The French writer Voltaire once famously said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Or something like that, because there seems to be some quibbling about the exact translation. But regardless, the sentiment is an important one. Why? Because perfectionism does not lead to happiness, and it can prevent us from living a life that is, quite frankly, good enough.
Perfectionists tend to have less self-compassion (something too many people are already deficient in), set unrealistic expectations for themselves (and perhaps for others) and have low self-esteem. Again, not a recipe for happiness.
In case you don’t believe me, research shows that perfectionism is considered a risk factor for depression, social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. It also has links to generalized anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s also a risk factor for eating disorders and, once someone has an eating disorder, perfectionistic tendencies make it more difficult to recover.
But wait, there’s more. Research also suggests that when someone is dissatisfied with their body, perfectionism is likely what drives them to adopt dieting and other disordered eating behaviors, especially if they believe that their self-worth lies in their physical appearance. (I know…shocking.) Studies of interventions that address perfectionism show that they can be an effective way to reduce disordered eating.
But is perfectionism always bad? Not necessarily.
Types of perfectionism
The Psychology Today article, “Which type of perfectionist are you?” talks about adaptive and maladaptive forms of perfectionism:
- Adaptive perfectionists strive for success, have high standards, and get things done on time – but they also work within the boundaries of their strengths and weaknesses.
- Maladaptive perfectionists are so fixated on being “perfect” that nothing they do is ever good enough and they may avoid certain tasks or activities because they fear they won’t do them perfectly.
The article also mentions another theory that there are three forms of perfectionism: self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed.
- Self-oriented perfectionism is similar to adaptive perfectionism, but it is also associated with risk of eating disorders.
- Other-oriented perfectionism means you hold other people to very high standards and are very judgmental and critical of other people’s performances.
- Socially prescribed perfectionism is when you feel pressure to be perfect in everything you do, and indeed your self-worth is tangled up in these unrealistically high standards. This can lead to a lot of performance anxiety.
Raise your hand if you can identify all three of these perfectionist types among your friends, family or co-workers – and maybe in yourself. I feel fortunate that while I am a perfectionist, my tendencies skew more towards self-oriented and adaptive. That said, I’m sometimes cautious about trying something new if I don’t think I’ll do it well. And if I notice a typo in something I’ve written, despite trying hard to sleuth them out, I feel momentarily sick to my stomach…before I remind myself that I am careful and conscientious and that everyone makes mistakes (this is where a self-compassion practice comes in handy). However, I also find that as I get older I care a lot less about other people’s expectations!
Perfectionism on the rise
Unfortunately, perfectionism has been increasing. A 2019 study found that between 1989 and 2016, cultural changes in the U.S., Canada and the UK that emphasize “competitive individualism” have lead to a steady increase in perfectionism among college students. The researcher saw increases in self-oriented, other-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. And I somehow doubt that this trend is limited to college students only.
Ironically, there’s been research comparing the pursuit of excellence with the pursuit of perfectionism, especially among college students, and found that pursuing perfection (so, striving to go above and beyond “excellence”) reduces life satisfaction, increases risk of depression, and actually leads to lower grades and academic performance over time. It’s also a killer of creativity, since people who pursue excellence remain open to experience and are better able to generate original thoughts.
Perfectionism and diet culture
I will also say that I see a LOT of perfectionism in my clients, and much of it is tied to diet culture. Specifically, the belief that if they don’t control their eating and their body shape/size, they have failed and will be viewed as failures by others. These beliefs can still have a tenacious hold even when someone intellectually knows that intentional weight loss isn’t sustainable, that weight does not equal health, and that cultivating a more peaceful relationship with food and their bodies would increase their well-being. Here are some ways I see this perfectionism manifesting:
- Black-or-white (aka all-or-nothing) thinking. This includes beliefs like “I have to eat perfectly to be a healthy eater” or “exercise doesn’t ‘count’ if I don’t do it for at least 30 minutes” or “I ate when I wasn’t hungry…I’m failing Intuitive Eating.”
- Catastrophic thinking. This is worst-case-scenario thinking. For example, “If I don’t lose weight, I’m afraid my health will suffer” or “I am afraid people will judge me because I gained weight” or “If I allow myself ice cream, I might eat the entire pint.”
- Probability overestimation. This is an amplification of catastrophic thinking. In other words, overestimating the likelihood that the worst-case scenario will happen. This includes thoughts like, “If I don’t lose weight, I will get diabetes” or “When I go to that party/visit my family, everyone is going to judge me for gaining weight” or “If I allow myself ice cream, I will absolutely eat the entire pint.”
- Should/shouldn’t statements. Ahh…so many shoulds. “I should be able to control my weight.” “I should weigh what I weighed 30 years ago.” “I should exercise every day.” “I should be able to stop eating when I’m full.” “I shouldn’t eat for comfort.”
Of course, these manifestations can be true of perfectionism in any context, not just in the context of diet culture.
Perfectionism, procrastination, paralysis
When we have exacting standards for ourselves, we might find ourselves procrastinating – delaying potential failure. Or, we might become paralyzed, unable to decide on a course of action because it might not be the “perfect” course of action (or, even if it is, WE might fail at it).
This is something see in many of my clients. They don’t do their between session “homework,” or they put it off until the day before we next meet. Of course, we talk about this (with zero judgement on my part), and often it comes down to fear of doing intuitive eating “wrong,” similar to how they feel they have “failed” at dieting. So they put off even trying.
I also see clients trying to choose the “perfect” food to satisfy them in the moment, then because they can’t decide (paralysis) they just grab whatever, or even delay eating to the point that they become ravenously hungry (procrastination). A good reminder that sometimes good enough is good enough.
Or, they might not fill out their pre-session “how did the last two weeks go” form because they aren’t sure of the “perfect” thing to say.
I see you, I hear you, I feel you, my dear perfectionists!
The self-compassion “cure”
There can be a lot of shame tied up in perfectionism, both shame when we feel we didn’t do something well enough (state shame) and shame that we feel like we are never good enough (trait shame). Self-compassion is the antidote to shame. When self-compassion goes up, shame goes down, and vice versa.
As psychologist Christopher Germer, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion (CMSC), explained it in a recent online workshop I took from him and CMSC co-founder Kristen Neff, shame comes from the fear that we won’t be loved or aren’t worthy of love. (And if you’re a perfectionist, that may look like “If I’m not perfect, no one will love me.) If you imagine a coin, shame is on one side, but if you flip it over you will see the fear of not being loved on the other.
Research shows specifically that self-compassion can reduce perfectionism, especially maladaptive perfectionism. Ironically, research also shows that perfectionists struggle to respond to themselves with self-compassion in part because they find it difficult. (If you’re a perfectionist, especially a maladaptive perfectionist, and you find that something feels difficult, what do you probably do? Avoid trying it again!)
Part of self-compassion is recognizing that our needs are just as important as others’ needs, because one core component of self-compassion is common humanity (the other two are self-kindness and mindfulness).
This can be hard to fully accept and internalize, especially for women, who are socialized to be tender and nurturing and to put the needs of others first. Adding socially prescribed perfectionism to that can create real fears that not putting other people’s needs first means “I’m a failure and will be judged.”
As Neff says, self-compassion gives ourselves permission to do a U-turn and show ourselves the care and kindness we give others.
Self-compassion vs. self-esteem
Perfectionists may derive their self-esteem from being perfect, which often includes being the best, or the top of the heap. So when, inevitably, they aren’t perfect, or someone is perceived as better, then their self-esteem takes a nose dive. That’s why self-compassion is better than self-esteem – self-esteem is a fair-weather friend, while self-compassion is a stable, constant friend. Self-esteem is predicated on being better than everyone, while self-compassion is predicated on the fact that we are all human, that we will all mess up sometimes, and that we are all worthy as we are.
When you are having a tough time, maybe because you made a mistake or “screwed up,” can you make room for those feelings? Can you see that while that mistake is a part of you, it is only one part of you? That’s tender self-compassion. But fierce self-compassion can help, too, by helping us stand up for ourselves. For example:
- Setting boundaries around our time and energy so we can do our best (going for excellent, not perfect) at what’s most important to us without burning out. (Burnout is a real risk of perfectionism.)
- Meeting our own needs, because we count, too. (This also helps us be more resilient.)
- Knowing that we are worthy (Period. Full stop.) regardless of if we don’t measure up to someone’s (quite possibly unfair or unrealistic) standards.
Now, some self-compassion resources
The links in this post are to other posts I’ve written about self-compassion, so I recommend you check them out. If you want even more help exploring self-compassion, here are some excellent resources:
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Carrie Dennett is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health.