How to Overcome Perfectionism

Phi Atratus
  • Apr 08, 2022
  • 6 min read
good looking man is not happy about himself

We all want to do well in different aspects of our lives – school, job, or relationships – and it's totally normal to feel this way. After all, society has shaped us early on for competition and survival once we get into the “real world.” It's human nature to aim for great results, and we want to improve continuously for the better. 

These innate traits, or even gifts, are what catapults us to realize our fullest potential and allow us to live a meaningful life. But when becoming good enough has become, well, not good enough, we put ourselves in an uncertain situation where we have zero tolerance for mistakes. It is only when we never seem to satisfy ourselves that it becomes detrimental.

The American Psychological Association defines perfectionism as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” Perfectionism is when you try to be perfect, set unrealistic standards, and criticize yourself and others too much. Perfectionism is often about getting the approval of others and the idea that if we can be perfect, we won't feel bad or fail.

Perfectionism is a common trait. Many people have at least one area of their lives where they’re very perfectionistic. It doesn't matter if you are a student or have a job; perfectionism has a significant impact on this area of your life, whether it's academic work or professional work. 

Perfectionism is rampant in children and adolescents too. Compared to past generations, perfectionism has increased by 33% among today's college students. Although these numbers pertain to young people, perfectionism is a common scenario even in the workplace. Employees are exposed to more competitive surroundings and increased pressure to achieve a productive work output. With how common perfectionism is, there's a high chance that you may be struggling with it, too. How do you know if you have perfectionistic tendencies, though? Let's go over its signs and symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Perfectionism

There are many ways to tell if perfectionism is causing you more harm than good. Mental health experts have come up with a list of things we should look for when perfectionism becomes a problem. These include:

  • Having a low tolerance for mistakes
  • Setting unrealistic expectations of yourself and others
  • Low self-esteem
  • Anxiety
  • Being highly critical of others
  • Craving approval or validation from others
  • Your worth is dependent on your achievements
  • Feeling guilty
  • Procrastination
  • Never-ending dissatisfaction 
  • Black-or-white thinking pattern

Looking at its signs and symptoms, you can probably tell whether you’re perfectionistic or not. But how do people develop perfectionism anyway? What causes them to be overly critical of themselves and others?

Why Am I a Perfectionist?

Perfectionism is thought to be caused by a mix of heredity and environmental factors. People can be born with perfectionism or learn it by seeing and mimicking others' behavior or developing it in reaction to specific interactions and experiences.

Several studies have been conducted surrounding the relationship between parenting style and perfectionism. Perfectionists have learned early on that their parents liked them because of how much they did or achieved. It results in learning how to value themselves only based on how others feel about them.

It can make individuals feel more vulnerable, making them more sensitive to other people's opinions and criticisms. The only way to protect themselves from those who criticize them is to be perfect.

Types of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can manifest in many different forms. Let's go through a few of them:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism – This is characterized by an individual's critical self-expectation to do their work to the best of their abilities. Self-oriented perfectionists spend so much time and money trying to be perfect that they lose sight of why they were even trying to be perfect in the first place. 
  • Socially prescribed perfectionism – It comprises beliefs that others have high standards for themselves and that acceptance by others is conditional on fulfilling these standards. 
  • Other-oriented perfectionism – It includes the idea that others need to strive for perfection. They are critical of others who don't live up to their standards. It can make them enraged and hostile, and it could also make it hard for them to develop healthy relationships with other people.

Is Perfectionism Dangerous?

Perfectionism can be relatively healthy, but only to some degree. If people can meet their goals while dealing with changes and small mistakes, this is a good sign that they can let go of their expectations of people and things.

It only becomes unhealthy when people set unrealistically high standards for themselves. This type of perfectionism can lead to feeling like they're constantly failing or not meeting them. If this mindset persists for a long time, it puts people at higher risk of different mental health problems.

People high on perfectionism also think more about suicide and are at risk for depressive symptoms. Numerous studies have also shown the impact of perfectionism on an individual's self-esteem. Not only that; perfectionism has also been linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and procrastination

OCD shares some of its symptoms with perfectionism, but the only difference is the openness to address problematic thoughts and behaviors. People who have OCD know that their behavior is bad, but they can't help it, whereas people with perfectionism are instead welcoming of these behaviors. 

Studies have also shown the role of perfectionism in the maintenance of procrastination, particularly in academic settings. Academic procrastination happens when students’ anxiety and perfectionism get in the way of their self-control and motivation. As a result, even though they want to do their homework, students often put it off until the last minute, when they are under a lot of stress and finally have to do it. Perfectionism and procrastination work together like that.

With all the recent studies surrounding perfectionism and how it contributes to different psychological disorders, nothing should stop you from seeking answers to the question of how to overcome perfectionism. 

Treatment Options for Perfectionism

Here are some common and easy-to-follow steps to let go of perfectionism: 

Set attainable goals

Goal setting is essential to helping perfectionists improve their behavior. However, perfectionists tend to establish unrealistic and unattainable goals, resulting in distress when they fail to satisfy their expectations. 

Allow yourself to make mistakes

When we let ourselves make mistakes, we can see that it's not the end of the world, even if it's not perfect. Mistakes are chances for us to learn, grow, and do better, so we should be open to them. Only when we make mistakes do we get better at something. Take up a new hobby that you might not be outstanding at the first time you try it. Focus on having fun with the activity and slowly learning how to get better at it, not on being perfect at it. 

Be mindful of your thoughts

To get away from your inner critic and be kind to yourself, you need to be more mindful of your perfectionistic thoughts and beliefs. Self-bullying can happen so quickly that we don't always realize how bad our self-talk and core beliefs are for us. Start listening to yourself to catch your inner critic in the act and be aware of it. Techniques like breathing meditation, journaling, and positive self-talk are some of the most common examples of mindfulness.

Stick with therapy

Therapy might be the most effective method on how to overcome perfectionism. Approximately 75% of people who seek psychotherapy benefit from it. It helps improve emotions, behaviors, and brain and body changes. Fewer sick days, lower disability, fewer medical issues, and higher job satisfaction can all be attributed to the effectiveness of therapy.

Mental health professionals employ a variety of different therapeutic approaches. The most appropriate therapy for a given person depends on their mental health condition and personal preferences. Therapists may use different approaches to suit the needs of the person. Some of the most popular therapeutic approaches used in treating perfectionism are the following:

Cognitive behavioral therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most widely used therapeutic approaches. CBT is known for identifying the harmful thinking patterns of an individual and replacing them with more positive and accurate thoughts. This approach helps perfectionists by challenging their irrational thoughts and creating new ways to transform their self-limiting beliefs into helpful ones. 

Interpersonal therapy

Interpersonal therapy (IPT) aims to address long-standing interpersonal difficulties. It's a 12-to-16-week program that focuses on how our relationships with family and friends affect our mental health. Learning to communicate and interact with others improves one's mental health as well as one's connections with others. IPT techniques include identifying and expressing emotions and dealing with past issues.  

Exposure and response prevention therapy

The gold standard for OCD-related disorders is exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy. ERP has been effective in treating perfectionism and OCD by exposing clients to various stimuli that trigger their obsessions, working through their concerns, and learning how to act on them. A person's level of anxiety will decrease over time when they know that executing activities imperfectly has no major effects.

What About Online Therapy?

Online therapy has been demonstrated to be useful in treating anxiety and depression. It's no surprise that online counseling is becoming more popular than in-person therapy. The benefits of online therapy are more cost-effective, convenient, and comfortable. 


While quality work should always be strived for, aiming for a spotless result is an elusive goal. People with perfectionism need to be aware of their tendency to lean towards self-criticism when things are less than perfect. It is important to understand that making mistakes is the most human thing of all. 

Should you feel that embracing imperfection is difficult to handle on your own, know that you can always seek help from mental health professionals. You can start as early as today by scheduling an online perfectionism therapy session on DoMental

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