Perfectionism (Psychology Definition)

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Practical Psychology

Name a perfect person. 

Even if you think of someone who is a high-achiever, smart, accomplished, or seemingly flawless - they’re not flawless. Everyone has flaws and no one is perfect at everything.

And yet, perfectionism on the rise. From 1989-2016, self-oriented perfectionism has risen 10%. Other-oriented perfectionism has risen 16%. Socially-oriented perfectionism has risen by 33%. Some experts believe that this increase might have to do with an increase in less revered qualities, including mental illness and low self-esteem. 

What is perfectionism? What causes it? And why is it so harmful? We’ll go over all of these questions in this video. 

What Is Perfectionism? 

Perfectionism is defined as not only a belief that perfection is achievable, but that it’s important or mandatory to achieve perfection. Anything less may cause anxiety or frustration. But this comes in three different forms: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially-oriented perfectionism. 

Types of Perfectionism

Self-oriented perfectionism is the desire to be a perfect person. You believe that you must be perfect. 

Other-oriented perfectionism is the desire for others to be perfect. You feel anxious or frustrated when other people don’t meet your high standards. 

Socially-oriented perfectionism is the perception that others expect you to be perfect. You feel pressured to meet the standards that you feel other people have for you. 

Signs of Perfectionism

How do you know that you (or someone you know) is a perfectionist? Look for these signs: 

  • Sets very high goals (often seemingly impossible) 
  • Focuses on the destination, not the journey
  • All-or-nothing attitude
  • Refuses to finish a project until it is perfect (often taking up more time than others) 
  • Procrastination (refusing to start a project with the knowledge that it won’t turn out perfectly) 
  • Very critical of themselves, but defensive when taking criticism from others 

While some of these traits can help a person reach their full potential, it often leaves them feeling as though they are not enough. 

Causes of Perfectionism 

Why do people become perfectionists? Why do they strive for something that is not always achievable?  

There are many internal and external causes of perfectionism. Standardized testing, social media, and Western ideology are often considered major causes. Let’s look at why. 

Standardized Testing 

How do you define “perfect?” How do you measure “perfect?” 

The first thing you might think of is a perfect score on a test. And if you have been to a traditional school in the past couple of decades, you’ve probably taken a test and aimed for a perfect score. Standardized testing is on the rise throughout the United States, and many argue that it is leading to a rise in perfectionism. 

Just think about how much emphasis is placed on these tests. If you don’t get perfect or high scores on tests, what will happen? Your choices for colleges will be limited. Career opportunities will be limited. You won’t receive special recognition at graduation ceremonies, even if you worked really hard. 

When standardized testing is all you know about measuring performance, you might begin to apply these ideas to every area of your life. If you don’t achieve the right “scores,” you will be ignored or pushed to the side. 

Social Media 

School is not the only place where people are “scored” on their abilities to perform. Just look at social media! Likes, followers, comments, shares, views - these are all scores. A photo that only gets one like doesn’t “perform” as well as a photo that gets 5,000 likes. A photo that gets 5,000 likes on an account with 1 million followers does not “perform” as well as a photo that gets 5,000 likes on an account with 5 million followers. 

Is a photo with only one like and one view really not as valuable as a photo with 5,000 likes? Not necessarily. But is that how the person with one like views it? 


What happens when someone does not achieve perfection? What happens if their performance is lacking? What can you tell that person? 

Well, in some societies, the answer is “work harder.” That’s often the answer in American society. Americans are often raised to believe that if they work hard, they can achieve anything that they want, as long as they have the right mindset. Kids might be told that they can be anything that they want to be. 

If children are raised with the ideology that perfection is within their reach, and that any flaws are due to their inability to work hard, then they’re going to see imperfections as a problem with themselves. 

And this is why perfectionism isn’t a perfect trait to have. 

Why Perfectionism is Harmful 

Thomas Curran, a social psychologist who studies perfectionism in young people, understands that perfectionism goes deeper than getting a perfect score on a standardized test. In his 2018 TedMed talk, he says, “At its root, perfectionism is about perfecting the self. Or, more precisely, perfecting an imperfect self.” 

You see yourself as a failure.

This is the problem with perfectionism. If a perfectionist gets a perfect score on the test, it’s not anything to be celebrated. It’s simply accepted. Perfect scores are standard for a perfectionist. Anything less than a perfect score is not perfect. It’s a failure. 

When a perfectionist gets a 90 on a test, they are a failure. If they see a flaw in their morning routine or their ability to exercise every day, they are a failure. There is no room for error - only failure. 

Perfectionism kills creativity. 

Reddit user TheReccher had some advice for screenwriters who are also perfectionists: "Your job as a writer is to make your story as emotionally engaging as it can possibly be, and part of that is to minimize the flaws as much as possible, but trying to be perfect will lessen your mental health, it will destroy your objectivity, and it will make your writing worse once the law of diminishing returns starts running the other way. And here's the thing about any form of media, when we love it enough, it actually makes the flaws more charming, if we even notice them. This is not an excuse to be lazy, but you have to know when to draw the line."

This is a reminder to any creatives that searching for perfection may hold you back from putting out the art you want to create! 

Achieving perfectionism is impossible. 

People are imperfect. Routines are imperfect. No one is going to get up every single day and do everything perfectly in everyone’s eyes. That leaves perfectionists with a lot of opportunities to see themselves as failures. 

The more you tell yourself that you are a failure, the more you will feel like one. The more that you feel that you will never reach your goal of being “perfect,” the less you want to work toward that goal. 

Many psychologists believe that perfectionism shields disorders like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Perfectionism is commonly linked to mental illness and even suicidal ideation. When we break down what perfectionism is - the constant change of something that will never be in your reach - it makes sense why it leads to anguish and despair. 

Breaking Away From Perfectionism 

Fortunately, it is possible to break free from perfectionism. It takes time, and may require getting rid of limiting beliefs and replacing them with more realistic, compassionate expectations.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2020, July). Perfectionism (Psychology Definition). Retrieved from

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