The Mighty Logo

5 Unexpected Dangers of Perfectionism

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Everywhere we look, there are reminders that we could be better. From beauty advertisements promising us flawless skin, diets promising us “ideal” bodies” and gurus offering magic tips to make our [morning routines, work habits, list-making, clothing choices, email answering] better — it’s no wonder perfectionism, or the refusal to accept any standard short of perfection, is on the rise.

According to the American Psychological Association, perfectionism has significantly increased in young people since the 1980s — and no, that doesn’t mean we’re becoming more perfect. Compared to older generations, young people are more likely to be hard on themselves, more demanding of others and, according to one of the authors of the study, think “perfectionism is necessary in order to feel safe, socially connected and of worth.”

The word “worth” is especially significant here. If we truly believe being perfect is a precursor to our worth (something I’m trying to un-teach myself every day), we’re playing a rigged game — the perfectionism monster is never satisfied. And this inability to feel our inherent worth, this constant need to improve ourselves, it has more harmful consequences than you might think.

Since perfectionism isn’t going away anytime soon, we’re highlighting five dangerous lies about perfectionism — and what you should know about them. Instead of fighting to be perfect, fight to be free of perfectionism’s deception. 

1. Lie: You need perfectionism to perform at work.

Truth: Perfectionism actually makes you less productive.

This is the greatest irony of all for those who struggle with perfectionism. While we may think our perfectionism is what drives us, the truth is, perfectionism isn’t a motor — it’s often a weight.

According to Darius Foroux, founder of Procrastinate Zero, there are typically two types of perfectionists: 1. The one who never starts. 2. The one who starts, but whose standards are too high. (As a person who struggles with perfectionism, I’ve definitely fallen into both these traps.)

For me, when I hold off starting something I have to do, it’s usually because I’m waiting for the right time to start. It’s that “do something right or not at all” mentality. I have to feel “ready” before starting a task, or I think the quality of my work will suffer. (Which, of course, would mean I’m not worthy as a human being and might as well not try at all and bury myself in a cave.)

So rather than risk this unrealistic-but-very-real-to-me consequence, I push the task off — which leads to more stress.

Having standards that are too high can lead to a similar outcome. You might spend too much time on a task you could have completed quickly. In these cases, perfection does not equal efficiency — and you end up getting less done because of it.

“Procrastination doesn’t look like perfectionism on the surface. Instead, it often looks like laziness or distractibility,” Dr. Ellen Hendriksen a clinical psychologist at Boston University’s Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders, wrote in a piece about hidden signs of perfectionism. “If you’re worried there’s no way you can meet your own standards or that you’ll make the wrong decision and later regret it, it’s understandable that you put off writing that term paper, moving forward on home renovations, or settling on a vacation destination.”

2. Lie: You need perfectionism to be happy. 

Truth: Perfectionism is bad for your mental health.

In a chicken-or-the-egg-like scenario, perfectionism can stem from mental health problems like anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders, while also exacerbating those very conditions. Perfectionists are more likely to struggle with depression or anxiety, and, if you’re a perfectionist new mom, it increases your chances of developing postpartum depression.

Whether your perfectionism is fueled by a mental illness like OCD or your depression is worsened by continually not meeting your perfectionistic expectations, it makes sense that fighting an impossible battle would generally make us less happy, and that letting go of perfectionism could improve our mental health overall.

3. Lie: You need perfectionism to be healthy.

Truth: Perfectionism actually increases your risk of poor physical health.

It can be easy to forget just how much our bodies and minds are connected. Besides affecting your overall happiness, chronic perfectionism can take a hit on your health, too. Studies have found that people with self-critical perfectionistic personality features are more likely to develop certain chronic conditions. Stress, in general, has multiple negative effects on our health — like a weakened immune system, high blood pressure and risk of heart attack — and the stress perfectionists put on themselves, hurts more than it helps your overall health.

4. Lie: Perfectionism will help you live your best life.

True: Being a perfectionist actually puts you at risk for experiencing suicidal ideation.

A study released last summer — which has been called “the most comprehensive test of the perfectionism-suicidality link to date” — found there is a small-to-moderate positive association between perfectionistic personality traits and suicidal ideation. Other factors that correlate positively with suicidal ideation include excessive concern over mistakes, doubt about actions and parental criticism. 

These factors also displayed small, but positive, associations with suicide attempts.

While being a perfectionist in terms of keeping clean and being organized is not related to suicidal thoughts or attempts, a strong desire to meet expectations (others’ and your own) is. According to Research Digest, the researchers said, “Our findings lend credence to the long-standing notion that feeling incapable of living up to the lofty standards of others is a part of the premorbid personality of people at risk for suicide.”

5. Lie: You only deserve love if you’re perfect.

Truth: Perfectionism leaves you feeling chronically dissatisfied — and you deserve better.

This information isn’t meant to scare you — there’s nothing wrong with setting high standards for yourself, working hard and wanting to achieve great things. In some circumstances, perfectionism tendencies can push people in positive directions and help them succeed. 

But, when perfectionism steals the joy from your accomplishments and convinces us we’re only worth living if we meet our impossible expectations — that’s when perfectionism needs to be challenged.

No one is perfect, and simply put, you deserve to be human. Don’t let perfectionism tell you otherwise.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

Getty image via olm26250

Originally published: February 6, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home