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Perfectionism is Linked to Mental Illness – Here’s Why We Cling to It

A woman looking disgruntled at her desk at work

When it comes to careers, education and learning new skills, having high standards can be a great tool to help you thrive – but what happens when those standards get too high?

As Psychology Today points out, a lot of research has linked perfectionism to mental illness, specifically to anxiety (Burgess & DiBartolo, 2016), depression (Hewitt et al., 2023), disordered eating (Howard et al., 2023), self-injury (Duncan-Plummer et al., 2023) and suicide (Smith et al., 2018).

So, why do we turn to perfectionism when it can so often have a negative impact on our mental well-being?

Related: What is ‘quiet thriving’ – and why should you try it in the workplace?

Why do we choose perfectionism?

While perfectionism can cause strain on your personal life and wellbeing, people often cling to it because, as Psychology Today explains, perfectionists believe that “if they let up an inch, they’ll never achieve anything, and they’ll earn the scorn or disappointment of others.”

In fact, perfectionists are often proud of their relentlessly high standards and see them as central to their success. As a result, perfectionists attach feelings of shame to any job they complete that turns out less than perfect in their eyes.

Perfectionism is also often reinforced socially, as being stressed and overworked is considered a “normal” part of life in many friend groups and families.

See also: The happiest countries in the world are led by women: report.

The negative impacts of perfectionism

Interestingly enough, while perfectionists see their perfectionism as a vital ingredient to their success, people often achieve things “despite perfectionism, not because of it,” Psychology Today adds. In fact, perfectionism can result in procrastination because we’re afraid to start a project if it may not be done perfectly.

Ultimately, perfectionism can cause more worry than success, forcing us to focus on insignificant details instead of what truly matters. Plus, according to a 2022 study from Goulet-Pelletier, people who had high levels of perfectionism actually had lower levels of creativity and originality.

Related: 10 red flags to watch out for before you sign a job offer.


How to let go of perfectionism

If you’re ready to let go of your perfectionism, you should first look at the blurred boundary between healthy forms of striving and unhealthy levels of perfectionism.

“Healthy striving feels hopeful, engaged, optimistic, energetic and enjoyable,” Psychology Today details. Healthy striving has achievable goals and “it requires effort, but that effort feels satisfying and voluntarily chosen.”

Meanwhile, perfectionism “is driven by dread of humiliation and fear of failure. The effort seems forced, painful, and imposed rather than chosen. And it never ends.”

Once you can recognize the difference between perfectionism and healthy striving, you can lean in to healthier standards like letting things be finished instead of perfect, or focusing on learning and improving instead of hunting for success.

Healthy striving is all about treating yourself with kindness, so be gentle with yourself as you unlearn any and all perfectionist habits that have been damaging to your wellbeing.

You may also like: What is career cushioning – and should you be doing it right now?

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