WARNING: this post contains in-depth language and information about suicide. If you are in acute crisis looking for help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or dial 911.
These days, there’s a lot of pressure to be perfect. The perfect student, the perfect son or daughter, the perfect friend. We think we need the perfect SAT score or the perfect resume to land the perfect job. And that’s not even touching on perfectionism related to our appearance, which can be complicated for teens who are struggling with body dysmorphia or transitioning genders.
While many people argue that perfectionism causes unnecessary stress and anxiety or leads to problems like burnout, others find the good in this personality trait. Depending on who you ask, perfectionism encourages conscientiousness and persistence, while motivating people to achieve their goals. To others, it is domineering or even outright harmful.
Regardless of your stance, one thing is clear: perfectionism is increasingly common with each new generation of young people. According to data on more than 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students over a 27-year period, the most recent generations of young people have displayed trends of experiencing more pressure from others, as well as demanding more of others and of themselves.
What is perfectionism?
So what exactly is perfectionism? There’s no perfect definition (pun intended), but it’s broadly defined as a tendency to set unrealistically high goals or standards for oneself or for others. These standards are often accompanied by critical evaluations, and failure is taken extremely personally. As you may be able to guess, unhealthy levels of perfectionism have been linked to clinical diagnoses of depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders.
Types of perfectionism
There are three types of perfectionism: self-oriented perfectionists, other-oriented perfectionists, and socially prescribed perfectionists.
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.
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. It’s also prevalent among people with high-pressure jobs that require precision and attention to detail, such as lawyers and doctors.
Perfectionism and anxiety
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 perfectionism can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and self-judgment. All of that can have a serious impact on a person’s mental and physical health.
Research shows that perfectionists are prone to cognitive distortions, or patterns of distorted thinking, that can contribute to anxiety disorders. 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.
Socially prescribed perfectionism, in particular, is linked to high levels of anxiety, and even hopelessness and suicide. A review focused on college kids found that nearly 30 percent of undergraduate students experienced symptoms of depression, which has been linked to socially prescribed perfectionism.
Perfectionism is also often seen in individuals with other mental health conditions, including obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
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 external expectations. 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.
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?
How to overcome perfectionism
Set healthy goals and boundaries
Understanding the difference between reasonable and unreasonable expectations can help you to create healthy boundaries. When it comes to goals, make sure they’re SMART: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound.
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. CBT, in particular, focuses on raising awareness about negative thinking patterns to help people more effectively handle challenging situations.
Find relief with Charlie Health
Wondering how to focus on healthy growth instead of perfectionism? Or maybe you’re looking for the skills to be more supportive to others in your life. Either way, Charlie Health can help.
Charlie Health’s intensive outpatient program (IOP) connects each client with a curated team of mental health professionals based on their individual needs, preferences, background, and experiences to promote healing in a safe, supportive space. Therapy may sound daunting, but the Charlie Health community is here for you each step of the way.