Research shows that perfectionism is on the rise.
As a result, mental health conditions like anxiety and depression have also increased. This invariably impacts work performance, health, and overall life satisfaction.
But not all perfectionism is bad. There are healthy and unhealthy forms of it.
This article breaks down the differences between these two types of perfectionism. You’ll also find some advice on how you can switch your perspective from unhealthy to healthy perfectionism, which will make achieving your goals easier and more enjoyable.
What Is Healthy Perfectionism?
Healthy perfectionism is also known as adaptive perfectionism.
People who are healthy perfectionists tend to have high standards for themselves and others. They are also conscientious and willing to persist when faced with adversity.
According to this study published by the Journal of Psychosocial Nursing and Mental Health Services, healthy perfectionism is typically accompanied by other positive traits. This includes being goal-oriented and having good organization skills.
Healthy perfectionists always strive to do their best at work and in other areas of their lives. They can also bounce back if they don’t meet their goals or if something goes wrong. Though they may be disappointed at first, they don’t let that disappointment get them down for too long.
What Is Unhealthy Perfectionism?
Unhealthy perfectionism is also known as maladaptive perfectionism.
Like healthy perfectionists, unhealthy perfectionists also have high standards for themselves and others. However, they take these standards to an extreme and tend to be preoccupied with making mistakes.
This type of perfectionist may spend a lot of time reflecting on past mistakes and worrying about making new mistakes in the future. They typically question whether they're doing things correctly and worry about meeting others’ high expectations—managers, team leads, colleagues, etc.
Healthy perfectionists often have high standards in just one or two areas of their life. Perhaps they strive for perfection at work, but they’re more relaxed at home or when participating in a particular hobby.
For unhealthy perfectionists, their high standards extend into many areas of their lives, most of which are inconsequential. According to this study published by Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, having such high standards in so many different areas can lead to severe anxiety and stress.
The following are some common signs of maladaptive perfectionism:
● Frequently worrying about what others think of you.
● Putting off starting or finishing projects because you want them to be perfect.
● Never feeling satisfied with your accomplishments.
● Feeling that something only counts if it’s done perfectly.
● “Collecting” failures and mistakes in a mental archive—and ruminating on them frequently.
● Feeling frustrated with, or angry at those who don’t share your high standards.
● Being highly self-critical.
Do any of these signs sound familiar to you? If so, your perfectionism could be doing more harm than good.
Perfectionism: Nature vs Nurture
It seems that perfectionism is inherited from our ancestors and developed after we’re born. Both nature (genetics) and nurture (societal conditioning) play a role in how we experience perfectionism.
Some research suggests that there is a genetic component to perfectionism. Certain people have genetic markers that make them more prone to maladaptive perfectionism and anxiety.
On the flip side, there is research that indicates perfectionism is developed in childhood. For example, if a child is frequently told how smart they are or how good they are at something, they may develop a fixed mindset. Praising intelligence or talent implies that one's abilities are predetermined or fixed. Whereas praising work ethic leads to a growth mindset—despite setbacks, they're confident they'll improve with time and effort.
A fixed mindset can cause children—and later adults—to develop unhealthy perfectionism.
When unhealthy perfectionists with a fixed mindset run into a challenge, they may assume they're dumb and incompetent. These feelings can lead to a fear of failure, causing them to fixate on avoiding mistakes and wanting everything to be perfect.
How to Become a Healthy Perfectionist
If you struggle with unhealthy perfectionism, the good news is you can shift your mindset and become healthier. Here are some tips that can help with this:
1. Acknowledge Your Unhealthy Patterns
The first step to overcoming unhealthy perfectionism is acknowledging that your current approach is not good for your long-term health and well-being.
Maybe you’re seeing good results at work because of your perfectionism, but at what cost? If you’re constantly anxious and stressed, is it worth it?
Once you can acknowledge your unhealthy patterns, it’ll be easier for you to start making progress toward changing them.
2. Be Willing to Compromise
A willingness to compromise is key for unhealthy perfectionists who are looking to become healthier.
Accept that not everything you do will be perfect. This shift in mindset is especially important when it comes to avoiding procrastination. Maladaptive perfectionists often procrastinate. The fear of failure makes them hesitant to even start their next project.
What happens when you accept that it’s better to have an assignment be “good enough” than to not do it at all?
3. Strive to Learn from Your Mistakes
No matter how hard you try, you’re going to make mistakes from time to time.
Part of becoming a healthy perfectionist is learning from your mistakes. But don’t let them control you and leave you feeling fearful.
Healthy perfectionists recognize that mistakes happen. They also use those mistakes as educational opportunities and “fail forward.” This means they try to continue moving in the right direction and make consistent progress, even if they mess up along the way.
4. Break Up Goals and Projects
Another way to overcome unhealthy perfectionism is to break up goals and projects into smaller, more manageable chunks.
If you have a project due in one month, for example, you can divide it up into four parts and aim to complete each one by the end of every week.
This makes your project a lot easier to tackle and eliminates procrastination.
5. Implement Mindfulness Practices
As you work toward becoming a healthy perfectionist, you’ll likely experience some stress or anxiety along the way.
To combat these feelings, try implementing some mindfulness practices.
You could write in a journal about your fears and what you’re doing to overcome unhealthy perfectionism. Trying practices like meditation and yoga help, too.
6. Work with a Professional
You don’t have to go through your journey toward healthy perfectionism alone.
Working with a professional, such as a therapist or counselor, can help you to create a plan to overcome your unhealthy perfectionism.
A professional will also teach you how to skillfully cope with the stress and anxiety that comes up along the way.
Next Steps: Start Overcoming Unhealthy Perfectionism Today
After reading through this article, is your perfectionism healthy or unhealthy?
If you struggle with unhealthy perfectionism, that’s okay. Lots of people—especially ambitious professionals—are in the same boat. Follow the tips listed above and you can start managing your time better, minimizing your stress, and feeling happier and more content.
Want to learn more about escaping the perfectionism trap? Read our article: The Perfectionism Trap: Why It Kills Your Productivity and How To Overcome It.