Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness.
What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation. They don’t believe in unconditional love, expecting others’ affection and approval to be dependent on a flawless performance.
Perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures, such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgment. There is likely a social component as well, because perfectionistic tendencies have increased substantially among young people over the past 30 years, regardless of gender or culture. Greater academic and professional competition is thought to play a role, along with the pervasive presence of social media and the harmful social comparisons it elicits.
Perfectionists set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and others. They are quick to find fault and overly critical of mistakes. They tend to procrastinate a project out of their fear of failure. They shrug off compliments and forget to celebrate their success. Instead, they look to specific people in their life for approval and validation.
Perfection manifests itself in three domains. Self-oriented perfectionism is imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself. Other-oriented perfectionism means imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others. Socially-prescribed perfectionism involves perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from others.
Perfectionism is a personality trait that can be harmful when taken to extremes. While not considered a mental illness itself, it is a common factor in many mental disorders, particularly those based on compulsive thoughts and behaviors, like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD).
Perfection, of course, is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality. When taken too far, the striving for perfection can lead to negative outcomes, like procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid all-or-nothing thinking, toxic comparisons, and a lack of creativity. Maladaptive perfectionism is often driven by fear of failure, feelings of unworthiness, low self-esteem, and adverse childhood experiences. It is frequently accompanied by depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and even suicidal impulses.
There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. Adaptive or positive perfectionists set lofty goals, have high standards, and work relentlessly hard for their success; they are achievement-oriented, whereas maladaptive perfectionists are failure-oriented. Adaptive perfectionists desire growth, enjoy being challenged, and problem-solve well. Their perfectionistic tendencies are a strength, not a weakness.
Letting go of the comparison mindset can help people achieve at a high level, without being beholden to some impossibly perfect ideal. They can do this by practicing mindfulness and being present in the moment, using compassionate self-talk, and challenging negative self-judgments. The key is to realize that an endeavor can be worthwhile even if it’s not perfect.
The terms “perfectionist” and “OCD” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by high expectations and standards, while obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric condition where a person experiences intrusive thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors they are unable to control. Perfectionistic tendencies may or may not be a symptom of OCD.