- Some researchers have dubbed perfectionism an “epidemic” among millennials.
- In some people, perfectionism may become unhealthy and lead to anxiety,depression, and suicidal thoughts, psychologist Dr. Jessica Pryor told INSIDER.
- But there are strategies to address the dark side of perfectionism.
To an outside observer, a perfectionist seems blessed with a bounty of good habits: attention to detail, seemingly inexhaustible motivation, the drive to achieve high goals. But that projection of flawlessness could be masking a deep and even debilitating distress.
“Perfectionism has a great side and it also has a dark side,” perfectionism researcher Dr. Jessica Pryor, a staff psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, which provides research-based therapy to individuals, couples, and families, told INSIDER in a recent interview. “The great side is this healthy striving toward high standards, pushing oneself to their maximum potential. [But] there does come a point for some individuals where that high striving becomes relentless striving and can be really dangerous to one’s wellbeing.”
That dark side – known as maladaptive or unhealthy perfectionism – may even lead to depression, anxiety, and in some cases, suicidal thoughts, Pryor explained.
There’s also some evidence that today’s young adults struggle with higher rates of perfectionism than previous generations. A landmark study published in December 2017 analysed data from more than 40,000 American, British, and Canada college students over a 28-year-period. It found that levels of perfectionism have increased in young people since 1989.
“There are many, many really high-achieving, high-functioning individuals that are walking around doing very, very well, but what they focus on is the [goals] that they were not able to reach,” Pryor said. “And with that comes a lot of distress and impairment.”
INSIDER spoke with Pryor to learn more about how to spot unhealthy perfectionism, and how to effectively fight it.
Perfectionism can be healthy or unhealthy
Perfectionism is not an inherently bad thing. In fact, most researchers acknowledge that perfectionism can be a functional personality trait, Pryor explained, so long as individuals retain the ability to bounce back after mistakes.
“When I talk with clients about this, I often reference elite and professional athletes. What do they do with the mistakes? They recognise it, learn from it, and forget it, and they can go back out the next day and push just as hard,” Pryor said. “There’s a bit of resilience that those with healthy perfectionism display that helps them continue to strive toward goals without major psychological detriment.”
Unhealthy perfectionism is different in some subtle but important ways.
First, Pryor said, unhealthy perfectionists tend to reach for more obscure and unrealistic goals over time, increasing their likelihood of failure. Second, if they don’t reach these goals, they struggle to bounce back.
“With that lack of bounce back comes a lot of psychological torment,” Pryor said. “There’s all or nothing thinking: ‘I didn’t achieve that goal exactingly, which means I failed.’ And that ends up resulting in an over-generalization of failure to self-worth.”
“[There is] excessive concern over mistakes, self-criticism, rumination – and this can get out of control and turn into really intense depression, anxiety, avoidant behaviours … and ultimately suicidal thoughts,” she added.
Major research studies note these risks, too. In June, a review of previous evidence, encompassing more than 11,000 people, found that some aspects of perfectionism (like concern over mistakes) are associated with suicidal ideation. And in 2016, a review of 284 studies identified links between perfectionism and a variety of negative mental health outcomes, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
There are a few ways to spot unhealthy perfectionism
First, unhealthy perfectionism may cause outward behavioural changes.
One telltale sign is spending an excessive amount of time trying to achieve a particular goal; like an athlete who trains to the point of exhaustion or a student who studies so long they pass the point where their brain can function properly.
“Individuals will push really hard and for some reason don’t see or ignore the signal that it may be time to take a break,” Pryor said. “Individuals with healthy perfectionism will push really hard sometimes, but they’re able to give themselves permission to stop. Maladaptive perfectionists will keep going, going, going.”
Paradoxically, the other major behavioural sign of unhealthy perfectionism is procrastination.
“Maladaptive perfectionists may try to avoid tasks altogether,” Pryor said. “And that avoidance helps them decrease the pressure and worry about shame, about getting it right.”
This avoidance may even take the form of self-sabotage, she added.
“In a college population, perhaps students go out partying the night before an exam,” Pryor said. “Individuals do things that they know will set themselves up for failure so they don’t have to engage the pressure of whether or not they will achieve success.”
But this type of perfectionistic behaviour causes subtler, internal changes, too, Pryor added. Those suffering from unhealthy perfectionism may spend large swaths of time ruminating on an archive of past mistakes or thinking about how to achieve tasks in the future with fewer or zero flaws. This expense of mental energy could result in impairments to everyday function.
A handful of studies, for example, have found correlations between insomnia and certain aspects of perfectionism, like doubts about past actions.
“These brains are going nonstop,” Pryor said.
Finally, unhealthy perfectionists may experience psychological distress that’s directly related to their perceived failures, Pryor explained. Unfortunately, the desire to appear perfect in all aspects of life means that these individuals often opt not to share their distress with others.
“This is where it can become very dangerous,” Pryor said. “Because individuals choose not to show people around those quote-unquote flaws.”
Conquering unhealthy perfectionism can be hard
The trouble with maladaptive perfectionism is that being a perfectionist – even the unhealthy type – has its undeniable advantages.
“One unique aspect of this is that often, the very perfectionistic tendencies that cause [clients] the most pain are also those tendencies that have helped them get to where they have gotten in their career,” Pryor said. “There are benefits to being in the library for 72 hours during finals week. There are benefits to the partners in your law firm thinking that you’re the hardest worker.”
It can be difficult, Pryor explained, for these individuals to identify the costs of their behaviours, rather than just the positive outcomes.
“That part tends to be really tricky with perfectionists – not wanting to give up the behaviour because there’s a worry that they won’t be able to sustain this level of performance without it,” Pryor said.
But there are some at-home strategies that may help unhealthy perfectionists
First, take some time to assess whether your standards might be impossibly high, and consider letting some of them go.
“Experiment with letting go of global excessively high standards,” Pryor said. “For example, I ask my clients all the time to experiment in lower-stakes places in their life. What if you don’t consider how to be a less perfect lawyer, but you consider how to be a less perfect dishwasher or a less perfect grocery shopper? That can be really helpful.”
Next, try focusing on the process of working towards a goal, rather than its eventual outcome. That could mean appreciating all the things you learn as part of your effort, or giving yourself permission to celebrate smaller achievements you hit along the way.
Finally, practice self-compassion – both in your internal dialogue and perhaps literally, on paper.
“I talk to clients about interrupting self-criticism and using a positivity journal, where each day they’re noticing things that they do well even if they’re imperfect,” Pryor said. “My clients report [that] to be one of the hardest things I ask them to do.”
If you try strategies like these and find you’re still struggling, Pryor recommended seeking out a mental health professional.
“If you allow a therapist in earlier rather than later you can develop some of these healthy lifestyle habits and be proactive around your perfectionistic tendencies,” she said. “People don’t need to suffer alone.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression or has had thoughts of harming themselves or taking their own life, get help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255) provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress, as well as best practices for professionals and resources to aid in prevention and crisis situations.