Perfectionism: A Strength or a Symptom?

By Gabrielle Ayoub, Licensed Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapist


There’s a fine line between striving for greatness and drowning in dissatisfaction; this is the risk that perfectionism poses. A relentless drive to flawlessness can easily turn into a flood of self-criticism and impossible standards, placing us in an endless tunnel of frustration.


The Bright Side


The healthy type of perfectionism, or “adaptive” perfectionism, is a personality trait that makes the individual positively meticulous: their high standards can lead to increased productivity and attention to detail, which works really well in the workplace.

When it comes to students, adaptive perfectionism can lead to a more thorough understanding of the projects they take on. By honing their skills, they can achieve higher grades and even excel academically.

This form of perfectionism doesn’t cross the limits of reason: the goals of a rationally perspective person are achievable, and they can be satisfactory when they reach the final outcome of their work, even when it isn’t absolutely flawless.


The Dark Side


On the other hand, “maladaptive” perfectionism can be detrimental. Contrary to the positive form of perfectionism, this one is characterized by unrealistic expectations and excessively harsh self-evaluation. They are their own worst critic, no matter how flawless their work seems to be in everyone else’s eyes.

Maladaptive perfectionism is fueled by an intense fear of failure and low self-esteem. If one is not careful, they can eventually be pulled into a vicious circle of self-destructive behaviors, going from obsessing over the slightest details and procrastinating, to missing important deadlines and possibly sabotaging their relationships and their career.

This harmful form of perfectionism can be linked to internal issues such as anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders. It can also be caused by external pressures like family issues, societal expectations, or professional demands.


When Does Perfectionism Become a Symptom?


Being a perfectionist can definitely be a convenient trait, but one should be careful not to let it interfere with their wellbeing. If this does happen, perfectionism will no longer be a strength but rather a symptom. When one’s self-esteem relies entirely on meeting very high standards, the fear of making mistakes can freeze their ability to make decisions.


This symptom is present in various mental health conditions such as:


Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD): extreme preoccupation with order, symmetry and cleanliness.

Anxiety Disorders: excessive worrying and stress over fear of making mistakes and fear of failure.

Depression: feelings of worthlessness and intense self-criticism when standards are not met.

Eating Disorders: unhealthy focus on body image and extreme dietary control to achieve their idea of the “perfect” body.


How to Become Perfectly Imperfect


It’s crucial to address maladaptive perfectionism, especially when it grows into a symptom of a more serious issue.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can counteract this need to achieve excellence at all costs. It can be used as a tool to identify and challenge the irrational thoughts and beliefs that drive their unhealthy behaviors.

Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation can potentially ease their anxiety and help them develop a sense of self-worth that comes from within, regardless of their accomplishments.

Remember, chasing perfection isn’t worth the toll it takes on your mental health.

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