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3 Reasons You Should Give Up on Perfection

Striving for perfection is robbing you of happiness. Here's how to overcome it.

Luke Daugherty Contributor
Luke Daugherty is a freelance writer, editor and former operations manager. His work covers operations, marketing, sustainable business and personal finance, as well as many of his personal passions, including coffee, music and social issues.
Luke Daugherty
6 min read
Woman placing paper clips in perfect lines.
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Most people want to excel in life. Whether it's in school or at work, in relationships or in our hobbies, it's common to want to do a good job. However, some people only want to achieve perfection.

When you become fixated on achieving perfection -- whether in everything or only in specific tasks -- you cross the line into perfectionism. This relentless need to everything perfectly may seem admirable, but it creates a host of problems for perfectionists and those around them. Ultimately, perfectionism can be detrimental to your mental health and even lead to anxiety and depression.

If you're concerned you may have perfectionistic tendencies, you're not alone. It's a common personality trait, and it's been rising steadily among young people since the 1980s. Let's look at a few key signs you may be a perfectionist, how it can harm your health and how to overcome perfectionism in your life. 

What is toxic perfectionism?

Before we get into what toxic perfectionism is, we have to start by saying that having a perfectionistic personality isn't a bad thing. Studies show that some people are wired with more perfectionistic tendencies. Other factors like childhood experiences and social influences can also play a role. When you strive for excellence without being consumed by it, this can lead to great accomplishments without the negative mental health effects.

However, perfectionism becomes a problem when it controls your behavior and dominates your mindset. This is what some psychologists call "toxic" or "maladaptive" perfectionism. There's no precise definition of when perfectionism turns unhealthy, but in general, it comes down to whether you can accept falling short of your own (or someone else's) standards. Obsessive perfectionists often feel devastated by failure and do everything they can to avoid it, no matter the negative impact on their lives and relationships. 

Here are a few signs of unhealthy perfectionism:

  • You're constantly doubting yourself
  • What you achieve determines how you feel about yourself
  • You avoid things you think you're not good at
  • You frequently compare yourself to others
  • Others often fail to live up to your standards
  • You worry that others will think you're a failure
  • You have other conditions related to perfectionism, such as anxiety, depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder

In its extreme form, perfectionism can be debilitating, leaving you unable to try anything new and challenging or simply enjoy aspects of life that don't (or shouldn't) involve striving for excellence.

Worried man using laptop working at home.
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3 ways perfectionism hurts your mental health

As noted above, anyone can have perfectionistic tendencies -- and these can be helpful and productive. However, when achieving perfection becomes a fixation, it may trigger other mental health conditions. 

It can cause anxiety

Anxiety is perhaps the most common outcome linked to perfectionism. And, although many studies aren't entirely clear on which causes which, the two are undeniably linked

There are many reasons that perfectionism may increase anxiety, but one of the most notable is the idea of rumination or "analysis paralysis." Studies have shown that perfectionists tend to overanalyze situations, decisions and outcomes and this has been tied to social anxiety, in particular.

The unclear relationship between perfectionism and anxiety may largely stem from the fact that the conditions exacerbate each other. For instance, one study revealed that perfectionism, anxiety and poor sleep all seem to feed off one another. In other words, worries over failures or impending expectations may lead to poor sleep and insomnia, which can make it more difficult to perform up to expectations, and so on.

Whatever the specific connections, there is a clear relationship between obsessive levels of perfectionism and anxiety. If you're constantly worried about meeting your own standards or striving to meet others' expectations, it naturally creates an anxious state of mind.

It can lower your self-esteem

At the core of toxic perfectionism, your self-worth is tied to what you achieve. You're only "good" if you continually strive hard and meet all the expectations that weigh on you. Those may be your own expectations or others, and they may be real or perceived. In the end, all that matters is that you meet them. 

It's not surprising, then, that this kind of perfectionism can lead to problems with self-esteem. If you fail to meet expectations, your view of yourself can deteriorate quickly. This appears to be particularly true if your perfectionism is highly driven by fear. For example, you might ask yourself, "What if I don't get good grades for my parents?"

Like perfectionism and anxiety, self-esteem and perfectionistic tendencies appear to influence each other. Research suggests that low self-esteem may drive some people toward perfectionism. In that case, striving to attain perfect results appears to be a form of coping -- if you can just do a good job, then you'll meet expectations and feel better about yourself. Ultimately, though, this mindset can further damage your self-esteem when you (inevitably) fall short of perfection.

Crucially, this poor self-esteem can lead to a third mental health concern related to perfectionism: depression.

It can lead to depression

Succumbing to maladaptive perfectionism creates a variety of cognitive distortions in the perfectionist's mind. These can range from overgeneralized negative perceptions ("I'm terrible at my job") to a fixation on small errors ("I screwed that up, so I'm a failure"), but the end result is the same: a negative outlook. And, as studies have shown, people with poor self-esteem may find fighting off depression more challenging.

Many studies have demonstrated strong ties between obsessive perfectionism and depression, particularly when someone's self-worth is tied to their ability to meet expectations. If you fail with this perspective, it makes you vulnerable to depression. And, as research shows, the stronger the perfectionistic impulse, the worse the resulting depression can be.

Other research suggests that the link between perfectionism and depression may be related to social isolation. In other words, because perfectionism tends to drive people to focus on achievements over relationships, it can lead to greater isolation, which ultimately results in depression.

As you can see, these three mental health outcomes can feed off each other, each one making the others worse, until your perfectionism creates nothing more than a perfect cocktail of mental unrest. You may strive for excellence in one area of life, only to fall far short in others because your mental health suffers.

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6 tips to overcome perfectionism

You can move toward a healthier perspective by practicing a few important daily habits:

Practice self-compassion: Toxic perfectionism thrives on self-criticism. Instead, try showing compassion to yourself as you would for someone else. If you fall short, focus on what you did well and find ways to reward yourself. Studies have shown that this can help ward off perfectionistic depression. 

Recognize problematic thinking and challenge it: When perfectionism leads to low self-esteem and depression, it's often a result of your internal monolog. Instead of just letting the self-loathing lectures play on repeat, speak up and challenge your inner taskmaster. 

Embrace mistakes: One of the key characteristics of perfectionism is rigid, all-or-nothing thinking -- you achieved the goal or you didn't. But this adds fuel to the mental-health fire. Instead, try a growth mindset that views mistakes as new chances to learn and improve. This can lay the groundwork for a healthier perfectionism, where you're always striving to do better without obsessing about missing the mark along the way.

Set realistic goals: By its nature, perfectionism is unrealistic. Everyone falls short or misses the mark for all sorts of reasons, and moving toward mental health starts with acknowledging this reality. In some cases, your goals are just too lofty. If you're always falling short, maybe you should move the target a little closer.

Stop comparing yourself to others: Many perfectionists learn to look to others for validation. But true mental health comes when you're at peace with your own view of yourself and internally driven by your own motives and goals. Instead of letting others define you, start defining your own standard of excellence.

Seek help when you need it: If your perfectionism has led to serious mental health concerns, don't wait to seek help. A trained therapist can help you work through acute anxiety and depression so you're in a better place to tackle your perfectionistic tendencies.

Too long; didn't read?

There's nothing wrong with striving for excellence. But the ideal of perfectionism is fundamentally impossible. You can never achieve it, and if you build your life around trying to get there, you'll burn yourself out. Be kind to yourself, embrace a growth mindset and challenge unhelpful thoughts. You might find the end results are even better than when you were aiming for perfection.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.