Perfectionism is often associated with achievement and success. But, individuals with this trait may suffer from mental and physical health issues . People with perfectionist tendencies are more likely to experience depression or suicidal thoughts .
What is perfectionism?
Perfectionism is basically when someone has extremely high standards and they are also overly critical . Even though this is true across the board, perfectionism can look slightly different for each person. Researchers have determined that there are three different types of perfectionism:
- Self-oriented: This is when someone has unrealistic expectations for themselves and thinks in a punishing, overly-critical way about themselves.
- Socially-prescribed: People who feel that their social circle is judgmental and that they have to be perfect to be accepted have socially-prescribed perfectionism.
- Others-oriented: When someone’s perfectionistic standards are put on other people and think critically of others .
Of these three types, self-oriented and socially-prescribed perfectionism were found to have the most harm on mental and physical health . Even though perfectionism is commonly understood to be a positive trait because it’s linked with motivation and success, this personality trait can cause more harm than good .
Effects of Perfectionism
As mentioned earlier, perfectionism is linked with depression and suicidal thoughts. Researchers have explored why this trait is linked with depression. One of the biggest risk factors for developing depression is being overly concerned with mistakes or feeling insecure about their actions.
People with socially-prescribed perfectionism believe that others are judging them harshly and that they have to be perfect to fit in. This means they are likely to spend a lot of time feeling overly critical of any mistakes they make in front of others or how they’ve behaved in social settings. Researchers have discovered that this eventually leads people to feel hopeless, helpless, and angry . These emotions are core symptoms of depression.
The pressure from these overly critical standards can also lead people to have a difficult time focusing on the positive aspects of their life. The focus on failures or mistakes can make it difficult to recognize their accomplishments or just the positive aspects of life. This can lead to low self-worth, which is another symptom of depression .
People with perfectionism are also more likely to struggle with eating disorders . Researchers believe that this may be due to the fact that individuals may hold themselves to unrealistic physical standards. We are all flooded with images of other people’s bodies all the time. For people with perfectionism, they may be overly critical of their body. This can develop into an eating disorder or body dysmorphia .
Treatment for Perfectionism
Thankfully, there are things that can help people with perfectionistic traits. Just because perfectionism may be one of someone’s personality traits, doesn’t mean they are stuck with it. Here are a few different things that research has shown may be helpful in treating perfectionism:
- Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)- CBT is a therapy approach that helps people change the way they think. This shift in thinking then leads people to feel and act differently. CBT can help people with perfectionism begin to recognize their irrational thoughts and replace them with realistic, logical thoughts .
- Psychodynamic Therapy- For people who struggle with severe perfectionism, psychodynamic therapy has shown to be helpful. Psychodynamic therapy is a long-term therapy model, which is shown the be most effective for people who have deeply rooted perfectionism. Psychodynamic therapists support their clients in exploring how their past experiences are still impacting their lives now. This can be helpful for individuals who may have developed perfectionistic standards for themselves or others because their parents were overly critical or harsh towards them. A psychodynamic therapist will help people interrupt their patterns and create a different relationship with themselves and others.
- Self-Compassion- Self-compassion is a practice where someone gives themselves the grace, compassion, or understanding that they would give someone else in their same situation. This can help people be nicer to themselves and improve their overall self-esteem.
- Medication- For people with perfectionism who are also struggling with depression, psychiatric medication may be helpful .
Even though perfectionism may push people to excel in school or at work, it doesn’t come without risks. People with this tendency are at increased risk for depression. There is help available to help people break free and live their lives without perfectionism.
Resources: Curran, T. & Hill, A.P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. American Psychological Association, 145(4), 410-429.  Lessin, D.S. & Pardo, N.T. (2017). The impact of perfectionism on anxiety and depression. Journal of Psychology and Cognition, 2, 78-82.
About the Author:
Samantha Bothwell, LMFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, writer, explorer, and lipstick aficionado. She became a therapist after doing her own healing work so she could become whole after spending many years living with her mind and body disconnected. She has focused her clinical work to support the healing process of survivors of sexual violence and eating disorders. She is passionate about guiding people in their return to their truest Self so they can live their most authentic, peaceful life.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published May 10, 2021 on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on May 10, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC