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Yes, Perfectionism Can Cause Anxiety

6 min.

Perfectionism isn’t a mental health condition, but it can lead to increased anxiety and other mental health issues.

By: Alex Bachert, MPH

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

Updated: October 25, 2023

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Trigger warning: Suicide. If you’re experiencing suicidal thoughts or are in danger of harming yourself, this is a mental health emergency. Contact The Suicide & Crisis Lifeline 24/7 by calling or texting 988.

These days, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect: the perfect student, the perfect friend, the perfect family member. In fact, data studying college students over a 27-year period shows that each generation of young people demands more of themselves and others. Setting goals can be productive, but when expectations become unrealistic, it may be a sign of perfectionism, broadly defined as the tendency to hold oneself or others to an unrealistic standard. 

Perfectionism isn’t a mental health condition, but this personality trait can be harmful when taken to extremes. Most of us have moments of being hard on ourselves or having self-deprecating thoughts, but toxic perfectionism can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and self-judgment. 

Keep reading to learn more about the link between perfectionism and anxiety and what to do if you think you may struggle with unhealthy perfectionism. 

What to know about perfectionism and anxiety

Research shows that perfectionism can have a serious impact on a person’s mental and physical health. Specifically, people with unhealthy perfectionism are prone to cognitive distortions, according to data. These patterns of distorted thinking can contribute to anxiety disorders. People who hold themselves to an unrealistic standard are more likely to have high levels of anxiety and even feelings of hopelessness and suicide, one study shows.

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For example, overgeneralizing or telling yourself that “you’ll never be good enough at X.” Another example is applying a mental filter, meaning you only focus on the negatives (and never the positives) of a certain outcome. Perfectionists also tend to use “should” statements (“I should have studied more”), which can cause frustration, stress, and guilt.

And perfectionism isn’t only linked with anxiety; it’s also associated with other mental health conditions. One study focused on college students found that nearly 30 percent of undergraduate students experienced symptoms of depression linked to perfectionism. Another concluded that perfectionism is commonly seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).

Types of perfectionism

There’s no perfect definition (pun intended) of perfectionism, in part because there are different types of perfectionism. The three common types of perfectionism are as follows: self-oriented perfectionists, other-oriented perfectionists,  and socially prescribed perfectionists. Although people who fall into these categories may experience perfectionism differently, all can hold themselves or others to an unrealistic standard that causes anxiety.

Self-oriented perfectionist

Self-oriented perfectionism is about expecting, or even demanding, the best from yourself. Self-oriented perfectionists are driven by an intrinsic desire to set high standards and work toward unrealistic goals. 

Unfortunately, they also tend to be overly critical of themselves. People with this personality trait are often highly productive but can suffer from burnout, self-doubt, anxiety, and feeling dissatisfied with what others would consider a success.

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Other-oriented perfectionist

Other-oriented perfectionists, on the other hand, demand the best from other people. These people may hold others to impossible or unrealistic standards and then be critical if those goals aren’t achieved.  

Socially prescribed perfectionist

A socially prescribed perfectionist believes that others—such as family, teachers, or peers—expect them to be flawless. This type of person will obsess over what others are thinking and often equate being perfect with being deserving of love.

Socially prescribed perfectionism is common among teens and young adults who feel pressure from their parents to achieve high academic standards or from society to have a certain type of body, research shows. It’s also prevalent among people with high-pressure jobs that require precision and attention to detail, such as lawyers and doctors. 

Do you suffer from perfectionism? 

American professor, author, and podcast host Brené Brown once said: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best—perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” 

And she’s right; there’s a big difference between perfectionism and healthy goal setting. Healthy goals tend to be realistic, attainable, and designed to support a person’s personal growth rather than to achieve an external and possibly unrealistic expectation. It’s understandable to be disappointed when you don’t achieve a goal, but that dismay should be specific to a certain situation rather than generalized to your self-worth.

A young teenager is sitting in therapy. She suffers from perfectionism, which has contributed to an anxiety disorder.

Below are a few questions to help you understand if you’re living with the burden of perfectionism. 

  • Do I have trouble meeting my own goals or standards?
  • Am I unable to perform a task unless I know I can do it perfectly?
  • Do I often feel frustrated, depressed, or anxious while trying to meet my goals?
  • Have I been told that my standards are too high?
  • Do my standards prevent me from feeling happy? 
  • Do I enjoy working toward my goals?

4 tips for coping with anxiety and perfectionism 

If you answered yes to any of the questions above, you may be living with perfectionism. However, perfectionism isn’t something you always have to live with. Here are four tips to help you overcome perfectionism and cope with the anxiety that can come with it:

Set healthy goals and boundaries

Understanding the difference between reasonable and unrealistic expectations can help you create healthy boundaries. When it comes to goals, make sure they’re SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. If you’re holding yourself to a standard that isn’t SMART, you may be trying to meet an unrealistic expectation (because remember, the goal should be achievable). 

Practice self-care

Self-care is all about taking time to focus on yourself and allowing your mind and body an opportunity to rest and replenish. It can help to build your resilience and prepare you to better cope with stressful life events.

Celebrate your success

This can be tough for perfectionists, but it’s important to make a conscious effort to celebrate your accomplishments, as well as what didn’t go as well. Instead of focusing on the negatives, recognize the good and give yourself a pat on the back. 

Speak with a mental health professional 

If you’re struggling with perfectionism, you might want to consider exploring evidence-based treatment with a mental health professional. Practices like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills, and mindfulness exercises are effective methods for treating anxiety and other mental health conditions, which, as discussed, may be common in people with perfectionism. CBT, in particular, focuses on raising awareness about negative thinking patterns to help people more effectively handle challenging situations.

Support for perfectionism and anxiety with Charlie Health

If you or a loved one are struggling with anxiety resulting from perfectionism, Charlie Health is here to help.

Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) offers more than once-weekly support for young people with complex mental health conditions and their families—including those struggling with generalized anxiety or another anxiety disorder. Charlie Health’s expert clinicians use evidence-based therapies, including cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness practices, in peer groups, individual counseling, and family therapy for holistic, long-lasting healing. 

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