The Trouble with Toxic Perfectionism

The Trouble with Toxic Perfectionism

You may pride yourself on having really high standards, but if you’re one of those people who are so focused on getting every little detail just right, it could backfire. In fact, perfectionists face a troubling paradox—feeling superior for having such lofty goals but feeling inferior because you can never attain them.

Experts generally define 3 types of perfectionism:

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism—the belief that other people will only value you if you are perfect
  • Other-oriented perfectionism—demanding perfection from others
  • Self-oriented perfectionism—an internal desire to achieve perfection

All types can be damaging, but most experts agree that socially prescribed perfectionism can be the most harmful and even lethal, in some cases.

If you struggle with perfectionism, you aren’t alone. A 2019 study that evaluated more than 40,000 college students found a 33% rise in perfectionism from 1989 to 2016.

5 Ways Perfectionism Keeps You Down

1. Unrealistic goals

Perfectionists tend to set sky-high goals that aren’t attainable, which sets you up for failure. Either you fail to reach your goal, or you give up due to fear of failure. Either way, you feel like a loser.

2. Toxic thinking

People who are perfectionists are usually filled with lots of automatic negative thoughts (ANTs), especially All-or-Nothing ANTs (thinking that things are either all good or all bad) and Just the Bad ANTs (seeing only the bad in a situation). For example, if you have to create a multimedia presentation at work, you think that if it isn’t the best one ever created, it’s an abysmal failure. Those are the All-or-Nothing ANTs inside your head.

Here’s an example of how the Just the Bad ANTs can ruin your life. Let’s say you’re getting ready to go out on a first date with that really awesome person you’ve had your eye on for a while. You’re excited and you feel the need to be flawless, but as you’re getting ready, you notice that a pimple has popped up. So, the whole time you’re out to dinner, you’re so filled with obsessive thoughts about whether your date is staring at your pimple that you can’t relax and be yourself. Result? No second date.

3. Procrastination

Perfectionism often leads to paralyzing procrastination. On that report you need to write, you feel like you can’t start writing until you’ve looked up more sources, interviewed more people, and come up with the greatest introduction of all time. Before you know it, it’s the night before the deadline, and you have to bang out something to avoid being late. Now you’re berating yourself for letting it slide for so long. Once again, you feel like a failure.

4. Depression, anxiety, and suicide

Decades of research have found that perfectionism fuels mental health problems, such as anxiety, and depression. Even more disturbing is the link between perfectionism and suicide. A 2014 study in Review of General Psychology suggests that perfectionism is a bigger risk factor for suicide than previously thought. Research has found that among young people who die by suicide, nearly 70% placed high demands on themselves and had high expectations. Another study from 2007 in which researchers interviewed loved ones of people who died by suicide, over 56% of those who had taken their own lives were described as “perfectionists.”

5. Eating disorders

A number of studies, including a 2002 paper in Cognitive Therapy and Research, have found ties between self-oriented perfectionism and eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa. People with anorexia have an intense fear of gaining weight and control their intake by attempting to create a perfect diet.

How to Break Free from Perfectionism

Even if you have spent a lifetime chasing perfection, you can learn to let go of your unhealthy tendencies.

  • Learn to set realistic goals: If you need help in this arena, ask a supervisor, coworker, or friend to act as a sounding board. They are likely to be able to point out when your goals are too high.
  • Kill the ANTs: Learning to challenge the All-or-Nothing ANTs and Just the Bad ANTs that infest your brain can help you accept that doing great work—not the absolute best ever work—is good enough. Whenever you have a negative thought, recognize it and talk back to it.
  • Stop procrastinating: Don’t wait for everything to be absolutely perfect before you dive into a project. Remind yourself that it’s okay to get started now and incorporate additional materials as you go.
  • Seek help for mental health problems, including eating disorders: Getting treatment for underlying issues can help break the vicious cycle of perfectionism and anxiety, depression, and other problems.
  • Try meditation: A 2020 study found that practicing mindfulness meditation that has a nonjudgmental element can help relieve stress among perfectionists, especially following a failure. The meditation in this trial encouraged participants to focus on awareness and acceptance of bodily sensations as well as mental and emotional states, whether they perceived them as positive, negative, or neutral.

If you’re struggling with mental health issues related to perfectionism and want to join the tens of thousands of people who have already enhanced their brain health, overcome their symptoms, and improved their quality of life at Amen Clinics, speak to a specialist today at 888-288-9834. If all our specialists are busy helping others, you can also schedule a time to talk.


  1. I have this problem really bad. I’m a procrastinator to the point that I get nothing done because I’m afraid I dont have enough time to finish it perfectly so I just don’t do it at all

    Comment by This little article has really helped me. — July 13, 2020 @ 10:08 AM

  2. I do this too, I hate it so much

    Comment by Celine — August 5, 2020 @ 9:23 PM

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