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Being a person can be complicated. Being a perfectionistic person can be even more complicated. Those standards of yours? They’re so high you can’t see the top of them; it’s either perfect or it’s a problem. It sounds like a surefire way to succeed—being an honors student, the president of the environmentalist club, the star player on the team, and basically being the best at everything, right? Not really—because there’s a catch. Seeking unattainable perfection and striving to avoid mistakes equals serious stress—and that can cause problems with your health and academic performance.

“My high school is definitely competitive. It’s not necessarily a bad thing until it starts to affect your mental well-being or your relationships with others. There’s a good side to being able to achieve the goal you have in your mind: You’re proud of your work, you know it’s the best it can be, you push yourself and have an inner drive. On the other hand, when perfectionism starts to override the boundaries of your physical, mental, and emotional health, it’s important to take a step back.”
—Carissa, recent graduate, Winnetka, Illinois

We’re here to help—and so are our experts. We’ll break down the perfectionist basics and give you actionable, evidence-based tips for setting more realistic standards for yourself. Because self-imposed pressure can get in the way of a happy life. And that’s not OK. You ready?

What perfectionism is…and isn’t

Most of us are looking to do our best and are willing to put in the work to get there. So how can you tell when you’re being conscientious vs. when your drive to succeed is getting in your way? Wanting to be perfect is only part of perfectionism. The defining characteristic is a fear of making mistakes—and how you feel about yourself along the way, according to research by Dr. Thomas Greenspon published in Psychology in the Schools (2014).

“Hallmarks of perfectionism include an exaggerated concern over any mistakes, lofty and unrealistic self-expectations, harsh and intense self-criticism, feeling other people need you to be perfect, and nagging doubts about performance abilities,” says Dr. Simon Sherry, a registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada.

To make it more complicated, perfectionism looks different for everyone. But it comes from the same place, says Dr. Greenspon, and it often accompanies some less-than-great feelings about yourself and a troubling sense of hopelessness.

Darts pinned to bullseye in dartboard

Here’s what perfectionism might look (and feel) like

Human brain iconFeeling less than Those who struggle with perfectionism often feel that they’re not good enough, according to Greenspon’s research, even if they never say it out loud. If they do happen to make some mistakes, perfectionistic people are likely to take that personally. Their slip-ups become reflections of themselves as people (e.g., “I suck at math”), not just of their performance or achievement (e.g., “I didn’t study enough this time; I’ll do better on the next one”). Every mistake feels like a character flaw, which increases the pressure to be exceptional and the despair when they mess up.

 “When students feel like they must do everything perfectly, then they feel like a failure if they make small mistakes.”
—Claire, sophomore, Edgewater, Maryland

Documentation iconSetting rigid rules Look, we all have to set some structure for ourselves, or else we’d end up in Netflix-land permanently. But perfectionistic people take that rule-setting to an extreme, one that can get in the way of daily functioning. This intense structure can lead to other stressful and time-consuming habits, such as over-checking work to excess or missing deadlines, according to research published in 2016 in JMIR Research Protocols.

Gears iconBeing inflexible Say your friend wants to take a spontaneous hiking trip or your go-to spot in the library is taken. Those curveballs can be a problem for someone who’s dealing with perfectionism—they struggle to go with the flow. Their tried-and-true problem-solving method works for them, but only under certain circumstances. This inflexibility can be limiting and may also be a sign that something is off. Flexibility is an indicator of positive mental health, says Dr. Sarah Vinson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Atlanta, Georgia.

Clock iconProcrastinating on assignments People struggling with perfectionism are often totally consumed with making sure that every last detail is perfect. While some may be horrified by the idea of missing a deadline, others may finish tests late, hand in assignments past deadline, or never finish them at all, according to a 2014 study published in Psychology in the Schools. Seem counterintuitive? Only at first glance. If you’re striving for a standard that you can’t hit, you’ll never fully be finished with a task. For some, this might mean spending too much time double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking work until deadlines have long passed. For others, the idea of handing in something that is “imperfect” is worse than handing in nothing at all. “It might feel easier to say you ran out of time than to admit that you couldn’t do it as perfectly as you wanted,” explains Dr. Keith Anderson, a psychologist at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York.

How perfectionism can get in the way

Perfectionism is no joke, and neither are the feelings, thoughts, and behaviors that go along with it. It’s linked with burnout, which can zap your motivation, wipe you out, and keep you from doing your best. A meta-analysis of 62 studies found that those who struggled with “perfectionist concerns,” or being worried about making mistakes, feeling like there’s a big difference between their standards and their performance, or being concerned with looking imperfect in front of others, experienced increased feelings of burnout (Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2015).

Some people who struggle with perfectionism may also struggle with mental health conditions, according to the American Psychological Association. And those can be serious. Potential effects of the pressure to be perfect include:

Anxiety

Being perfectionistic makes you more vulnerable to anxiety, says Dr. Sherry. And the research backs this up. Feeling that mistakes make you inadequate can result in anxiety and shame, according to Greenspon’s research.

Body image issues

Perfectionism, and the behaviors that go along with it, is associated with increased body dissatisfaction, which, for some, can lead to the development of disordered eating, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Eating Disorders.

Increased suicide risk

Perfectionism is linked to an increased risk of suicide, according to a 2014 article in the Review of General Psychology.

young man sitting on bench with look of uncertainty

What you can do about it

It’s OK if you see yourself or your habits in some of this. In fact, the first step to challenging perfectionistic tendencies is to recognize that they’re there, so high five for self-awareness. If you’re ready to push back against your fear of making mistakes, here are some things you can try:

1. Think process, not results

You’re in school to learn, and that means being an active part of the analytical process. Rather than focusing on how you’re doing (i.e., your performance), try focusing more on what you’re learning and stay engaged with the material, knowing that making mistakes is often critical in deepening your understanding. “Part of the [academic] experience is learning to think independently and see things on a conceptual basis, and that’s hard to do if you’re so focused on getting every detail right all the time,” Dr. Vinson says.

2. Change the conversation

In high-pressure academic environments, there’s this culture of [competition around] who works the hardest. People brag about doing really well,” says Dr. Vinson. This can lead to an intense atmosphere that fuels perfectionistic traits and keeps you quiet when your experience differs from the stories you’re hearing. So tell a different story.

Try it: Talk openly with friends about the work you’re putting in, where you’re struggling, and the mistakes you’re making. Feeling anxious about an assignment that you didn’t do well on? Your friend probably has similar stories. The more of those you hear, the more you realize that we’re all making mistakes, and that doesn’t make us less worthy.

To prevent people from attributing their shortcomings to personal flaws, and to draw attention to how much failure it takes to get where you want to go, a Princeton professor created a résumé of his failures.

3. Make a mistake on purpose

Yup, we went there. So much of perfectionism is about this fear of making a wrong move. And one way to deal with fear is to face it head-on—by making a few intentional and noncritical errors here and there, according to a guide to perfectionism created by Dr. Glenn Hirsch, director of student counseling services at the University of Minnesota. Although it may sound terrifying to intentionally mess up your work, this is a form of treatment sometimes used by psychologists called exposure therapy.

Try it: Keep your intentional slip-ups small: Wear your t-shirt with the bleach stain on it to grab pizza with friends. Be a few minutes late to a club meeting. Send an email with an intentional grammatical error. Once you see that making mistakes doesn’t mean instant catastrophe, you might be able to ease up on the pressure you put on yourself—and that can be liberating.

4. Commit to cutting back—just a little

When you’re deep in perfectionistic territory, you’re triple-checking your triple-checks, rereading a two-line email for 20 minutes, or putting in a crushing amount of study time for a five-question quiz. One way to work against this is to cut back in tiny ways over time rather than trying to stop your perfectionistic patterns all at once, suggests Dr. Hirsch. This is a behavior change staple because it works.

Try it: Take your four-hour window of quiz-studying to three hours (with breaks)—and then stick to it. Maybe next time, knock it down to two. Pay attention to how you feel as you’re making the adjustments and see how that changes over time. The point isn’t to lower your standards, but instead to get them to a place that feels less soul-crushing and more realistic.

young woman sitting and talking to counselor or therapist

If you’re still struggling, that’s OK

If you’re really feeling bogged down by perfectionism, reach out to a counselor or therapist at your school or in your community. Because perfectionistic people have a hard time admitting when they’re not feeling perfect, this may not feel easy. But it’s so worth a try. Dr. Greenspon describes moving past perfectionism as a recovery process, one that involves adjusting your worldview and sense of reality. Let’s be real: This is a big shift. It takes some work and time to rebuild your sense of yourself independent from pure achievement. Here are some treatment options to talk through with a professional:

Radically open-dialectical behavioral therapy (RO-DBT): RO-DBT is a therapy for people who struggle with “emotional over-control” that teaches strategies to increase flexibility, openness, and communication in social situations, according to research published in 2015 in the American Journal of Psychotherapy.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT is a therapy that teaches you how to transform unhealthy, negative thoughts into positive thoughts and behaviors.

Visit or call your counseling center to chat with a therapist, or use this tool from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) for help finding one in your area.

*Student name has been changed for privacy


Student review, MindShift app

Read more here

Photo of KimberlyKimberly M.
Conway, Arkansas

 

“Perfectionism is a word I never thought I’d associate myself with. However, this app helped me understand the term better—which helped me recognize that I am a perfectionist to an extent. Using the six steps given, I was supplied nice, calming thoughts to read when I needed, as well as examples of exercises I can do to calm myself down. These tips are based on the research of the Anxiety Disorders Association of British Columbia, a nonprofit dedicated to improving mental health and reducing stigma surrounding anxiety and its related disorders. It’s great having all this information in the privacy of your own home, right at your fingertips.”

Useful?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
There’s always that one assignment you can’t stop reviewing. Or maybe you’re like me and every email or message must be checked and rechecked…like, so much that it might even take a day to send! The exercises helped me relax about this stuff.

Fun?

The app isn’t really “fun” per se, unless you consider reading fun, which I do! There were also recordings of how to do the exercises, which was helpful. If you’re not used to listening to recordings, you’ll probably find yourself chuckling a bit.

Effective?
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For the first time, I sent an email without checking it more than twice. I still need to work on it, but I’ve eliminated the endless rewrites! The app has helped me worry less about minor flaws.

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Article sources

Keith J. Anderson, PhD, registered psychologist, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York.

Simon B. Sherry, PhD, registered psychologist, researcher, and associate professor, Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Sarah Vinson, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist; assistant professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Morehouse School of Medicine, Georgia.

Benson, E. (2003). The many faces of perfectionism. Monitor on Psychology, 34(10), 18. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/monitor/nov03/manyfaces.aspx

Capan, B. E. (2010). Relationship among perfectionism, academic procrastination and life satisfaction among university students. Procedia Social and Behavioral Sciences, 5, 1665–1671. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042810017167

Flett, G. L., Hewitt, P. L., & Heisel, M. J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology, 18(3), 156–172. Retrieved from http:// psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2014-38880-002

Greenspon, T. S. (2014). Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Psychology in the Schools51(9), 986–998. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265514641_Is_there_an_antidote_to_perfectionism

Handley, A. K., Egan, S. J., Kane. R., & Rees, C. S. (2015). A randomized controlled trial of group cognitive behavioural therapy for perfectionism. Behavior Research and Therapy, 68, 37–47. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/273706203_A_randomised_controlled_trial_of_group_cognitive_behavioural_therapy_for_perfectionism

Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional perfectionism and burnout: A meta-analysis. Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 269–288. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279191467_Multidimensional_P erfectionism_and_Burnout_A_Meta-Analysis

Hirsch, G. (n.d.). An imperfect look at overcoming perfectionism. University Counseling and Consulting Services. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from http://www.sass.umn.edu/pdfs/II%20Self%20Awareness/Perfectionism/C%204.4.8%20Imperfect%20Look%20at%20Overcoming%20Perfectionism%20%20rev..pdf

Kothari, R., Egan, S., Wade, T., Andersson, G., et al. (2016). Overcoming perfectionism: Protocol of a randomized controlled trial of an internet-based guided self-help cognitive behavioral therapy intervention. JMIR Research Protocols, 5(4), e215. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/309959188_Overcoming_Perfectionism_Protocol_of_a_Randomized_Controlled_Trial_of_an_Internet-Based_Guided_Self-Help_Cognitive_Behavioral_Therapy_Intervention

Lynch, T. R., Hempel, R. J., & Dunkley, C. (2015). Radically open-dialectical behavior therapy for disorders of over-control: Signaling matters. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 69(2), 141–162. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/279987144_Radically_Open-Dialectical_Behavior_Therapy_for_Disorders_of_Over_Control_Signaling_Matters

Wade, T. D., & Tiggemann, M. (2013). The role of perfectionism in body dissatisfaction. Journal of Eating Disorders1, 2. Retrieved from https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/2050-2974-1-2

University of Michigan. (n.d.). Coping with perfectionism. Retrieved from https://caps.umich.edu/content/coping-perfectionism