Does perfectionism make mental illness worse?

Trudi Griffin - LPC
May 20th, 2019

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Research suggests that yes, perfectionism makes mental illness worse. A recent report in the Harvard Business Review discusses the relationship between perfectionism and mental illness suggesting that young people today put incredibly high expectations on themselves, which leads to increased levels of depression and anxiety. 

The definition of perfection changes based on who determines the qualifications. Therefore, perfection cannot be achieved; it is an impossible goal. As the article states, many young people have “excessive standards” for themselves, irrational ideals that can never be met followed by methods of punishing themselves for falling short. It goes on to explain three types of perfectionism, one directed at the self, one directed socially and the final version directed at others.

The study on perfectionism surveyed over 41,500 college students from the U.S., Canada, and the United Kingdom. They found that college students "are more demanding of themselves, perceive that others are more demanding of them, and are more demanding of others" with socially prescribed perfection twice as influential as the other two. 

Self-oriented perfection - high expectations of self

Socially prescribed perfection - high social expectations

Other-oriented perfection - high expectations of others

What's so bad about perfection?

Seeking to do well in everything is a noble undertaking; however, it becomes a problem when doing one's best turns into the inability to accept anything less than an imagined ideal. Perfectionism causes people to seek validation from others by demonstrating flawless performance and continuously think about woulda, coulda, shoulda, which translates into increased anxiety, shame, and guilt. There is more focus on the small bits of perceived imperfection, which may not be very relevant in the grand scheme of things, plus, it causes someone to focus on the negative. Then, if someone does something negative, or makes a mistake, there is a higher tendency for that person to conceal or hide the mistake without learning from it.

Other adverse effects of perfectionism:

  • Increased worry which affects performance
  • Inability to take criticism
  • Avoidance of "hard things"
  • Feeling increased pressure and stress
  • Decreased creativity
  • Decreased perseverance
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Obsessions and compulsions
  • High blood pressure
  • Increased suicidal ideation
  • Eating disorders
  • Self-criticism

Seek growth, not perfection

Read stories of recovery, and you will find that there is beauty in the journey. Stories of heroes and real people who overcome diversity draw us in not because they are stories of perfection, but because they are stories of growth. For growth to occur, so must failure and struggle and heartache because those are the things that keep one moving forward. In a 2019 article in Psychology Today, Gustavo Razzetti encourages readers to find meaning in life, not perfection.

People who struggle with skin-picking disorder sometimes start because of perceived skin imperfection. Then, in recovery, there is pressure to stop picking completely. Both of these are a form of perfectionism. But what if the quest for perfectionism is making the behaviors worse? What if instead of seeking perfection, you sought growth and meaning? How do you know your skin is not already perfect? What if it is ideal for you? What if, during recovery, you change your picking habits a little at a time and show improvement each day? What if that is ok?

Perfection will never happen because once someone gets to perfect, the standards and expectations change. Therefore, perfect is unattainable. Instead, figure out what is right for you and let go of the rest.


Trudi Griffin - LPC


Education, experience, and compassion for people informs Trudi's research and writing about mental health. She holds a Master of Science degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Addictions and Mental Health from Marquette University, with Bachelor’s degrees in Communications and Psychology from the University of Wisconsin Green Bay. Before committing to full-time research and writing, she practiced as a Licensed Professional Counselor providing therapy to people of all ages who struggled with addictions, mental health problems, and trauma recovery in community health settings and private practice.

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