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Your Perfectionism Is Irritating Everyone. Here’s What to Do

Addressing perfectionist tendencies could improve your relationships.

Key points

  • Perfectionistic tendencies solicit enabling behavior from others, which can get irritating for them.
  • Perfectionistic moralism can cause others in the environment to feel demoralized and frustrated.
  • We can maintain healthy relationships by considering how our perfectionistic tendencies cost social capital.

Sometimes, when we are so focused on ensuring that our work projects, self-care practices, living spaces, and even our relationships are just right, we frustrate our friends, family, and colleagues.

When we are perfectionistic, we tend to hold unreasonable expectations and exhibit high levels of rigid thinking and behavior. Often, these perfectionistic tendencies are turned inward, which is called self-oriented perfectionism. In other words, we apply these excessive standards and inflexible thinking to ourselves but not necessarily to others. If we are other-oriented in our perfectionism, we will project outward and target other people in our lives. Some of us are both self- and other-oriented perfectionists; they are not mutually exclusive.

How Perfectionism Hurts Our Relationships

Not surprisingly, both types of perfectionism can be annoying for other people. This is because when we are engaged in this type of rigid thinking, we will often resort to:

1. Safety Behaviors. One hallmark feature of perfectionism is the tendency to carry out a variety of safety behaviors (1). These momentary coping strategies help us deal with the anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions that come from our perfectionistic beliefs and urges.

For example, we might check whether our work has been done correctly dozens of times. Or we might seek reassurance from others, such as incessantly asking, “Is this OK?” Alternatively, we might engage in avoidance behavior, often in the form of procrastination.

Safety behaviors tend to have a profoundly negative impact on the people around us. They cause delays, sometimes indefinitely, which can anger others relying on us and our promises. When we constantly seek reassurance from others, it’s exceptionally draining for them. The behaviors also send an unfortunate signal to others—we seem to lack confidence.

That's the irony here. Safety behaviors are often carried out because we are anxious about being an imposter and not good enough. However, when we seek so much reassurance, avoid tasks, and recheck relentlessly with others, we start to look like the very thing we fear—being an imposter.

2. Moralism. Perfectionism is often—but not always—associated with being moralistic (2), which can present as holding rigid and unreasonable moral standards for oneself (self-oriented) and others (other-oriented). If we’re self-oriented perfectionists, this often takes the form of self-punishment. We might deny ourselves a reward because we judge our behavior as “bad.” We may see ourselves as unworthy, and because we are so rigid in our thinking, we may find it challenging to change our minds. Because this type of stubborn self-flagellation is hard to witness, people around us can become frustrated from observing us being so harsh with ourselves and holding ourselves to such rigid standards.

If we exhibit other-oriented perfectionism, we must watch out for ways in which the moralistic tendency can destroy our relationships. This is where the toxicity really shows up.

When perfectionistic moralism is projected outward, it can look much like policing others, self-righteousness, and criticism. When we hold others to unreasonable moral standards and tell them about it—sometimes proudly—we’re liable to lose friends and loved ones.

This type of perfectionism destroys relationships because people feel compelled to walk on eggshells around us and dodge us and our criticism. As a result, other-oriented moralism can go well beyond “irritating” and become traumatizing for others.

3. Cognitive Rigidity. Perfectionists often struggle to switch their mindset and behavior and are labeled "stubborn" (1). If we find it challenging to alter our course and switch strategies when others think it’s the obvious course of action, they may find interacting with us unbearable. Interacting with somebody who won't change their mind despite overwhelming evidence is frustrating and can lead to significant strife.

What You Can Do About Your Perfectionism

1. Resist Safety Behaviors. This is good practice for fighting perfectionism, but it can also strengthen our relationships with others. It’s vital to resist urges to recheck, seek reassurance from others, or avoid tasks. Instead, we should lean into the behaviors our perfectionism wants us to avoid and lean away from the behaviors our perfectionism wants us to pursue. For example, if we are driven to recheck our email for a tenth time, we must resist the urge. Conversely, if we are inclined to avoid filing our taxes, we should lean in and get started anyway.

2. Social Capital Framework. Whenever perfectionistic beliefs take hold and when we want to involve others, we should stop first and check in with ourselves. Social capital is a valuable framework for conceptualizing the health of each relationship.

We have a social capital bank account with everyone in our lives, and they have a separate one with us. Everything we do that involves others can withdraw or deposit more capital in that account. Social relationships become distressed when we’ve spent too much capital from respective accounts.

So, before roping in others with our perfectionism, we should first check in with ourselves and determine whether there is an expense. If so, we need to decide whether it’s worth it to make a withdrawal. In general, we should deposit frequently and withdraw only when necessary.

3. Don’t Confound Rules and Principles. Perfectionists tend to confuse rules and principles; however, they are not synonymous. Rules are concrete and measurable, and we can determine whether they have been met or unmet. But rules are built on principles, which are more abstract and cannot be met or unmet; you can only demonstrate degrees of fidelity to them (i.e., faithfulness). As an example, a rule is, "No running in the pool area." This rule is built on the underlying principle: "There are a lot of hazards in and around pools, so it’s in everyone’s best interest to be cautious around them.”

As perfectionists, we can become fixated on rules, sometimes even at the expense of their underlying principles. Suppose we get stuck on noticing when rules are not being followed. In that case, we need to check in with ourselves about whether the rule violation also violates the principle and whether intervening would cause more harm than good. Additionally, it can help to check in about social capital when considering whether it’s a battle worth picking.

As perfectionists, we often upset the people around us with our drive to engage in safety behaviors, adhere to rules over principles, and think inflexibly. However, we can become aware of these tendencies and mindfully resist the urge to seek comfort in rigidity and reassurance-seeking. In that case, we can embrace healthier relationships with others and ourselves.


(1) Egan, Sarah J., Tracey D. Wade, Roz Shafran, and Martin M. Antony. Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Perfectionism. New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2014.

(2) Nelson, Elizabeth A., Jonathan S. Abramowitz, Stephen P. Whiteside, and Brett J. Deacon. “Scrupulosity in Patients with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Relationship to Clinical and Cognitive Phenomena.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders 20, no. 8 (2006): 1071–86.

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