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The Difference Between Perfectionism and Healthy Striving

When do high standards hurt rather than help us?

Key points

  • Perfectionism is linked to many forms of mental illness.
  • Perfectionists are often proud of their perfectionism, despite the pain that it causes.
  • Perfectionism can interfere with productivity by making it difficult to start, continue, or finish projects.
Source: Larry George II/unsplash
Source: Larry George II/unsplash

Having high standards is an important part of healthy striving. To gain skills, expertise, and mastery, we need to want to do well and keep improving.

On the other hand, there’s a mountain of research pointing to negative effects of perfectionism. Perfectionism has been linked to anxiety (Burgess & DiBartolo, 2016), depression (e.g., Hewitt et al., 2023), disordered eating (Howard et al., 2023), self-injury (Duncan-Plummer et al., 2023), and even suicide (e.g., Smith et al., 2018).

Why we cling to perfectionism

Rigid, unrelenting perfectionism makes people miserable, yet, in my clinical practice, I’ve often seen people cling to it. Despite the personal cost, perfectionists believe that treating themselves harshly is necessary because if they let up an inch, they’ll never achieve anything, and they’ll earn the scorn or disappointment of others.

Perfectionists are often proud of their perfectionism, seeing it as central to who they are and what they’ve achieved. They would be ashamed to do a less-than-perfect job. Mistakes seem like personal failings and signs of a frightening loss of control. To perfectionists, the suffering that comes from striving to perform flawlessly seems necessary and unavoidable. They are convinced that beating themselves up is the only path to success.

Unfortunately, perfectionism is often socially reinforced. In many circles, being constantly stressed and overworked is glorified or at least viewed as “normal.” We don’t often hear anyone tell us, “Wow, you did a great job of setting sensible limits and refraining from overdoing.”

Perfectionism doesn’t enhance productivity

People generally achieve despite perfectionism, not because of it. Perfectionism can stifle output by leading to paralyzing procrastination. It’s hard to start or work on projects if we believe we have to do them perfectly, especially if we’re not sure we can. It’s also difficult to finish projects if we think they’re never good enough. Perfectionism can make us fret and worry, rather than take action. It often leads us to over-focus on trivial details that we think have to be exactly right, instead of focusing on the big picture.

Perfectionism also kills creativity. A recent study found that people who were high in trait perfectionism did worse than others on objective measures of creativity, such as generating fewer and less original answers when asked to name unusual things that make noise (Goulet‐Pelletier, 2022).

Moving beyond perfectionism

The first step in moving past perfectionism is to recognize that there’s a blurry but important line between healthy striving for excellence and unhealthy perfectionism. This distinction is easiest to see at an emotional level:

Healthy striving feels hopeful, engaged, optimistic, energetic, and enjoyable. It requires effort, but that effort feels satisfying and voluntarily chosen, and the goals feel achievable.

Perfectionism, on the other hand, is driven by dread of humiliation and fear of failure. The effort seems forced, painful, and imposed rather than chosen. And it never ends. The goals are moving targets and the performance could always be better.

When we understand the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism, we’re better equipped to question perfectionistic methods and standards. Knowing that "finished" is often more important than perfect, we can embrace the idea of “good enough.” We can focus on learning and improving and being open to new experiences, not just performing. We can choose to treat ourselves with kindness, the way we would a friend.

© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD


Burgess, A., & DiBartolo, P. M. (2016). Anxiety and perfectionism: Relationships, mechanisms, and conditions. Perfectionism, health, and well-being, 177-203.

Duncan‐Plummer, T., Hasking, P., Tonta, K., & Boyes, M. (2023). The relationship between clinical perfectionism and nonsuicidal self‐injury: The roles of experiential avoidance, self‐esteem, and locus of control. Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Goulet‐Pelletier, J. C., Gaudreau, P., & Cousineau, D. (2022). Is perfectionism a killer of creative thinking? A test of the model of excellencism and perfectionism. British Journal of Psychology, 113(1), 176-207.

Hewitt, P. L., Smith, M. M., Ge, S., Mössler, M., Flett, G. L., & Mikail, S. F. (2023). Perfectionism. In D. J. A. Dozois & K. S. Dobson (Eds.), Treatment of psychosocial risk factors in depression (pp. 281–304). American Psychological Association.

Howard, T. L., Williams, M. O., Woodward, D., & Fox, J. R. (2023). The relationship between shame, perfectionism and Anorexia Nervosa: A grounded theory study. Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 96(1), 40-55.

Manova, V., & Khoury, B. (2023). Interpersonal perfectionism and social anxiety: The mediational role of mindfulness. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science/Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement.

Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D. H., Mushquash, C., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2018). The perniciousness of perfectionism: A meta‐analytic review of the perfectionism–suicide relationship. Journal of personality, 86(3), 522-542.

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