Understanding perfectionism

“Perfectionism, in psychology, is a personality trait characterized by a person’s striving for flawlessness and setting high performance standards, accompanied by critical self-evaluations and concerns regarding others’ evaluations.”

Perfectionism is becoming increasingly recognised as a serious mental health issue. In fact, it is possible to find it almost anywhere. Education, social media, parenting, lifestyle and work – perfectionism has acquired a certain pervasiveness. In our experience, conditions such as anxiety, depression and body image are often closely related to it.

While not a new phenomenon, there is evidence that perfectionism is on the increase:


‘I’ve never met a happy perfectionist.’

A few years ago, I worked with a university student who had come to see me for anxiety and depression. On one particular day, she was especially down. I remember asking her what was wrong and she replied that she had received a low mark for an assignment. Her mark? 91%. I gently suggested that in her tutor’s estimation this was an excellent mark. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘but I should have got higher.’ Perfectionism can be the cruellest of traits. This young student, clearly very able, was nevertheless left emotionally distraught despite her achievement.

I’ve been a therapist and coach since 2005 and I’ve never met a happy perfectionist.

The reward problem

Perfectionism can often start with the best of intentions. Martin, a CEO of a financial services company, told me in his therapy that he remembered being praised by his Grandmother for always being on time; for always being a ‘good boy’. The implication? His seven other siblings and cousins were ‘less good’ as they were ‘always late’ arriving at their Grandmother’s house. ‘I remember getting a similar response from my teachers at primary school. I just loved the positive attention for who I was and what I did.’ Martin saw other children around him receive less positive attention than he did. ‘The adult world is geared up to reward perfectionist children.’ he said.

Fast-forward three decades and Martin was signed off sick from work with depression. ‘I kept taking on more and more work because I craved the positive attention from my peers. I kept taking bigger risks with my clients’ money because I loved the praise I got when I increased the value of their investments. Once, when I messed up an investment, I actually threw my iPad against the wall of my office. At home, my wife walking on egg shells. It was horrible.’

The perfection paradox

Perfectionism doesn’t always start with good intentions, of course. It can also be a response to adversity. When life circumstances are difficult or traumatic there can be an understandable desire to escape them. Fantasising about a perfect life that represents an end to adversity is common.

The quest for the perfect life is undertaken despite the impossibility of succeeding at it – what might be called the ‘perfection paradox’. This painful truth is hidden or suppressed because accepting it extinguishes – or appears to extinguish – the hope of escape. For the perfectionist it is a question of when, not if they succeed, a logic that ensures the quest never ends.

The achievement test

There is no denying that perfectionists can and do achieve a great deal, but looks can be deceiving. Perfectionism often results in high achievement early on in life, but as the personal and professional demands of life increase, so the emotional cost of it exacts a heavy price. ‘My ability to focus and concentrate, my memory and motivation – all suffered,’ said Martin. ‘My performance at work, my relationships with clients and colleagues alike deteriorated dramatically.’

In the rear-view mirror, the non-perfectionists, who for so long have been out of sight, suddenly reappear. And they don’t just reappear, they close the gap and often overtake when it comes to achievement. Why? Because they haven’t spent decades grinding themselves into the dust.

Overcoming perfectionism

As Martin my CEO client found, his perfectionism nearly cost him his marriage and career. ‘I accepted that resolving my perfectionism meant challenging the link with achievement. Accepting that ‘non-perfectionism’ would help rather than hinder my achievements in life fatally undermined my justification for it.’

Therapy enabled Martin to find a kinder, less destructive approach to his personal and professional life. He severed the link with his younger self and stopped trying to impose his way on others. Although he challenged and stretched himself, he also allowed room for setbacks, which he responded to with compassion and understanding.

Getting support for perfectionism

If you think you might a perfectionist, but want to be sure, there are plenty of tests you can take. Here’s one I like: Perfectionism Test

If you know you are a perfectionist and need support to overcome it, then please get in touch. Or, if you would like to talk to me about anything to do with your perfectionism and associated behaviours, I’ll give you as much time as you need. I offer free telephone consultations to help you find the support that is right for you.