easier to adjust and treat.
  • Challenge your thoughts: When you start feeling stress or anxiety about doing something due to perfectionism, think of what is behind that feeling and challenge the belief causing it. For example, if your perfectionism is trying to tell you, “If you don’t reach this standard, people will reject and judge you,” try thinking back, “I am good and worthy as I am; my work does not determine my worth.”
  • Allow mistakes: Everyone makes mistakes, and you are no different. When you make mistakes, try to put them in perspective: Would you judge someone else this harshly for the same mistake? Did the negative consequence that you fear occur? Is there anything you can learn from this experience? Realize that the world has not stopped turning and think about what you can do differently in the future.
  • Adjust your self-talk: Self-talk has an incredible impact on your self-confidence and self-worth. If you notice that you tend to think or speak negatively about yourself, assess the truth of your statements and see if you can think of ways to make your thoughts about yourself more positive. Even if you don’t believe the positive things you’re thinking at first, positive self-talk is an excellent habit to get into and can help you truly adjust what you think over time.

With the help of a mental health professional, you can start to identify and challenge beliefs that fuel perfectionism and begin using positive affirmations to counter unhelpful or misleading thoughts.

  • Clinical writer
  • Editorial writer
  • Clinical reviewer
  • 3 sources
Laura Harris, LCMHC in Durham, NC
Laura Harris, LCMHCLicensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor
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Laura Harris is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor (LCMHC). She specializes in anger, anxiety, depression, stress management, coping strategies development, and problem-solving skills.

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Evan Csir is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over 9 years of experience. He is passionate about working with people, especially autistic individuals and is experienced in helping clients with depression, anxiety, and ADHD issues.

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Hannah DeWittMental Health Writer

Hannah is a Junior Copywriter at Thriveworks. She received her bachelor’s degree in English: Creative Writing with a minor in Spanish from Seattle Pacific University. Previously, Hannah has worked in copywriting positions in the car insurance and trucking sectors doing blog-style and journalistic writing and editing.

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  • Greenspon, T. S. (2008). Making Sense of Error: a view of the origins and treatment of perfectionism. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 62(3), 263–282.

  • Fry, P. S., & Debats, D. L. (2011). Perfectionism and other related trait measures as predictors of mortality in diabetic older adults: A six-and-a-half-year longitudinal study. Journal of Health Psychology, 16(7), 1058–1070.

  • Fletcher, K., Yang, Y., Johnson, S. L., Berk, M., Perich, T., Cotton, S., Jones, S. H., Lapsley, S., Michalak, E. E., & Murray, G. (2019). Buffering against maladaptive perfectionism in bipolar disorder: The role of self-compassion. Journal of Affective Disorders, 250, 132–139.

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