What Is Perfectionism And How Is It Treated?

People who consider themselves “perfectionists” or are identified as perfectionists by mental health professionals are those individuals who find it extremely challenging to deal with personal mistakes. Perfectionists tend to be overly self-critical and regularly seek approval from others. The pursuit of excellence tends to compel a crippling fear of failure and can cause overreactions to (what they may see as) personal errors. Perfectionists tend to feel nothing they do is good enough, and therefore, they are not good enough. Perfectionism may show up in childhood, or emerge later on in life.

Those who struggle with perfectionism usually experience “all-or-nothing” thinking, translating that to the world around them. This means they see things, and people, as right or wrong, perfect or flawed, successful or unsuccessful, beautiful or ugly, fat or skinny, etc. Although perfectionists may logically understand the impossibility of perfection, the standard they hold for themselves supersedes that logic, often causing significant negative impacts.

Perfectionism can afflict anyone, yet some may be more prone to struggle with it than others.

What Makes Someone More Susceptible?

Common Assumptions of Perfectionists

Negative Impacts of Perfectionism

Warning Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism Treatment

Treatment for perfectionism is not actually aimed at changing one’s standards. Instead the goal is to decrease the extent to which one bases their self-worth and self-esteem on the perfection (or lack thereof) of their achievements. Treatment is also meant to expand an individual’s realm of areas that contribute to self-evaluation, rather than just the one or two domains the perfectionism is attached to (i.e. – “I am only as good as the reports I produce at work”).


If you struggle with perfectionism and want to move away from the obsessive patterns, there are some things you can try on your own, prior to seeking professional help. Initially, explore the areas of your life where perfectionism is negatively impacting. This could be in your relationships, family life, work, school, etc. Then, create small, attainable goals to work towards in those target areas. For example, if your perfectionism is affecting your ability to work in groups at school, as you tend to take control of the entire project (out of fear that mistake will be made if you don’t), perhaps your goal would be to allow the other group members carry out their assigned tasks without intervening. Ask yourself, “What is the worst that will happen if this group assignment does not turn out perfectly?” Write down everything that comes to your mind, and review the list. Examine which responses are rational, and which are not, labeling them as such along the way. If your anxiety is elevated due to the thought of a mistake being made, verbalize your fears out loud, as this can often help lower worry and nervousness.

Another helpful approach to help you gain more balance in your life is incorporating healthy coping skills. Coping skills help as they serve as both a distraction and a mechanism to deal with the increased anxiety of letting go of some of the control inherent to perfectionism. Some examples of healthy tools for coping are breathing techniques, self-care, challenging your thoughts, and radical acceptance.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is an approach frequently used in treating perfectionism as it encourages adaptable thinking, and identifies and challenges negative or unrealistic beliefs. A CBT therapist will assist the client in identifying perfectionist ways of thinking that are damaging to daily life and set specific, achievable, and measurable goals. Increasing awareness of perfectionist thinking through identifying irrational thoughts is also an integral part of the CBT process. With increased awareness, the client can then challenge the negative or irrational thoughts through psychoeducation on perfectionist thinking and exploring the evidence for the thought patterns. Eventually, these negative thoughts can be replaced with more realistic, rational ways of thinking.

CBT not only addresses the cognitive aspect of perfectionism, but also the associated behaviors. For example, if the client struggles with the irrational thought that they must always be doing something, otherwise they are lazy, the CBT clinician might encourage the client to “practice” doing nothing (i.e. – sit in a coffee shop for 30 minutes and read a book).


Mindfulness is a practice where individuals learn to be in the present moment, free from future worries or past stressors. Mindfulness is used to essentially quiet the mind, and allow an individual to be fully focused on the here-and-now. This can prove effective for perfectionists, as it is an inherent stress-reduction technique.

Is Perfectionism Always Harmful?

Being a perfectionist isn’t always a bad thing. For some people, perfectionism pushes them toward goals and achievements in various areas of life. It is when this “push” develops into obsessive thoughts and negatively impacts one’s functioning that it becomes a problem. Basically, many of us have perfectionist tendencies that drive us to challenge ourselves and strive for success, keeping a healthy balance along the way.

If you feel you may struggle with perfectionism and it is affecting your life adversely, do not forget that it treatable.

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