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What do we mean by Perfectionism?

Striving for something can be a healthy and positive attribute; it’s good to aim high. But sometimes whatever we do just isn’t good enough; we want to be too perfect and start setting unrealistic goals. When you hear someone say “she is such a perfectionist” or “he just has to do things perfectly”, it can be said with either a degree of envy or a degree of exasperation. On the one hand, we admire people who strive for high standards and a high-quality product. On the other hand, we are frustrated by people who persist in perfecting tasks and attending to detail in a way that makes a task take longer without adding substantially to the final outcome. Typically people who fall into this latter group are also causing distress to themselves, as they agonize over the detail of what they are doing and worry about how it might be received. Sometimes they lose confidence in their ability to deliver a worthwhile outcome, whether in work, social situations, leisure pursuits, sport, study or appearance. This type of perfectionism can result in self-criticism, lowered self-esteem and impaired performance.

Such high levels of perfectionism, often driven by low self-esteem, can turn against success and develop into an unhealthy obsession, triggering serious mental-health problems, such as anxiety, depression and eating disorders.

Common negative effects of perfectionism include:

Emotional (feelings)

  • Anxiety (e.g. feeling nervous, stressed)
  • Depression (e.g. feeling sad, low mood)


  • Social isolation
  • Narrow interests
  • Focusing almost all of one’s time on a particular area (e.g. focusing mainly on work and rarely socializing)
  • Limiting pleasurable activities not seen as being related to achievement (e.g. never just reading a magazine or listening to music)


  • Insomnia
  • Exhaustion and tiredness
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset stomach

Cognitive (thinking)

  • Poor concentration
  • Rumination (e.g. thinking about a mistake made in a task over and over)
  • Increased self-criticism
  • Low self-esteem


  • Repeated checking (e.g. reading an email over and over before sending it to check the text is completely accurate)
  • Repeating tasks (e.g. rewriting and editing something over and over)
  • Excessive amount of time spent on tasks (e.g. taking six hours to clean the house)
  • Avoiding tasks
  • Putting off tasks (procrastination)
  • List-making
  • Being over-thorough
  • Hating to waste time and, as a consequence, being over-busy

Free evidence-based resources for understanding and treating perfectionism can be found here.