What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. A fast and enduring track to unhappiness, it is often accompanied by depression and eating disorders. What makes perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, so theirs is a negative orientation. They expect others’ love and approval to be conditional on a flawless performance.

Perfection, of course, is an abstraction, an impossibility in reality, and striving for it can lead to procrastination, a tendency to avoid challenges, rigid thinking, and a lack of creativity. There is a difference between striving for excellence and demanding perfection. Unfortunately, the need for perfection is usually transmitted in small ways from parents to children, some as silent as a raised eyebrow over a B rather than an A, negatively impacting their self-esteem for years to come.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is driven primarily by internal pressures such as the desire to avoid failure or harsh judgment. There is likely a social component as well, because perfectionistic tendencies have increased substantially among young people over the past 30 years, with no regard for gender or culture. It manifests itself in three domains: self-oriented perfectionism, or imposing an unrealistic desire to be perfect on oneself; other-oriented perfectionism, or imposing unrealistic standards of perfection on others; and socially-prescribed perfectionism, or perceiving unrealistic expectations of perfection from others.

The underlying reasons for the trend are not fully understood, but greater academic and professional competition is implicated, along with the pervasive presence of social media and the harmful social comparisons it elicits. There is no winning with perfectionism because even if their goals are achieved, perfectionistic people will likely still be unsatisfied and self-critical.

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