Perfectionism is often seen as a compliment trying to masquerade as a fault. When someone claims to be a perfectionist, many might not realize just how profoundly this tendency can affect mental health and wellbeing. However, as professional counsellors know, the effects of perfectionism can be far-reaching. Those with perfectionist tendencies are at a higher risk of having anxiety, depression, and of developing an eating disorder (Harnish, 2014). In addition, new research has established that perfectionism is also linked with suicide ideation, concluding that “self‐generated and socially based pressures to be perfect are part of the premorbid personality of people prone to suicide ideation and attempts” (Smith et al., 2017). Indeed, the study further noted that “Perfectionistic strivings association with suicide ideation also draws into question the notion that such strivings are healthy, adaptive, or advisable.” (Smith et al., 2017).
Researchers have noted an increase in perfectionist tendencies over the last several decades (Ruggeri, 2018). According to recent findings, “the average college student last year was much more likely to have perfectionistic tendencies than a student in the 1990s or early 2000s.” (Ruggeri, 2018).
Fortunately, a good therapist can help clients recognize and address perfectionist tendencies.
Defining Perfectionism and Understanding Its Causes
As graduates of counselling therapist schools know, perfectionism is different from a desire for excellence. “Working hard, being committed, diligent, and so on—these are all desirable features,” notes researcher Andrew Hill from York St John University (Ruggeri, 2018). However, he emphasizes that “for a perfectionist, those are really a symptom, or a side product, of what perfectionism is.
Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.” (Ruggeri, 2018) For those living with perfectionist tendencies, the ultimate goal is perfection—an impossible feat for anyone (Ruggeri, 2018). The Canadian Psychological Association notes that “Perfectionism… involves inappropriate levels of expectations and intangible goals (i.e. perfection) and a constant lack of satisfaction, irrespective of performance” (Canadian Psychological Association, 2014).
Perfectionism can be grouped into three broad categories: “demanding perfection from oneself, demanding perfection of others, and perceiving others as demanding perfection from oneself” (Hicks, 2017). These different types of perfectionism have different impacts. For example, demanding perfection from oneself has been linked to “anorexia nervosa, prolonged elevations in cardiovascular responses, and interpersonal problems reflecting over-responsibility” (Canadian Psychological Association, 2014). Demanding perfection from others—such as a romantic partner or child—on the other hand, “has been associated with relationship problems, such as poor marital satisfaction, sexual dissatisfaction, and anger toward others. (Canadian Psychological Association, 2014).
The causes behind perfectionism are complex, and include both biological and environmental factors (Ginsburg, K. R., & Kinsman, S. B., 2013) (Good Therapy, 2018). Those who had difficulty connecting with parents, who experience extreme pressure to achieve high standards in academia or sports, and who feel insecure are all at a higher risk of developing perfectionist tendencies (Ginsburg, K. R., & Kinsman, S. B., 2013) (Good Therapy, 2018). As experts have noted: “An assumption starts taking foot: If I’m perfect, I won’t be rejected, ridiculed, abused—I’ll be loved and accepted” (Baer, 2017).
Tools to Use During Your Counselling Therapist Career
Throughout your counsellor therapist career, there are many tools you can use to help clients overcome perfectionism. For many, examining the root causes of their perfectionism—be it a fear of abandonment or a traumatic past experience—can help to lessen the hold of perfectionism (Baer, 2017). Paul Hewitt, author of Perfectionism: A Relational Approach to Conceptualization, Assessment, and Treatment, notes that “Once you understand the perfectionism’s function—a way of seeking security, love, self worth—then you can understand the deeper emotional machinery underlying a behavior.” (Baer, 2017)
Unpacking feelings of neglect or inadequacy can help clients first recognize where their perfectionist tendencies come from (Baer, 2017). From there, counsellors can help clients replace unrealistic expectations with healthy ones, and substitute negative all-or-nothing statements with ones that recognize and even celebrate flaws (Baer, 2017). Self-acceptance and self-love are also important facets to overcoming feelings of perfectionism (Baer, 2017). Encouraging positive self-talk can help clients see that even without achieving perfection, they are still worthy of love, kindness, and happiness (Baer, 2017).
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Baer, D. (2017). Here’s The Profound Psychological Shift That Frees People From Perfectionism. Thrive Global. Retrieved from: https://medium.com/thrive-global/heres-the-profound-psychological-shift-that-frees-people-from-perfectionism-290dc09ad73
Canadian Psychological Association (2014). “Psychology Works” Fact Sheet: Perfectionism. Canadian Psychological Association. Retrieved from:
https://www.cpa.ca/docs/File/Publications/FactSheets/PsychologyWorksFactSheet_Perfectionism.pdf Ginsburg, K. R., & Kinsman, S. B. (2013). What Creates Perfectionism. HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved from: https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/young-adult/Pages/What-Fuels-Perfectionism.aspx
Good Therapy (2018). Perfectionism. Good Therapy. Retrieved from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/perfectionism
Harnish, A. (2014). Why Perfectionism Could Be Killing You. Health. Retrieved from: https://www.health.com/depression/why-perfectionism-could-be-killing-you
Hicks, J. (2017). Study Suggests Link Between Perfectionism and Suicide. Tonic. Retrieved from: https://tonic.vice.com/en_us/article/zmvpm9/study-suggests-link-between-perfectionism-and-suicide
Ruggeri, A. (2018). The Dangerous Downsides of Perfectionism. BBC. Retrieved from: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20180219-toxic-perfectionism-is-on-the-rise
Smith, M. M., Sherry, S. B., Chen, S., Saklofske, D. H., Mushquash, C., Flett, G. L., & Hewitt, P. L. (2017). The perniciousness of perfectionism: A meta‐analytic review of the perfectionism–suicide relationship. Journal of Personality. 86 (3), 522-542. doi: 10.1111/jopy.12333