Find your Coach
Back to Blog

Perfectionism isn't a virtue (and doesn't help well-being, either)

February 3, 2022 - 16 min read


Jump to section

What's perfectionism?

The causes behind perfectionism

Forms of perfectionism

Signs you might be a perfectionist

How does perfectionism manifest?

The effects of perfectionism

How to overcome perfectionism

Taking charge

Perfection doesn't exist, but that doesn't stop us from striving to reach it. 

In some ways, perfectionism is a good motivator — it encourages you to work harder and smarter while continually improving your skillset. But if we take our quest for perfection to the extreme, unhappiness and damaged self-confidence arise.

Hurting ourselves in the process to improve isn't the answer. We're worthy, valuable, and capable regardless of our success.


What's perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a mental state where we force ourselves to act the best and make the best decisions at all times. Societal pressures, childhood upbringing, academic competition, and even social media influence how we view ourselves and think of perfection. 

Perfectionism is a maladaptive practice. That is, this trait is typically more harmful than helpful because of unrealistic expectations. 

Unfortunately, perfectionists tend to stress more and achieve less. 

This mindset manifests in various environments and circumstances like the workplace, the classroom, sporting arenas and fields, romantic and platonic relationships, and even your physical appearance and hygiene. Perfectionistic behaviors are quite common among young people, especially in competitive environments. 

If this description sounds all too familiar to you, know that you can take steps to find a better practice. BetterUp provides tools and support that will allow you to abandon perfectionism and instead embrace your strengths and flaws. Our coaches will work with you to find a healthier mindset and sustainably strive for your goals.

New call-to-action

The causes behind perfectionism

Perfectionism emerges from multiple psychosocial factors, including:

  1. Intense feelings of inadequacy and the fear of disapproval.
  2. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), is an anxiety disorder that prompts uncontrollable repeated thoughts or behaviors. Perfectionism and OCD aren’t mutually exclusive. 
  3. Having a parent or guardian who pressures their children to be perfect.
  4. Attachment issues from absent parental figures during youth. These individuals may strive to be perfect to obtain validation regarding their self-worth.

blonde woman in orange overall and white sneakers embracing knees and hiding face-perfectionism

Forms of perfectionism

Perfectionism can present itself in one of three ways: 

  1. Self-oriented perfectionism: When the desire to be perfect is self-imposed, it’s considered “self-oriented.” 
  2. Other-oriented perfectionism: Holding other people to an impossibly high standard is also a form of perfectionism.
  3. Socially-prescribed perfectionism: This occurs when individuals feel pressured to be perfect because they perceive high expectations from others, like on social media. 

Tired businessman at office with computer at desk-perfectionism

Signs you might be a perfectionist

If you’re unsure if you’re a perfectionist or not, here are some standard behavioral signs for you to keep an eye out for: 

1. You're a high achiever

Shooting for the stars is great, but many perfectionists tend to have an all-or-nothing mindset when completing tasks. Even if your effort is recognized and praised, you’re never satisfied. 

2. You're highly critical 

Not only are perfectionists self-critical, but they hold others to a high standard. They have tunnel vision when it comes to flaws and mistakes. To them, “almost perfect” still means failure. 

3. You're driven by fear

The fear of failure usually motivates perfectionists, since not reaching a goal is the worst-case scenario imaginable. 

4. You have unrealistic standards

If you're unable to enjoy the journey or it's all about reaching the summit, it might skew your standards. Disappointment and various mental health issues like depression, self-harm, or eating disorders could manifest if you don't achieve your ambitions.

5. You procrastinate 

Although this may seem surprising at first, perfectionists often procrastinate. Their fear of failure causes paralysis, preventing them from starting projects and tasks. Procrastination has many causes, but many cures, too.

6. You have low-self-esteem

If you achieve anything less than perfection, you feel upset and start to believe that you're incapable of achieving your goals. Low self-esteem impacts life satisfaction, your self-talk, and your relationship with others.

7. You're defensive

The thought of not being perfect is likely scary to you. You become defensive when thoughts or possibilities of not being perfect arise, especially in constructive feedback.

How does perfectionism manifest?

Perfectionism is everywhere. It finds a way to make a home in all sorts of environments and manifests from various places. You might think that perfectionism only applies at work or in your hobbies. But you carry perfectionistic tendencies wherever you go — even on vacation or at home.

Some examples of where perfectionism may manifest may include:

  • At school: Students of any age may manifest perfectionism at school. You might have wanted to build the largest toy castle at a young age, and you didn't stop until you accomplished that. Or in college, you wanted to receive the highest mark on the final exam, so you crammed as hard as you could. As a student, you felt like you needed to be the best at something, and if you failed, you felt you weren't talented or smart. 
  • At home: Your home and upbringing help shape who you are. Perhaps your parents were strict and had high standards for you. They wanted you to behave a certain way or do chores exactly as they wanted. You felt like you needed to be perfect to feel their love or gain a sense of self-worth.
    And when you didn't accomplish that, your parents didn't make you feel like you disappointed them.
  • On a personal level: Your standards for yourself could rise when you're doing something independently. Maybe you have a hobby, like building model planes, and you want to make them without flaws. Nobody else is encouraging you to be the best model plane builder than yourself, but it's personal for you.
    Even though you have no consequences if you make mistakes, your fear of failure is still strong.
  • With routines: Your routines are important to you. In the morning, they help you start your day off strong, and in the evening, they help you relax. You want them to be done to perfection because you know how much you value them.
    But your routines might further your perfectionism by making you feel incredibly dedicated to them, to the point where you make them the utmost priority.
  • At work: Let's say you're working at your dream company right now. But you don’t enjoy it, because everything you do must be perfect if you're living your dream. Perfectionism at work might look like putting in longer hours so your self-evaluation looks good or forcing your coworkers to redo work to fit your impossibly high standards.
    If you're working toward a promotion, you might demand perfection out of yourself because that's how you believe you'll achieve it.

The effects of perfectionism

While perfectionism might make you stay up all night working on a project or doing things over again to make things to your liking, it also can lead to more harmful consequences. Other times, perfectionism follows after certain mental health issues. One study found that college students with social anxiety were more likely to become perfectionists than those who didn't have social anxiety.

Consequences of perfectionism include the following but aren't limited to:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Eating disorders like anorexia 
  • Insomnia
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • PTSD

 Besides mental health issues, perfectionism also leads to habits that harm your well-being. Being a perfectionist can flood your brain with negative self-talk and self-doubt. It also pushes you until the point of burnout, and any imperfection causes more negative thoughts. 

 These effects have consequences that threaten your physical health, too. And what might start as one issue might lead to other issues that impact your health. These will affect remind you how important it is to take care of your mental health and prioritize your well-being. If this sounds familiar, you might consider seeing a mental health professional address those concerns.


How to overcome perfectionism

Perfectionism isn’t good for your well-being. But you can practice many good habits to shift from an unhealthy self-image to a realistic one that reinforces how failing is okay.

1. Focus on the positives

Perfectionism can cause us to focus on the negative aspects of ourselves. Frequently — and consciously — thinking about what’s good in your life and your strengths is one of the first steps to overcoming perfectionist tendencies. 

Not sure where to get started? Consider journaling, which is a fantastic way to record your positive thoughts. You can even look back on previous positives when you’re struggling.

2. Allow yourself to make mistakes

Show yourself some grace. Mistakes teach us about life and ourselves, and the most remarkable accomplishments often result from the worst mistakes.

3. Set more reasonable goals

Having unrealistic expectations sets you up for failure before you begin. Try splitting your largest goals into smaller sections to make them more attainable, and be realistic about how much you can achieve in a given period. Often, things don't need to be perfect, they need to be done. Don't let perfect become the enemy of the good.

Remember to have some self-compassion as you work toward your attainable goals. Sometimes things won’t go according to plan, but that doesn't mean you should beat yourself up. Even if you have high personal standards, self-compassion will remind you that you're putting your best efforts forward, even if they may seem small at the time.

One helpful strategy: begin your day with smaller tasks and work your way up. This helps build confidence as you check things off the to-do list.

4. Try to find the meaning in what you're doing

Seeing the meaning behind your tasks will inspire you more than just trying to accomplish the task perfectly. Doing things with a genuine heart gives us purpose and makes our jobs more fun and impactful.

5. Cut out negative influences

We should be skeptical of “hustle culture” that says resting or shortcomings are toxic. Movies, magazines, social media, and our friends and family can also reinforce perfectionism, even if they don’t intend to. 

Try limiting the amount of time you spend consuming media or with people who negatively impact your mental well-being.

6. Go to therapy

Anxiety and depression are two major symptoms of perfectionism. A therapist, who is removed from your situation, can see things objectively. Talking about how you feel can lift such a burden off your shoulders, and you don’t have to worry about any judgment. 

Being adaptive to change and overcoming obstacles is easier said than done, but sometimes, whether we like it or not, we need help.

Therapist Takes notes during a session with a male young client-perfectionism

Taking charge

At BetterUp, we champion leadership and career development, social connections, and mental fitness. Our coaching and AI technology are designed to aid you on this journey, and you get right back on track and lead a vibrant, fulfilling life. 

We won't sugarcoat the process — working on your perfectionism will be hard. But if you're willing to put in the effort, we are here to help you become your best self.

New call-to-action

Published February 3, 2022

Shonna Waters, PhD

Vice President of Alliance Solutions

Read Next

13 min read | October 17, 2022

Are you a perfectionist? How to understand what is causing it

Ever wondered what causes perfectionism? Take a deep dive into how perfectionism impacts your mental health, and why it’s never too late to seek the help you need. Read More
Professional Development
14 min read | January 18, 2023

Saying yes: How to write an offer acceptance email

A carefully worded offer acceptance email is a great way to demonstrate gratitude and professionalism. Follow our eight tips for the perfect message. Read More
16 min read | February 1, 2022

Slow down: How mindful parenting benefits both parents and kids

Mindful parenting doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect all the time. Learn how slowing down and looking in can make a difference for your family. Read More
13 min read | March 9, 2022

All-or-nothing thinking: 3 ways to stop throwing in the towel

All-or-nothing thinking involves thinking in extremes. Things are either perfect or terrible. Learn more about this type of thinking and ways to manage it. Read More
18 min read | February 10, 2022

Are you reaching your full potential? A guide to personal development

Are you looking for ways to improve yourself? With this complete personal development guide, start to build the skills you need to become a better you. Read More
13 min read | May 25, 2021

The self presentation theory and how to present your best self

Self presentation is defined as the way we try to control how others see us, but it’s just as much about how we see ourselves. It is a skill to achieve a level of comfort... Read More
14 min read | January 13, 2022

Build real self-confidence: These tips get beneath the surface

Learn how you can build your confidence and all the benefits that come from being a more confident person. Learn tips for helping yourself develop it. Read More
18 min read | January 4, 2022

What is mental load? Recognize the burden of invisible labor

Mental load is the invisible labor of managing daily responsibilities in your professional and personal life. Find out more and how to manage it. Read More
7 min read | February 1, 2021

I stopped having dead people's goals

Karen is a senior leader at a fast-growing technology company. With the help of her BetterUp Coach, she is unlearning emotional suppression and discovering how letting her... Read More

Stay connected with BetterUp

Get our newsletter, event invites, plus product insights and research.