“When perfection is driving, shame is riding shotgun, and fear is that annoying backseat driver.”
-Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Perfectionist mindsets convince us that when we reach a hypothetical “perfect” place, we will finally be able to rest. This mindset helps us to keep pushing, keep going despite our mind, body, and spirit yelling at us to slow down and rest. Though often, we are never able to arrive at “perfect” and we end up in overdrive for far too long. It is helpful for us to strive to do our best in all we do, but when is that taken too far?
What is Perfectionism?
Perfectionism is an inflexible mindset in which an individual holds excessively high personal standards and makes highly critical self-judgments. People who have perfectionistic mindsets expect that they will make absolutely no mistakes and place a lot of pressure on themselves to achieve great things. Often, their self-worth is dependent on their ability to be perfect (Curran & Hill, 2019).
There is a common misconception that perfectionism can be either good or bad. Some people who are perfectionistic actually achieve their goals (the so-called “adaptive” perfectionists), whereas others are never able to do so for any number of reasons (Bieling et al., 2004). However, perfectionism is not tied to the outcomes that we are (or aren’t) able to achieve, but rather about the mindset or cognitive processes along the way. Regardless of productivity level, a perfectionist mindset can be harmful to one’s mental health (Enns et al., 2002).
Researchers have distinguished between three types of perfectionists:
- Self-oriented perfectionism is characterized by an individual’s belief that they themself must be perfect in everything they do. Folks who display this type of perfectionism tend to hold unreasonably high standards for themselves and are particularly punitive in their self-judgments. Their self-worth becomes dependent on external factors and in whether or not they achieve perfection. This often leads to frustration, sadness, and/or anxiety as they tend to struggle to meet their high standards. Personality factors such as high levels of conscientiousness (tendency to display self-discipline and strive for achievement) are highly related to self-oriented perfectionism (Smith et al., 2019)
- Socially prescribed perfectionism happens when individuals feel the pressure to be perfect coming from others. Individuals with this type of perfectionism believe that society holds excessively demanding expectations of them, believe others are continually judging their competence, and feel that perfection is the only way to gain approval from others (Curran & Hill, 2019). It is important to recognize that there may be actual expectations from family or workplaces that influence one’s level of perfectionism. Socially prescribed perfectionism is related with personality factors like high levels of neuroticism (experience of negative emotions) and low agreeableness (concern for social harmony; Smith et al., 2019).
- Other-oriented perfectionism is perfectionism directed at other people. Those with this type of perfectionism hold high standards for others and tend to evaluate the behavior of others harshly. This is associated with vindictiveness, hostility, and lower senses of trust in their relationships (Curran & Hill, 2019).This can make forming and keeping relationships difficult.
It is common for folks with perfectionism to engage in all-or-nothing thinking, procrastinate out of fear of not being able to achieve perfection, hyperfocus on productivity, have difficulties with relaxation, and struggle to ask for help from others. As you can imagine, this can be incredibly exhausting and leave people feeling isolated, stressed, and stuck in a rut.
Origins of Perfectionism
There are several potential explanations of where perfectionism stems from. First, the experiences we have with early caregivers can lead to perfectionistic tendencies later in life. For example, parents may explicitly or implicitly send the message that their child’s self-worth is contingent upon high levels of achievement (Curran & Hill, 2019). Over time, children internalize and adopt that message into their own views of self. This can lead the child to feel they are only worthy or lovable if they are “perfect.” One study in particular showed that harsh parenting styles marked by high levels of criticism, excessive expectations, and overprotection can lead to perfectionistic thoughts (Enns et al., 2002).
Societal factors are also at play in the development of perfectionistic mindsets. Social and cultural norms like competitive individualism (valuing of individual achievement over group success) and the belief in meritocracy (power being determined on the basis of achievement or effort) serve to increase the idea that perfection and high achievement are the only way to be successful in life. At least within the United States, we have seen simultaneous increases in these cultural values and in perfectionism over time (Curran & Hill, 2019).
Perfectionism and Exercise and Eating
Perfectionism has been linked with higher risk for problematic exercise behaviors. Both self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism are linked with higher risk for exercise dependence (obsession with exercise, inability to skip a workout). Exercise dependence may lead to higher rates of burnout and injury in the long-term (Deck et al., 2021). Additionally, perfectionism has also been linked with greater rates of weight control exercise, or engaging in exercise solely as an attempt to lose weight. While not necessarily a stand-alone issue, weight-control exercise also places people at higher risk for eating disorders (Egan et al., 2017).
Additionally, people who hold perfectionistic mindsets are more likely to develop disordered eating patterns (Egan et al., 2017, Vacca et al., 2020). Generally, people who have perfectionistic mindsets tend to engage in more dieting behaviors and food restriction. Socially-prescribed perfectionism, in particular, is linked with higher levels of bulimia nervosa (Stoeber et al., 2017). The perception of pressure from others to be perfect can lead to the desire to compensate for meals (vomiting, laxatives, excessive exercise, etc.). Essentially, perfectionism is an important factor that contributes to both exercise and eating-related concerns.
Tips for Managing Perfectionism
Now that we understand what perfectionism is, where it potentially stems from, and how it can impact a few arenas of our well-being, what are we able to do to manage the impact that perfection has on our life?
Increase Awareness of Perfectionism: I feel a bit like a broken record with this one, but many times people are moving through life with certain mindsets that are operating outside of conscious awareness. Therefore, increasing your awareness of how perfectionism is influencing your life is the first step in being able to make any desired changes. Additionally, try to determine which type of perfectionism you are experiencing (self- or socially-prescribed or other-oriented). The ways to manage the mindset largely depends on the type of perfectionism.
Practice (self-)compassion. For self- and socially-prescribed perfectionism, self-compassion is one of the more highly recommended methods for improving perfectionistic mindsets (Stoeber et al., 2020). According to Dr. Kristen Neff (a researcher and thought leader on self-compassion), self-compassion involves holding warmth, kindness, and understanding toward the self in the face of pain rather than judgment. Understanding that pain is an inevitable part of life, practicing self-compassion allows us to feel connected to all humans through that shared experience. Finally, self-compassion involves holding our pain (in this case, the pain caused by perfectionism) in mindful awareness. Acknowledging that pain without fighting it or judging ourselves for it (Neff, 2021). For other-oriented perfectionism, expanding one’s level of compassion for others helps in managing the potential negative effects (Stoeber et al., 2020). The description of what this means is the same as for self-compassion, but is directed at other people rather than the self.
Recognize the power of your perceived flaws and imperfections. It is often our vulnerabilities and perceived imperfections that yield the most powerful and meaningful connections with other people. When we try so desperately to hide these imperfections, this can lead to us living inauthentically and prevents us from being able to experience the full extent that life has to offer. The book mentioned at the beginning of this article, The Gifts of Imperfection by Dr. Brené Brown, might be particularly helpful in identifying what the process of honoring our imperfections and loving ourselves unconditionally can look like.
Cost-Benefit Analysis: Identify the ways that a perfectionist mindset both helps and hurts you. First, identify what you gain from maintaining a perfectionist mindset. Chances are good these are the rationales that you have given the most power, time, and attention to. As a few examples, it is common for people to feel that perfectionism helps them to get things done, ensures they are done “right”, and others view them positively because of their high standards. I want to pause here and note that several of these possess flaws in logic. Things might still get done and get done well even if you don’t hold such high standards. On the other hand, identify the drawbacks to maintaining a perfectionist mindset. For example, maybe you are so focused on making sure you stick to your itinerary and everyone enjoys themselves on a vacation that you fail to enjoy a vacation. These are the thoughts and rationales that often lay dormant and don’t receive much attention. Bringing these to light can paint a more complete picture of the role of perfectionism in your life. For example, perfectionism often leads to struggles to have fun, procrastination, feeling overwhelmed, and high levels of depression or anxiety. Evaluate whether these cons outweigh the pros (or vice versa) and adjust from there!
If perfectionism seems to be driving your car, maybe it is time to stop and examine the way the car is driving. You just might find the car drives a lot more smoothly when you change drivers!
Written for Fitness Blender by Haley S, PhD
Beiling, P. J., Israeli, A. L., & Antony, M. M. (2004). Is perfectionism good, bad, or both? Examining models of the perfectionism construct. Personality and Individual Differences, 36, 1373-1385.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you're supposed to be and embrace who you are. Hazelden Publishing.
Curran, T. & Hill, A. P. (2017). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences form 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410-429.
Deck, S., Roberts, R., & Hall, C. (2021). The 2 X 2 model of perfectionism and exercise dependence. Personality and Individual Differences, 180, 1-7.
Egan, S. J., Bodill, K., Watson, H. J., Valentine, E., Shu, C., & Hagger, M. S. (2017). Compulsive exercise as a mediator between clinical perfectionism and eating pathology. Eating Behaviors, 24, 11-16.
Enns, M. W., Cox, B. J., & Clara, I. (2002). Adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism: Developmental origins and association with depression proneness. Personality and Individual Differences, 33, 921-935.
Neff, K. (2021). Definition of self-compassion. https://self-compassion.org/the-three-elements-of-self-compassion-2/
Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Vidovic, V., Saklofske, D. H., Stoeber, J., & Benoit, A. (2019). Perfectionism and the five-factor model of personality: A meta-analytic review. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 23(4), 367-390.
Stoeber, J., Madigan, D. J., Damian, L. E., Esposito, R. M., & Lombardo, C. (2017). Perfectionism and eating disorder symptoms in female university students: The central role of perfectionistic self-presentation. Eating and Weight Disorders, 22, 641-648.
Stoeber, J., Lalova, A. V., & Lumley, E. J. (2020). Perfectionism, (self-) compassion, and subjective well-being: A mediation model. Personality and Individual Differences, 154, 1-4.
Vacca, M., Ballesio, A., & Lombardo, C. (2020). The relationship between perfectionism and eating-related symptoms in adolescents: A systematic review. European Eating Disorders Review, 29(2), 32-51.