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Why Perfectionism Is Unhealthy

Matthew Cuddeback LCSW

Frequently when we see a co-worker, friend, or family member working so hard at making something seemingly perfect, we often look at them with admiration and envy. However, it is important to recognize that perfectionism is often deeply rooted in a lot of unhealthy ways of thinking and problematic coping mechanisms. Let’s discuss how to be more mindful of when we are engaging in these problematic patterns and how to unpack them and build them back up in a healthier way.

Let’s start by acknowledging that there are of course some very positive things that come from trying to do things as well as you can. There is, however, a difference between trying to do something well and taking pride in putting in hard work, and an unhealthy need to make something perfect. There are a few key reasons why this can be so unhealthy, let’s look at a few:

  1. Perfection is Impossible- First and foremost, perfection is impossible. Full stop. You may be able to do a great job, an outstanding job, the best you have done yet. But it still isn’t perfect. What happens when we try to achieve perfection then if it is never actually attainable?
  2. Unattainable Goals Are Crushing- If your goal is not possible then what happens when you try so hard for it but don’t get it? It leads to doubt, depression, anger. It also often leads us in unhealthy directions, we say screw it and don’t want to even try to do well because, what’s the point? This is often where deeply unhealthy ways of thinking and acting come from.
  3. It’s Built on Avoidance- So, we can see how it is damaging to be a perfectionist, but why is the perfectionism happening? Usually because we are avoiding something. Maybe we are avoiding negative feedback or perceived negative feedback. We often try to be perfect not always because we just want to take pride in what we are doing, but because we are so worried about what it could mean if we don’t do it well, and we are uncomfortable with addressing that issue. 
  4. Underlying Insecurities- What if it’s not perfect? What does that mean about me? What if my boss, or my parents, or partner think I did a bad job? Will they all think I am stupid? Often one of the big concerns I hear is, what if I really try to do something well and fail? So maybe we should either not try or try so hard that it is crushing and exhausting. 
  5. It’s Exhausting-This one is straightforward, it is going to be exhausting and as we know, we will end up somewhere short of the unachievable perfection.

It may seem from reading this that I am saying, don’t try to do things well, but that is not at all the case. We should all try to do well and take pride in what we do, but there is a point when we go too far with this and typically it is rooted in insecurities and avoidance of deeper concerns we are not addressing. It is okay to fail, you will be just fine if you aren’t perfect with everything, with everyone, and at all times. In fact, people will also enjoy being around you even more because of it. We get too used to the idea that we need to work ourselves to exhaustion and be perfect at all times, and as a result we don’t get to enjoy the present. So, we are left with building toward something that is unobtainable, we arrive there exhausted, if we don’t reach the thing we cannot reach, we are upset with ourselves because we haven’t worked through what’s underneath, because we are avoiding it, that sounds terrible. Instead, understand what’s underneath, and do your best and you will also be able to enjoy things along the way and not be as upset when you inevitably are not perfect.

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