Mention being a perfectionist and it may bring to mind both positive images – a perfectly organized closet or manicured lawn – and negative images – a controlling parent or workaholic spouse. The truth is, perfectionism can be healthy or unhealthy depending on how extreme you let it become and how it controls your life.
“Striving for perfection is beneficial and can help you reach your goals and achieve at a high level,” says Psychiatrist Patricia Gardner, MD, from Samaritan Coastal Clinic. “It becomes a problem if you start to feel overwhelmed or anxious because of your need for everything to be perfect.”
Learning the difference between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism is important to determining if it is negatively impacting your life. After all, nobody is actually perfect.
Healthy perfectionism looks focused and flexible, according to Dr. Gardner.
“Setting goals, working to meet them, realizing that things aren’t actually going to be perfect but always striving to do better is a healthy version of perfection,” says Dr. Gardner. “People who perform highly in their chosen field, like athletes or musicians, are often perfectionists because they are always trying to be better.”
Common Attributes of Healthy Perfectionism
- Sets realistic goals and works to achieve them.
- Learns from mistakes and tries again.
- Feels comfortable with the demands of achievement.
- Works to maintain order and organization.
- Plans ahead.
- Focuses on solving problems.
Unfortunately, being a perfectionist can also be taken to the extreme. The dark side of perfectionism can lead to harmful side effects like eating disorders, anxiety and depression according to research published in the journal Behavior Research and Therapy.
Common Attributes of Unhealthy Perfectionism
- Works harder to meet goals, even if they are unrealistic.
- Difficulty completing projects – missed deadlines, unfinished crafts or a fear of starting something new.
- Critical of self or others for efforts.
- Never satisfied with successes – things could always have been done a little better.
- Feels like work only counts if it is completed perfectly.
- Difficulty making decisions because of fear of failure.
- Feels increased pressure after each achievement.
- Hides failure from friends or family.
- Difficulty connecting in meaningful relationships because of the need to maintain an illusion of perfection.
- Expects perfection from a spouse, child or co-workers.
- Feels the need to be perfect for others – family expectations or job demands.
- Continually revisits old mistakes.
When to Seek Help
Healthy and unhealthy perfection characteristics can be closely related. For instance, what started as a healthy behavior like keeping your home clean and organized may become unhealthy if you expect every room and cupboard to be picture-perfect at all times – something that is unrealistic for yourself and the people who live with you. Or maybe you thrive in a demanding career where making a mistake has serious consequences (we see you, health care workers), but the pressure from others to be perfect is beginning to wear you down.
If you noticed you had more in common with the unhealthy list than the healthy list, it may be time to get professional help.
A good mental health professional can teach you tools for managing your expectations, maintaining positive relationships, managing stress and moving on after failure. These are valuable life skills that practically everyone could use a refresher on from time to time, so don’t feel bad about getting help if your perfectionist tendencies are holding you back instead of helping you meet your goals.
“As people achieve success it can start to feel like failure is bad or wrong instead of part of the process,” says Dr. Gardner. “Shifting your mindset to learn from failure and embrace ‘almost perfect’ can make your desire to perform at your best a healthy part of life.”
If you want to talk to a mental health provider about perfectionism, ask your primary care provider for a referral.