Have you ever been considered a perfectionist by others? Maybe it was a family member, friend, or co-worker? Perhaps you clicked on this blog post because you consider yourself a perfectionist. But what exactly does it mean to be a perfectionist and how do you define it? 

Everyone seems to have their own definition of perfectionism because there is no universally agreed-upon definition according to researchers studying this field. However, most of them agree that perfectionism is the need to be perfect and/or appear perfect to others. 

Perfectionism is often considered a character trait that may look different from person to person. For some, it may look like taking 70+ selfies to find the perfect angle for Instagram to appear flawless to their followers. For others, it’s setting extremely high academic goals like achieving a 4.0 GPA and nothing less.

You might be wondering what’s wrong with having high standards.

The problem with perfectionism is that  holding oneself to extremely high standards may lead someone to adopt very rigid ways of behaving,  beat themselves up very harshly if a mistake is made, or they may avoid situations where there’s a possibility of a slipup. In addition, being a perfectionist is a lot of work and can take up a lot of time and inner resources which can impact well-being. 

If it’s so bad, why are so many people perfectionistic?

Despite the many downsides, our culture continues to celebrate perfectionism because it helps people to perform well in academic, personal, and professional settings. Think back in time to an achievement that you are proud of. Notice if your unwavering drive to succeed played a role. This is because it is considered beneficial when we rely on our perfectionistic traits sparingly. After all, it helps us meet our expectations over time when we can persist and focus on our tasks.   

Although perfectionism appears to be a helpful motivator in achieving challenging personal or professional goals, it is not without a cost, especially in the long-term. Perfectionism inflicts pain and damage when you hold yourself to high standards, especially for factors that are outside of your control (e.g., physical illness, life transitions, and death of loved ones). Research has shown that when things get tough, the benefits of perfectionism disappear, and people tend to experience higher levels of stress and adjustment difficulties. The potential repercussions of mismanaged perfectionism have the power to negatively impact our physical health (e.g., migraines, irritable bowel syndrome) and mental health (e.g., depression, anxiety, eating disorders). Other consequences of perfectionism that tend to go unnoticed are the increased vulnerability to distress, not accepting yourself, chronic sense of failure, relationship conflict and dissatisfaction, procrastination, harsh inner criticism, and a strong sense of shame. 

The great news is therapy can help you address and work through your perfectionistic tendencies by developing more flexible, helpful ways of coping with the high expectations of life. A few of the many ways therapy might help include exploring your default thought patterns, redefining what success and failure mean, as well as cultivating self-compassion and self-acceptance. 

Are you interested in working on your perfectionism? Check out Uprise Psychology & Wellness’ therapists here!


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About the Author:

Christie Lim is a Master’s student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Ottawa and is completing her practicum at Uprise Psychology & Wellness under the supervision of Dr. Melisa Arias-Valenzuela, C. Psych. Christie has a strong interest for helping people struggling with perfectionism, self-criticism, anxiety and depression. She offers free live mindfulness breaks here.