Getting good grades at school, attending a respected university, having interesting friends, building an impressive career, marrying well, raising your kids properly… From an early age, societal and cultural norms push us to fit the mold of perfection. And in the current era of social media platforms like Instagram or TikTok, the pressure to be flawless has never been higher.

Each day, we’re bombarded by videos, photos, and posts that tell us how to achieve perfect skin and an hourglass figure, how to attract the perfect partner, or to drink green juice, read a book, do yoga, and journal all before 6 A.M. It’s no wonder that, compared to their past generations, significantly more young people struggle with perfectionism and social comparison.

Living in an environment that demands perfection has a significant impact on our well-being, which, when left unchecked, contributes to mental health issues like low self-esteem, negative self-talk, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, or suicidal ideation.

What is perfectionism exactly? How can you recognize it? Where does it come from? What to do about this issue? This blogpost has all these answers and more, so keep on reading.

Perfectionism: Definition, Characteristics, and Examples

Why is wanting to be perfect so bad?

What’s wrong with aiming high and working hard?

Isn’t that a great source of motivation?

The biggest misconception is thinking that perfectionism is the same thing as striving to improve. And there’s a significant difference between the desire to excel and the desire to be perfect:

  • The former is a self-focused form of healthy striving in which an individual is internally motivated to invest in their self-development.
  • The latter is an other-focused fixation on external validation and an anxiety-fueled need to please other people.

Perfectionism, sadly, doesn’t help us get better. It’s a self-destructive and unhealthy form of a defensive mechanism that aims to protect us from the pain of our flaws, mistakes, or failures. But in fact, holding yourself up to such unrealistic standards is a breeding ground for struggling with a vicious cycle of self-blame, harsh judgment, anxiety, stress, burnout, and even depression.

In daily life, perfectionism manifests itself in behaviors/beliefs/emotions such as:

  • lacking flexibility in how you complete some chores, how you work, how you socialize, and so on
  • engaging in an abusive self-talk
  • feeling worthless and pathetic
  • procrastinating often
  • belief that your value as a human comes from your achievements
  • looking for praise from others
  • ruminating on your mistakes, no matter how minor they are
  • worrying excessively about the future, preventing you from getting excited about it
  • avoiding challenges, aiming only for the “sure thing”
  • toxic social comparison.

perfectionist personality

The Roots of Perfectionism

Brene Brown, a phenomenal shame researcher, said it best in her book “Daring Greatly“:

“Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around,
thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing
that’s really preventing us from being seen.”

Perfectionism is a shield, a defensive mechanism, a symptom, not a mental disorder. It tells us a story of underlying issues at the root of perfectionism itself.

The most common causes can be divided into these 3 categories:

Family and upbringing
  • Being raised by emotionally immature parents who are highly critical or emotionally distant.Growing up in a family with high expectations where perfection is the golden standard.
  • Praise for achievements and good performance, i.e.:
    Being treated as a favorite child as long as you’re getting straight A’s.
  • Emotional abuse/punishment for mistakes and failures, i.e.:
    Being ridiculed, name-called, or shamed for failing a math exam.
  • As a consequence, children develop a harmful tendency to:
    internalize the negative comments of their parents,
    look for evidence that’ll prove they’re “not good enough”,
  • treat achievements as a measure of their self-worth,
  • try their best to please their parents,
  • engage in perfectionistic behaviors as a way to cope with a dangerous/unpredictable home.
  • Being surrounded by social media posts and TV programs that set unrealistic beauty standards and contribute to body image issues.
  • Functioning in a culture that glorifies success stories, hustling, and constant work.
  • Some systems (i.e., a school/company) might treat perfection as a norm, where anything below that standard is unacceptable and shameful.
  • As a consequence, we might feel:-
  • pressure to always excel and never fumble,
  • unsatisfied with our work, no matter how good it is,
  • anxious about the future and shameful about the past.
Self-imposed standards
  • Putting pressure on yourself to be perfect regardless of external messages.
  • Treating perfectionism as a tool to feel loved, appreciated, accepted, and in control.
  • Basing your self-esteem on the extent to which you manage to achieve success.

How to Cope with Perfectionism

Educate Yourself

If you struggle with perfectionism, recognizing where your issue might come from is a great first step toward healing. This knowledge is a powerful tool that gives you a direction and a specific problem to address.

However, gaining that level of self-awareness and insight into your psyche requires us to show up authentically, open up, and be emotionally vulnerable. Only in such a state are you able to identify where you hurt, what to work on, and what you need to move forward.

causes of perfectionism

Radical Acceptance, Self-Compassion & Gratitude

Overcoming perfectionism sets you on a journey from point A: “What will others think?” to point B: “I am enough”.
How to achieve this transition? One step at a time, with kindness and patience toward yourself.

If you’re a perfectionist, chances are you also struggle with negative self-talk and being abusive toward yourself. The biggest mistake you can make on your recovery journey is to fight fire with fire and pressure yourself into getting better:

Let’s say you’ve just failed a driver’s license exam due to stress, and you’re thinking:
“I should be able to relax and let go of control more. Why can’t I be like XYZ.”
“This is embarrassing. I can’t even drive a car properly. I’m such a failure.”

Now imagine how differently you might feel if you choose to focus on:

(1)  radical acceptance:
“It’s fine that I didn’t pass. It doesn’t diminish my value as a human being.”

(2)  self-compassion:
“Getting stressed during this exam is totally understandable. I’m actually proud of myself for attempting this challenge.”

(3)  gratitude:
“I’m glad I could experience this situation. It shows me to learn stress-reduction exercises so that I may feel more at ease during my next exam.”

To learn more about self-compassion and radical acceptance, click here.

Growth Mindset

Those who prioritize striving for excellence (aka the growth mindset) and choose to remain patient enjoy such a process more than those who prioritize striving for perfection and can’t wait to finally get to the finish line.

Here’s how you can cultivate the growth mindset:

  • approach each mistake and failure as a learning opportunity,
  • compare your current self only with your past self,
  • appreciate the present moment without trying to change it,
  • give yourself grace and accept that honing any skill takes time,
  • keep your standards high but not unrealistic.

Get Professional Help with Harbor Psychiatry

Breaking free from the iron grip of perfectionism takes time, effort, and a lot of energy. It’s a daily choice to face your issues, unhealthy beliefs, and painful emotions. Chances are, it can also bring up difficult memories from your past and cause some anxiety. In the midst of a challenging time like this, it’s good to have someone to lean on and be assisted by an experienced professional.

The therapeutic process offers an opportunity to:

  • share your story in a supportive, compassionate, and non-judgmental space,
  • understand where your perfectionism may come from,
  • explore the impact of these underlying issues on your life,
  • learn how to address unhelpful beliefs or behaviors,
  • use practical techniques to regulate your emotions or deal with negative self-talk.

Take ownership of your mental health and get professional help with Harbor Psychiatry today!