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The Pitfalls of Perfectionism

If things aren't perfect, perfectionists go out of their way to make it right. So why are they never satisfied?

It's the 2004 French Open, and Venus Williams has just claimed her seventeenth victory of the season -- no losses. In her moment of triumph, she turns to reporters and says, in near-perfect French:

"I haven't worked hard enough. Sometimes, I've wanted it too much. Sometimes, I haven't wanted it enough. Sometimes, I didn't listen to my coaches. Sometimes, I didn't listen to myself." She adds, "I hate mistakes in everything, not just on the court."

So, what's wrong with perfectionism?

Findings from decades of personality research say plenty. Even though perfectionists are often high-achievers, they are also at risk for eating disorders, sexual dysfunction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, divorce, and suicide. They lead a life of continual anxiety and fear of failure. Even when they succeed, like Venus Williams, perfectionists never feel satisfied.

According to psychologist Gordon Flett of York University in Toronto, perfectionism is particularly dangerous for athletes and people who exercise regularly. They often over-train and burn out, by pushing their bodies beyond their limits. Instead of letting up, they exacerbate their injuries, potentially causing permanent damage. Simply put, they cannot tolerate flaws.

Exceptionally talented athletes may be protected from the pitfalls of perfectionism for a while, but inevitably everyone runs into obstacles, either on or off the playing field. "Even if you are a champion, someday you will lose a game or get injured or just get old," says Flett. "Perfectionists don't respond well. They become extremely angry with themselves and depressed."

The obsession with exactitude tends to cover all aspects of life. Perfectionists are very rarely obsessive about only one aspect of their lives; they "hate mistakes in everything," just like Williams. If they don't have the perfect body, they develop an eating disorder. If they don't have the perfect marriage, they get divorced.

Flett calls this type of all-or-nothing thinking the "just right" phenomenon. If something isn't "just right" to a perfectionist, then it might as well be thrown away. This may explain the high incidence of suicide among perfectionists: They think that if life isn't perfect, then it's worthless. Get rid of it.

But not all perfectionists are the same. Flett identifies three different types perfectionism, each with a distinctive array of drawbacks. Some perfectionists are almost entirely self-motivated. In spite of any amount of praise they might receive from other people, these self-oriented perfectionists can always find fault with themselves. Karen Kain, Canada's prima ballerina and one of the most respected dancers in the world, gave over 10,000 performances in her career. In her biography, she wrote that she received satisfaction from about 12 of them. Her primary feeling about her abilities was disappointment.

Other perfectionists feel as though the world expects them to be impeccable. In a classroom setting, these are the children who won't try new things because they're scared of looking foolish. They often must cope with sadness or anger, because they perceive the demands of others as unreasonable and unfair. Since they need to appear perfect, so-called "socially-proscribed" perfectionists almost never ask for help. They keep problems to themselves and let them fester.

A third group of perfectionists extends their high standards to everyone else in the immediate orbit. "They demand the same thing from others that they demand in themselves, which seems fair to them," says Flett. Personal relationships are nearly impossible, and marriages fall apart. They are the world's worst bosses.

All perfectionists can benefit from learning how to set more realistic standards for themselves. Often when a perfectionist fails to meet a goal -- say, running six miles -- she'll try to overcompensate by aiming even farther, so the next day she'll try for eight miles. They adjust their standards, but in the wrong direction. Perfectionists can learn to undo such potentially harmful logic through counseling.

Perfectionists also harbor other destructive beliefs: for example, that they will be unloved if they aren't perfect. Since being truly perfect isn't possible, they will never feel truly convinced that they are loved.

"They don't get the message that love isn't contingent upon accomplishment," says Flett. Learning to accept the flaws in themselves and others is not the pathway to mediocrity; it's the high road to a more loving -- and satisfying -- life.