Can Perfectionism Harm Your Mental Health?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
© CAROLYN LAGATTUTA / Stocksy United

We all know those perfectionists who never settle for anything less than the best. They have extremely high expectations for themselves and obsessively check and recheck every last detail until something is deemed absolutely flawless.

Tennis great Serena Williams is a self-proclaimed perfectionist. So was Steve Jobs, the Apple mastermind who famously toiled over the design of his company’s devices.

You could say, in some ways, being a perfectionist is synonymous with success. But behind all those straight As and perfect 10s, perfectionism has a dark side, too. Pushed to the extreme, it can take a significant toll on your mental health.

“Perfection is impossible,” explains Julia Kocian, a licensed clinical social worker and mental health counselor who sees residents and fellows as part of University of Washington School of Medicine’s Graduate Medical Education Wellness Service. “Because of that, when we set perfection as the bar, we’re always falling short — it’s unavoidable — and that heightens the inner critic that lives in all of us.”

Why is perfectionism a problem?

Making mistakes is part of being human, but if you’re a perfectionist, you probably have a difficult time applying this concept to yourself when you slip up.

Instead of accepting that failure is just a part of life, you’ll obsesses over mistakes and feel worthless when you don’t accomplish your goals.

“If you’re constantly thinking of how you’re doing poorly, your awareness narrows, and this makes you less resilient,” Kocian says. “You start to ruminate on those negative thoughts and it becomes a threat to your emotional well-being.”

Even more of a Catch-22? The more often you think disparaging thoughts when you fail, prompting a stress reaction in your body, the more prone you are to self-criticism and a negative mindset later on.

“Based on what we know about neuroplasticity, if you keep going down the same negative wormhole every time you make a mistake, you’re only strengthening that pathway in the brain,” Kocian explains. “Your brain starts to associate failure with feeling bad about yourself.”

Think of it like Pavlov’s dogs. The more you criticize yourself and inundate yourself with negativity in response to failure — aka if you hear a bell every time you get fed — the more you’re going to link the two.

What causes perfectionism?

While perfectionism can affect anyone, it’s more likely to occur in those who haven’t had to deal with a lot of failure yet.

“I see this a lot in my population because I’m working with physicians, who have typically been high achievers throughout their lives,” Kocian notes. “They’re used to getting great test scores, positive feedback and a lot of external validation.”

Even if you don’t necessarily deem yourself a high achiever, you can still also subconsciously adopt the ideals of perfectionism by taking cues from what you see in celebrities, friends and even others on social media.

For example, only seeing Photoshopped pictures of models online can warp your perception of what your body should look like.

“Those photos online are perfectly manicured and managed,” Kocian says. “It’s the Pinterest-perfect room, but you don’t see the pile of laundry that’s behind the camera. And when you don’t see reality reflected around you, your mind moves the bar for what’s ‘normal’ and recalibrates to this unrealistic standard.”

What are the symptoms of perfectionism?

Some telltale signs of perfectionism gone awry are the feeling that you’re constantly failing, an inability to relax or let go of control, regular procrastination and obsessive tendencies with work, relationships or even your appearance.

Those symptoms might seem to contradict the very idea of the successful perfectionist, but remember, perfectionists aren’t actually perfect (hint: no one is). It’s simply that they let normal shortcomings undermine their confidence and self-worth.

“When you’re tangled up with the idea of having to be perfect, negative thoughts come flooding in and you feel down and worthless,” Kocian says. “That worry of not doing well enough can lead to anxiety, procrastination and habits that actually get in the way of long-term achievement.”

Why is it difficult to treat perfectionism?

If you — gulp — realize that some of those perfectionist tendencies and inner thoughts sound eerily familiar, it is possible to break the cycle, but not without some difficulty at first.

Sure, you may realize it’s not good for your mental health to have a super-critical inner voice all the time, but you may also think that your unrealistically high standards are what give you your drive for success.

“There’s sometimes a huge backlash to letting go. You feel like if you let go of that inner voice, you’ll stop growing and improving,” Kocian explains.

To show how inaccurate this idea really is — plenty of non-perfectionists are successful — picture someone who’s trying to learn a new skill, like playing an instrument for the first time.

They probably won’t be able to play a song without making some mistakes, but you’d still give them some positive feedback to keep them motivated.

“You’re not going to say, ‘Well, you failed — you’re never going to get it,’” Kocian says. “You’ll give them positive encouragement, which works really well. We do this when we’re coaching another person, but at some point, we stop offering compassion to ourselves.”

How do you stop perfectionism?

To turn the volume down on that inner critic, Kocian says there are ways you can break the pattern of negative thought as much as you can when you feel like you’re falling short.

Recognize failure is part of being human

“One of the antidotes to perfectionism is realizing that tough experiences, failures and difficult emotions are all part of the normal human experience,” Kocian explains.

This is termed “universality” or “common humanity” — which refers to anything that’s part of what it means to be human. When you’re able to recognize flaws as part of common humanity, you naturally feel less alone when you fail.

“That breaks the spell of this comparing mind that latches onto the idea that you’re not good enough,” Kocian says. “If you have the basic understanding that you’re in a growth process, even if you’re learning and making mistakes, you can more easily try new things because you’re not fearing negative backlash from others or yourself.”

Practice mindful self-compassion

The next step is to figure out a way to disrupt your chain of negative thoughts when you’re actually thinking them. Doing this can prevent your brain from automatically linking failure with self-criticism so you can retrain it to learn a more positive association.

“When you’re experiencing something difficult that triggers a chain of negative thought, check into your mind and body, name the difficulty as a moment of suffering and tap into that universality to normalize it as a human thing that you’re going through,” Kocian says.

If that isn’t so easy for you to do, try to instead picture a loved one or friend in the same situation and imagine what you might say to comfort or encourage them. Then flip it and offer those same words to yourself.

“In our broader culture, we could do a better job of publicly accepting flaws in ourselves and others,” Kocian explains. “The intention is to offer some message of kindness to yourself.”

Review your day to understand your triggers

Of course, there are times when practicing mindful self-compassion in the moment is impossible, like if you’re overwhelmed at work or in the middle of a conversation.

If that’s the case, Kocian suggests reviewing your day after the fact to identify those situations and mentally rehearse how you can better respond the next time. If you realize you did, in fact, slip into a negativity whirlpool, analyzing it later can help you figure out certain triggers for your perfectionist-driven response.

She also recommends setting timers throughout the day to purposefully take a break and see if you recognize a pattern of negative thoughts.

Eventually, once you start to understand your triggers and emotional reactions, it’ll be easier for you to pick up on it in the moment so you can interrupt the negativity as it’s happening.

Set a time limit for your negative thoughts

While recognizing your feelings is key, so is not dwelling on them. After all, the whole idea of mindful self-compassion is to change the previous pattern of self-criticism.

Instead of feeding your inner Negative Nelly, put a cap on it. Pick a regular time of day when you’re allowed to vent or brain dump all of your self-doubting thoughts into a journal. Then, after a few minutes, stop and follow it up with positive affirmations for yourself.

And if you slip up every once in a while, just chalk it up to your universality and offer yourself some grace.

“Undoing the idea of perfectionism and inner critical thoughts is lifelong work,” Kocian says. “Even if we’re applying the same skills to the practice of undoing this each day, we’re human. We’re not going to be perfect, and that’s OK.”