What Causes Perfectionism? Getting to the Root Cause

Last Updated on February 10, 2024 by Milton Campbell

Perfectionism is a mindset that many individuals struggle with, and it often leads to stressful and unfulfilling experiences. Perfectionism can be caused by a variety of factors, including maladaptive tendencies, fear of failure, and low self-esteem.

In this article, we will explore what causes perfectionism and its effects on mental health. We will also provide insights and techniques on how to shift the perfectionistic mindset and overcome the tendencies associated with it, leading to a more productive and fulfilling life.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is not simply the pursuit of excellence or having high standards; it is a complex personality trait characterized by an unrelenting desire to achieve flawlessness in every aspect of life. Perfectionists often set unrealistic expectations for themselves and others, striving for an unattainable level of perfection.

Perfectionism stems from a deep fear of making mistakes or falling short of expectations. Perfectionists have an intense need for control and may display rigid thinking patterns. They often view any deviation from perfection as failure, leading to feelings of frustration, anxiety, and self-doubt.

It is essential to distinguish between healthy striving for excellence and the detrimental effects of perfectionism. Although both share a desire for success, healthy striving allows flexibility, recognizes limitations, and values progress over perfection. Perfectionism, on the other hand, can be mentally and emotionally exhausting, hindering personal growth and overall well-being.

Perfectionistic tendencies can manifest in various aspects of life, such as work, relationships, and personal achievements. Perfectionists constantly evaluate their performance, often measuring their self-worth and success solely based on the attainment of perfection.

Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by setting high and often unattainable standards for oneself, accompanied by a strong fear of failure or making mistakes. While striving for excellence can be positive, perfectionism can have negative impacts on mental health and overall well-being. Here are some signs that may indicate perfectionistic tendencies:

  1. All-or-Nothing Thinking: Perfectionists tend to think in black and white terms, believing that anything less than perfect is a failure. They struggle with finding a middle ground or accepting anything less than their high standards.
  2. Excessive Self-Criticism: Perfectionists are highly self-critical, constantly finding flaws and mistakes in their own work, appearance, or performance. They often have an inner voice that is harsh and unforgiving.
  3. Fear of Failure: Perfectionists have an intense fear of making mistakes or failing. This fear of failure can be paralyzing, leading to procrastination or avoidance of new experiences that may involve a risk of not meeting their own high standards.
  4. Unrealistic Expectations: Perfectionists set extremely high expectations for themselves and others, which are often difficult or impossible to achieve. They may have rigid and inflexible standards that leave no room for error or imperfection.
  5. Perfectionism in Relationships: Perfectionists may have high expectations and standards in their relationships, leading to difficulties in accepting imperfections in others. They may also fear being judged or rejected if they are not perfect in their interactions and relationships.
  6. Procrastination: While it may seem contradictory, perfectionists often struggle with procrastination. The fear of not being able to meet their high standards or the belief that they cannot produce perfect work may lead them to delay or avoid starting tasks altogether.
  7. Extreme Attention to Detail: Perfectionists have a strong focus on details and may spend excessive amounts of time on small tasks, ensuring every aspect meets their high standards. This attention to detail can often lead to an excessive amount of time spent on a single task or project.
  8. Negative Impact on Well-being: Perfectionism is associated with increased stress, anxiety, and even depression. The constant pressure to meet and exceed unrealistic standards can impact mental and physical health.

Recognizing these signs of perfectionism is an important step in managing its negative impact. By developing self-awareness and implementing strategies such as self-compassion, challenging negative thoughts, setting realistic goals, and seeking support, individuals can reduce the negative effects of perfectionism and cultivate a healthier mindset.

In the next sections, we will delve into the causes of perfectionism and the effects it has on mental health, as understanding these aspects is crucial for overcoming this challenging mindset.

Causes of Perfectionism

Low Self-Esteem and Need for Self-Worth

One of the underlying causes of perfectionism is low self-esteem. Perfectionists often tie their self-worth to their achievements and how others perceive them. They believe that by being perfect, they can gain approval and validation, which boosts their self-esteem. However, this constant need for external validation becomes a never-ending cycle as they continuously strive for perfection.

Fear of Failure and Unrealistic High Expectations

Perfectionists often have an intense fear of failure. They equate any minor setback or mistake with personal inadequacy. This fear drives them to set impossibly high standards for themselves, constantly striving to avoid making any errors. The belief is that perfection will shield them from criticism or disappointment. However, these unrealistic expectations can lead to stress, anxiety, and a constant sense of pressure.

Maladaptive Perfectionistic Tendencies

Perfectionistic tendencies can develop as a maladaptive coping mechanism in response to various factors. Childhood experiences, such as overly critical parents or demanding academic environments, can contribute to the development of perfectionistic traits. Environmental factors, such as societal pressure or the influence of media portraying flawless images of success, can also fuel perfectionistic tendencies.

Striving for Control and Certainty

Perfectionists often feel a strong need for control and certainty in all aspects of life. They believe that by achieving perfection, they can minimize uncertainty and ensure things go according to their plans. This need for control can be driven by a fear of the unknown or a fear of disappointing others. However, the relentless pursuit of control can hinder their ability to adapt to changing circumstances and can lead to increased stress and anxiety.

In the next section, we will explore the effects of perfectionism on mental health and well-being.

Effects of Perfectionism on Mental Health

Perfectionism can have significant effects on mental health, often leading to various psychological and emotional challenges. Here are some of the common effects:

Anxiety and Stress

Perfectionists frequently experience heightened levels of anxiety and stress due to the constant pressure they place on themselves. The fear of making mistakes or falling short of their own unrealistic expectations can lead to chronic worry and a sense of never feeling good enough.


Perfectionism has been closely linked to an increased risk of depression. Constantly striving for an unattainable level of perfection can be emotionally draining and leave individuals feeling hopeless and overwhelmed. The relentless pursuit of flawlessness can rob them of joy and satisfaction, contributing to feelings of sadness and emptiness.

Relationship Difficulties

Perfectionism can strain relationships, as the high expectations perfectionists set for themselves often extend to those around them. They may hold others to the same impossible standards, leading to tension and dissatisfaction. Additionally, constant self-criticism and a fear of vulnerability can hinder genuine connections and intimacy.

Burnout and Procrastination

The perfectionistic tendency to constantly strive for perfection can lead to burnout. Perfectionists often overwork themselves, sacrificing their well-being and personal lives in an effort to meet their own sky-high standards. On the other hand, the fear of failure can sometimes result in procrastination, as perfectionists may avoid starting tasks to avoid the possibility of not meeting their own expectations.

Decreased Self-Esteem and Self-Worth

Ironically, perfectionists’ pursuit of flawless performance can actually erode their self-esteem and self-worth. Since they tie their self-worth to their achievements, any perceived failure or mistake can deeply impact how they perceive themselves. This constant self-criticism can lead to a negative self-image, reinforcing the cycle of perfectionism.

Understanding the effects of perfectionism on mental health is crucial in developing strategies to overcome it. In the following section, we will explore techniques to shift the perfectionistic mindset and promote a healthier approach to personal growth and success.

Mindset Shift to Overcome Being a Perfectionist

Overcoming perfectionism requires a deep mindset shift, as it is a significant personality trait that has been deeply ingrained over time. Here are some techniques to help shift the perfectionistic mindset and promote a healthier approach to life.

Practice Self-Compassion

Self-compassion involves treating oneself with kindness and understanding. Perfectionists often hold themselves to extremely high standards and can be overly critical when they fall short. Practicing self-compassion involves recognizing and acknowledging that everyone makes mistakes, and treating oneself with the same kindness and understanding as one would offer a close friend.

Challenge Negative Thinking Patterns

Perfectionism often involves rigid thinking patterns characterized by negative self-talk and self-defeating beliefs. It is essential to challenge and reframe these negative patterns to overcome perfectionism. This can involve identifying and questioning negative beliefs, replacing them with more positive and realistic ones, and focusing on progress rather than unattainable perfection.

Embrace Imperfection

One of the main steps in overcoming perfectionism is accepting that imperfection is a part of the human experience. Embracing imperfection involves identifying and challenging the unattainable standards and recognizing that mistakes and failures are opportunities for learning and growth.

Set Realistic Goals and Priorities

Perfectionists often set unrealistic goals and priorities for themselves, leading to continuous stress and burnout. Setting realistic goals and priorities involves identifying what is truly essential and necessary, and then setting achievable and measurable goals that align with those priorities.

Seek Support

Seeking support from friends, family, or mental health professionals can be crucial in overcoming perfectionism. Perfectionism can be isolating, and intentionally seeking connections with supportive individuals or professional help can provide support, guidance, and perspective.

Coping with Maladaptive Perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism is a personality trait that can lead to significant mental health challenges and difficulties in daily life. Here are some coping strategies that can help manage the negative consequences of maladaptive perfectionism:

Modify Behavior

Awareness is the first step in modifying behavior and overcoming maladaptive perfectionism. Recognizing the negative effects of striving for perfectionism and the unrealistic standards that come with it is an important step towards change. By modifying the behavior and taking small steps towards realistic goals, individuals can gain more control over their perfectionistic tendencies and the anxiety that comes with it.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice that involves paying attention to the present moment and accepting it without judgment. By focusing on the present moment and accepting it as it is, individuals can reduce the constant worry and anxiety they experience from perfectionism. Mindfulness practice can help develop self-awareness and self-compassion, which are essential qualities in managing maladaptive perfectionism.

Change the Focus

Maladaptive perfectionists tend to focus on what they did wrong or what could have gone better instead of celebrating their success. It is essential to shift the focus to what you did right and not be too hard on yourself for your shortcomings. Acknowledging your progress and achievements, focusing on the positive aspects of your efforts, and celebrating small victories can help shift the focus away from the unattainable standard of perfection.

Open Up to Others

Perfectionists often find it hard to admit to their imperfections or ask for help, which can lead to isolation. It is essential to open up to others about your struggles and seek support. Having someone to talk to can provide perspective and emotional support, reducing the stress and anxiety that come with perfectionist tendencies.

Seek Professional Help

In some cases, maladaptive perfectionism can have a significant negative impact on mental health. Seeking professional help through therapy or counseling can provide guidance, support, and tools to manage maladaptive perfectionism. A mental health professional can help identify negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with perfectionism and provide guidance on how to manage it effectively.

In summary, maladaptive perfectionism is a personality trait that can lead to various mental health challenges and affect daily life. By modifying behavior, practicing mindfulness, changing the focus, opening up to others, and seeking professional help, individuals can manage maladaptive perfectionism and prevent it from negatively impacting their lives.

Conclusion Getting to the Root Cause of Perfectionism

In conclusion, perfectionism can have detrimental effects on mental health, but it is possible to overcome it through self-compassion, challenging negative thinking patterns, and seeking support.

By embracing imperfection and setting realistic goals, individuals can break free from the cycle of unattainable standards and live a more fulfilling and balanced life.