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The Problem with Perfectionism

Updated: Mar 3

At about the midpoint of the last semester, a student enrolled in one of my classes stopped by my office. After a few minutes of small talk, she said, “I’m really stressed right now because I’m failing your class.” After suggesting there must be some mistake, I checked the gradebook and confirmed that her average was a B. Then it dawned on me that, to her, B-level work was the equivalent of failing.

Perfectionism can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, striving for excellence and setting high standards for oneself can be motivating and lead to professional success. On the other hand, perfectionism can also be harmful and lead to a variety of negative consequences.

Some of the problems with perfectionism include:

Interference with relationships: Perfectionism can interfere with relationships, as you may be perceived as too demanding. For example, a perfectionist supervisor may have unrealistic expectations for their direct reports, leading to strained relationships. A similar pattern can occur when parents expect too much from their children.

Overly critical: Perfectionism may cause you to be overly critical of yourself, leading to feelings of inadequacy. For example, a perfectionist employee who is overly critical of their own work may weaken their own confidence and shy away from advocating for themself.

Missed opportunities: Perfection may prevent you from trying new things for fear that you will not be the best. A perfectionist who operates from a place of fear may decide not to keep the company of people who will challenge them, not to try an interesting activity, or not to pursue a career move that leads to growth.

Procrastination: You may feel overwhelmed by the need to achieve perfection and may avoid starting tasks or projects out of fear of not being able to meet your own expectations. For example, a perfectionist student or employee may delay starting a project because they are afraid they won’t be able to produce something that meets their own high standards. Procrastination provides perfectionists an excuse when they don’t succeed.

All-or-nothing mindset: Perfectionism can lead to an all-or-nothing mindset, where you may feel that achieving anything that is less than perfect is a failure. For example, a perfectionist athlete or musician may feel that not achieving a first place finish or a flawless performance is a failure.

High levels of stress and anxiety: You may feel pressure to constantly meet your own high standards or the expectations of others. For example, a perfectionist student may feel overwhelmed by the need to get straight A’s in all of their classes, and a perfectionist chef may feel pressure to create a perfect dish.

If you see yourself in any of the examples above, consider practicing some of the following strategies to find a healthy balance between setting high standards and being compassionate towards yourself.

  1. Set realistic goals: Setting goals that are achievable and challenging but not necessarily ones that achieve perfection can help you reduce the pressure to constantly meet the highest standards.

  2. Practice self-compassion: Be understanding towards yourself, especially when you make mistakes or fall short of your goals. Remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes and it is part of the learning process.

  3. Take breaks and engage in self-care: Engaging in activities that nourish your body and mind, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies or spending time relaxing with friends and family can reduce stress and help put things into perspective.

  4. Seek support: Talk to a trusted friend, family member, or professional about your perfectionist tendencies and the challenges you are facing. Receiving support could help you find a healthy balance.

  5. Reframe your thinking: Try to reframe your thoughts about making mistakes. Instead of viewing mistakes as failures, try to see them as opportunities to grow.

While perfectionism is often viewed as a positive trait, it can have a serious negative impact on mental health. Some psychologists recommend that perfectionists identify their core values and focus on living their values rather than focusing on perfection.


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