Being A Perfectionist Is Not Good For Your Mental Health

Isn’t the dream to have the perfect life? In fact I would suggest that to some degree or another we are all a bit of a perfectionist.

I mean, who wouldn’t want the perfect life. Nobody wants to feel that they are mediocre.

Aspiring towards perfection is one thing. It’s a bit like happiness. We all aspire to be happy but sometimes things in life can be hard and we have to go through tough times. It doesn’t stop us wanting to be happy.

And aspiring to be perfect is fine when we are looking to do our very best and produce excellent results.

But, at its extreme, being a perfectionist can be a bad thing. It causes stress and results in us being unproductive. It can impact our health, self-esteem and even lead to us to being unproductive.

I know that my tendency towards perfectionisism has held me back in many areas. This is why I have explored the issue in more detail.
Learning more about it, and more what to do about it has helped me. I hope it helps you too.

The Two Types of Perfectionism

There are two types of perfectionism. The adaptive and the maladaptive perfectionist.

An adaptive perfectionist strives for high standards, works hard and gets things done.

A maladaptive perfectionist is someone who also strives hard. They have high standards. But the standards are so high that there can never be a sense of achievement or getting things done. In fact regardless of what’s achieved they are never satisfied. They struggle to appreciate what they have.

Tal Ben-Shahar (author of ‘ The Pursuit of Perfect’) writes about perfectionism. He calls an adaptive perfectionist an optimalist. It is this term that I am going to adopt.

Characteristics of a perfectionist

The Characteristics of Optimalism And Maladaptive Perfectionism?

The table below shows the characteristics and behaviours of the Perfectionist and Optimalist. Read through these and see which statements you can relate more to.

Perfectionist Optimalist  
Unrealistic high standards – if they can’t be the best, they sometimes give up   Seeks an optimal outcome based on circumstances.  Understands that there will be obstacles but is comfortable dealing with them.
Expects high standards from everyone around them   Sees the good in others doing their best
Never feels good enough even when the standard is achieved.   Has a positive internal dialogue and believes that they can do what they put their mind to.
Sees mistakes as failures and potentially hides them from others   There are no mistakes only lessons.  Learns from mistakes made and willing to improve upon them
Is averse to taking risks, preferring to stick to what is safe and known   Willing to take risks and experiment in order to learn  and experience new things
Extremes in response – something is either perfect or a complete failure   A success comes from the learning and the process not always the outcome
Exhibits tunnel vision Focuses on the whole
Inability to take feedback or criticism   Welcomes constructive criticism seeing it as an opportunity to learn and grow
Focussed on the end result.   Focusses on the process
Unable to delegate as think no-one can do it as well as you   Willing to delegate and knows that others will do the best to their ability
Needs to feel in control Enjoys spontaneity
Outlook on life is based on fear Outlook on life is positive as strives to improve
Low motivation Highly motivated as takes pleasure from satisfaction of output

Impact Of Being A Perfectionist On Mental Health

If you are an Optimalist, then your outlook on life is good as you tend to see things in reality. Life has good and bad parts. That’s the way things are.

But, if a perfectionist cannot accept when things go wrong. They will experience feelings of disappointment. This leads to unhappiness. Seeking the perfect outcome does not exist.

If you are a perfectionist then your behaviour can impact the following areas:


Being a perfectionist impacts self-esteem as self-worth is linked to what is achieved. If perfection is not achieved, then negative thinking can take over. There is also the fear that others will judge you and find you lacking. Never satisfied with achievements it can result in self-criticism and blame.


Having a fear of not being able to do something perfectly, a perfectionist will avoid it. Procrastinating on the easiest of tasks.

Inability to relax

A perfectionist is always doing something to work towards the perfect outcome. As a result, a perfectionist is unable to relax. This inability to relax causes a build-up of stress.


A perfectionist sets high standards. For themselves, and others. This leads to difficulty in personal and professional relationships. If there is also a tendency to criticise, it creates conflict.

Obsessive with Rules

For things to be perfect there have to be rules to live by which can predict the outcome. In this way, a perfectionist becomes obsessive about lists and rules. They spend more time in the planning than the execution.

Fear of failure

A fear of failure creates a high level of anxiety.

Internalises Issues

Failure for a perfectionist is a form of weakness. As a result they hide personal problems. Keeping emotions locked away is another form of stress.
But, the good news is that we can learn to change our behaviour. As I have mentioned in other articles, our mind-set is important. We are what we think. So, if we believe that we can change then becoming an Optimalist is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am a recovering perfectionist

How To Let Go Of Being A Perfectionist

There is no quick fix in relation to perfectionism. It is something that requires work over a period of time. Here I have listed some tips.

Knowing when ‘good’ is ‘good enough’

When considering your output remember that ‘good’ can, and is often good enough. Nothing is perfect. Find the good in what you are doing and celebrate that.

Set Realistic Goals

A perfectionist will often set unattainable goals. One technique that I came across when reading The Alter Ego Effect. Set a goal at three levels: good, better and best. For example say that you wanted to set a goal for meeting new people. Your goal could look like this:

  • Good: 5 people
  • Better: 10 people
  • Best: 15 people

The ultimate goal is to meet 15 people. Achieving this is above expectations. Reaching 5 people is good enough. You have met your goal. That is success!

Small Steps

Progress is all about taking one step in the right direction. It does not have to be a leap. Use small steps that are easy to complete. Easy, means that there cannot be a failure. Decide to take action immediately on something that you find easy to do. If the next task looks hard, break it down again.

Be Realistic About Outcomes

With all the best intentions in the world, not everything goes according to plan. This is another source of stress for a perfectionist. Life has a way of throwing a few curve balls. Recognising that there isn’t one perfect outcome is important. A good outcome is better than a perfect outcome that might never happen.

Everyone Makes Mistakes

For the most successful people in life I can guarantee that they were not an immediate star at what they are doing. Along the way they would have made mistakes. What differentiates them is that they learnt from the mistakes that they made. As a perfectionist, it is hard to acknowledge mistakes. The next time you make a mistake, celebrate. Not only are you human, but consider it as a learning opportunity for you to grow and to become better.


For a perfectionist it can be hard when you feel that someone is criticising you. There are always going to be people that don’t agree with what you say or what you are doing. Seek feedback in a safe manner by asking someone that you trust to be honest with you. Look for the positive in what they are saying. They are providing a fresh way of looking at things.


Letting go is very hard. A perfectionist worries that the person doing the task will not do it as well as them. But consider this. Very few people deliberately try to mess up. Delegate a small task and let the person get on with it. But remember, be clear on what outcome you are looking for.


There are two forms of perfectionism. The adaptive and maladaptive form.

Check out the characteristics that highlighted above. See which aspects you relate to and then consider that in the light of your own actions.

It is often hard to consider that our own behaviours can be the cause of our anxiety. By being honest, you can identify if you are a maladaptive perfectionist.

The good news is that you can then do something about it.

Living an imperfect life is living a real life and I for one am happy to know that I am imperfect.

So, are you a perfectionist? Are you struggling with any of the issues raised in this article? Or perhaps you have some techniques to share on how you live an ‘optimal’ life? I would love to hear from you. Please add a comment in the box below and be part of the conversation.

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About the author Alison

A qualified UK based coach with 30 years of experience in personal development.

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