What Is the Impact of Perfectionism on Health?
Medically Reviewed by Dr. Nicole Avena

In our society, we’re constantly bombarded with images and messages that promote perfection, telling us that anything less than the best is unacceptable.

But what happens when this need for an impeccable performance in all areas of life starts to wreak havoc on your mental and physical well-being?

Let’s take a closer look at how to find balance in a world obsessed with being perfect.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism may be defined as the relentless pursuit of flawlessness. It also may involve setting impossibly high goals and standards for self and others. Perfectionists may use their pursuit of the ideal as a way of coping with stress or gaining a sense of control in their lives.

Though the term is commonly used today, its true meaning and impact on our lives may not be fully understood. Perfectionism typically includes excessively high expectations for performance, behavior, appearance, and overall success. While many people strive to do their best and achieve excellence in various aspects of their lives, perfectionists tend to take this drive toward peak performance to a whole new level.

What Causes Perfectionism?

Impact of Perfectionism 2 The root cause of perfectionism can vary from person to person. Some individuals may have a genetic predisposition towards perfectionist tendencies, while others may be influenced by environmental factors or a past trauma. Most likely, both nature and nurture contribute to the development of perfectionistic traits.

One common misconception about perfectionism is that it equates to being motivated by or driven toward personal, relational, educational, or occupational achievement (or all the above). However, this may be inaccurate. Perfectionists are often driven by fear – fear of failure, criticism, or not meeting their own impossibly high standards. This type of thinking can lead to immense pressure and stress, which can ultimately become detrimental to one’s mental and physical well-being.

Growing up in an environment where mistakes were heavily criticized, or were met with harsh consequences, also can contribute to developing perfectionistic tendencies later in life. On the other end of the spectrum, being praised only for achievements rather than effort or progress can perpetuate the constant need for approval and validation through an exemplary performance.

Technology and social media also have played a significant role in the rise of perfectionistic tendencies. With the prevalence of curated and edited versions of people’s lives online, there’s growing pressure to always present oneself in a perfect light. Constantly comparing yourself to others can fuel feelings of inadequacy.

Societal and cultural expectations also may contribute to the perpetuation of perfectionism. The pressure to be successful, have a perfect body, or maintain a clean and organized home are just some examples of societal standards that can lead to perfectionism.

In some cases, perfectionism also can stem from underlying mental health issues such as obsessive or anxious thoughts.

The Perfection Paradox

Healthy Perfectionism

Perfectionism is often seen as a desirable trait, associated with high standards, determination, and success. However, there’s a darker side to perfectionism that’s rarely talked about – the paradox of healthy perfectionism. While striving for excellence can be beneficial in certain situations, it can have detrimental effects on one’s mental and emotional well-being when taken to extremes.

The concept of healthy perfectionism refers to having high standards and setting ambitious goals in pursuit of personal growth and achievement. It involves a positive mindset where mistakes are viewed as learning opportunities rather than failures. Healthy perfectionists are driven by their passion for self-improvement and don’t let setbacks discourage them from pursuing their goals.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

Unhealthy (or toxic) perfectionism is characterized by an unrelenting desire to achieve flawlessness that goes beyond what’s realistically achievable. Individuals who exhibit unhealthy perfectionism tend to be overly critical of themselves, constantly seeking external validation and approval for their work. They set impossibly high standards that are difficult to attain and maintain, which can lead to intense feelings of dissatisfaction despite any level of success achieved.

One significant aspect of the paradox of healthy perfectionism is how it impacts a person’s overall well-being. While healthy perfectionists may experience short-term satisfaction from achieving their goals, they also prioritize self-care and take breaks when needed to protect their mental health.

In contrast, unhealthy perfectionists often neglect self-care practices, such as rest and relaxation, because they fear taking a break will hinder their progress towards reaching their goals. As a result, they’re more prone to burnout.

The way healthy and unhealthy perfectionists deal with setbacks also differs. For healthy perfectionists, mistakes and failures are viewed as necessary steps on the path to success. They use these experiences as learning opportunities and adapt their approach accordingly.

Conversely, unhealthy perfectionists tend to be highly self-critical and can become easily discouraged when things don’t go as planned. Their need for perfection can lead them to ruminate over their mistakes, making it difficult for them to move forward.

Perfectionism and Relationships

Another aspect of the perfectionism paradox is its impact on relationships. While healthy perfectionists may have high standards for themselves, they may not impose the same expectations on others. They recognize that everyone has their own strengths and weaknesses and strive for collaborative improvement rather than individual perfection.

On the other hand, unhealthy perfectionists may struggle in relationships due to their unrealistic or unclear expectations of themselves and others, which may result in disappointment and conflict.

Some of the Best Ways to Break Free from the Cycle of Perfectionism

So, how can you break free from the vicious cycle of unhealthy perfectionism?

Challenge Your Beliefs

It’s important to challenge your beliefs about what it means to be perfect. Striving for excellence doesn’t mean everything has to be perfect. Since perfection is an unattainable and arbitrary standard, it’s okay to make mistakes or fall short sometimes.

Practice Self-Compassion

Next, practice self-compassion. Instead of beating yourself up over real or perceived failures, learn to give yourself grace and understanding. Treat yourself as you would a friend, with empathy and forgiveness.

Set Realistic Goals

It’s important to set realistic goals and expectations for yourself. This means acknowledging your limitations and accepting that you’re human – we all make mistakes and have room for growth. Setting achievable goals can help you feel a sense of accomplishment without the pressure of perfection.

Prioritize Self-Care

Finally, take breaks and prioritize self-care. It’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of perfectionism, but it’s essential to step back and recharge regularly. Taking care of your overall wellness – both physically and mentally – is crucial in breaking free from the cycle of perfectionism.

Embrace Imperfection

Perfectionism has been a widely praised trait in our society and is often associated with ambition and success. However, perfectionism can have detrimental effects on your physical and mental well-being.

The constant drive for flawlessness can lead to an unhealthy obsession with diet, exercise, and overall appearance. This extreme focus on achieving the perfect body or lifestyle can result in disordered eating habits, over-exercising, and mood issues. In these cases, what’s perceived as healthy becomes an unhealthy pursuit that can take away from the joy of life.

It’s essential to shift your mindset from seeking perfection towards embracing imperfection in pursuit of true health. Embracing imperfections means accepting yourself as an imperfect being and giving yourself more grace. It involves letting go of unrealistic expectations and focusing on progress rather than perfection.

True health goes beyond just physical appearance; it encompasses mental well-being and finding balance in all aspects of life. By embracing imperfection, you can give yourself room for growth without the pressure of constantly trying to meet unattainable goals.


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These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. This content is for informational purposes only. It is not meant to substitute for medical or healthcare advice from a physician, nor is it intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. Consult your healthcare provider before beginning a new health regimen.

Keith Rowe