Unpacking Perfectionism: Understanding Its Causes and Effects

CoachHub · 25 July 2023 · 6 min read

Perfectionism is a phenomenon that affects more people than you may realize. The concept of being a perfectionist is mentally and emotionally draining for those affected. Perfectionists are constantly trying to “get it right” and always be flawless at whatever they participate in.

Being a perfectionist goes beyond just being an overachiever. It involves setting unrealistic expectations for yourself that you want to meet at all times. When these expectations and standards are not met, the perfectionist develops a low sense of self worth, as they feel like their value is tied to their achievements and their ability to do everything perfectly.

In many young people, the rate of perfectionism has increased in the past decade. More people are holding themselves to higher standards that significantly impact the way they see themselves. It has become a source of concern because it is taking a toll on people’s mental health.

Perfectionism has spilled over to the workplace as well. While it is important to be focused and driven at work, it is important to create a distinction between achievable goals and unrealistic expectations.

This distinction is necessary because the inability of an individual to tell when they are being overly critical of themselves and their ability could lead to low self esteem which inadvertently affects the quality of work. Perfectionism ends up being counterproductive in the long run.

There are many causes of perfectionism in workers and adults. Sometimes, the causes stem from childhood or they can be planted through societal influences. Either way, it is necessary to understand the sources of perfectionism so people can figure out healthy ways of coping with disappointments and setbacks in the workplace.

Causes of Perfectionism

Perfectionism has many root causes. Sometimes, it can occur as a result of the combination of different factors.

A. Psychological factors

A person’s psychology has a big part to play in how much of a perfectionist they are. Psychological traits inherited from parents or internalized childhood experiences such as strict parents, caregivers or teachers can plant seeds of perfectionism in an individual. These seeds mature and grow as the child becomes an adult. Neurological factors also contribute to perfectionism in a person. Sometimes, the individual is unaware of these traits and may go through life expecting themselves to overcome unrealistic standards. The categories of psychological factors that could contribute to perfectionism are:

  1. Genetics
  2. Childhood experiences
  3. Neurological factors

B. Personality traits

Individuals may possess personality traits of their own that make it difficult for them to go easy on themselves. People with obsessive tendencies may have a hard time with perfectionism as they will be inclined to carry out their tasks with high standards. Some others may have a compulsive need to control everything that happens in their lives. This makes them less tolerant of mistakes. Some of the main personality traits that cause perfection in people are:

  1. High standards
  2. Obsessive-compulsive tendencies
  3. Need for control

C. Self-esteem

Self-esteem plays a big role in how much of a perfectionist an individual is. Some people find it difficult to accept that occasional failure is unavoidable in life and they internalize every instance of failure they come across. This causes them to have low self-esteem and a need to appear perfect at all times. The factors that contribute to self-esteem issues in perfectionists include:

  1. Fear of failure
  2. Need for validation

D. Environmental factors

As we grow, our environment affects our personalities more than we realize. As time passes, people tend to internalise external influences which change the way they interact with their values and morals. The influences can either be cultural or social.


Effects of Perfectionism

Perfectionism tends to crawl into every aspect of an individual’s life if left unchecked. Before you know it, it takes a toll on health and progress, causing undue setbacks.

A. Mental health

The problem with perfectionism is that it leads to higher levels of stress in individuals. Stress is a major factor behind many mental health problems. Even when there are no visible mental health problems, the low self-esteem that comes with perfectionism leads the individual to put a lot of pressure on themselves. You also become more susceptible to imposter syndrome. At the end of the day, it becomes more difficult to gain happiness from simple things.

There is also the likelihood of developing unhealthy habits or coping mechanisms that take a toll on a person’s ability to handle stress. Mental health problems that could arise as a result of perfectionism include;

  1. Anxiety
  2. Depression
  3. Eating disorders

B. Work-life balance

A perfectionist may have a very poor work-life balance due to their inability to prioritize. They may begin to relegate important aspects of their lives to the background due to their desire to surpass their unrealistic standards. Ironically, this leads to procrastination and decreased levels of productivity. This makes the person feel even more low, contributing to a lack of work-life balance. Some of the problems that could arise from this are;

  1. Burnout
  2. Relationship problems
  3. Lack of creativity

C. Physical health

Perfectionists may neglect their hygiene or their general health. Some people who develop eating disorders start to feel the effects physically. Small mistakes make them spiral or cause a feeling of stagnancy. Plus, the lack of a healthy work-life balance causes them to “forget” to take their health into consideration, leaving them susceptible to a range of physical health problems like;

  1. Insomnia
  2. Headaches
  3. Chronic stress

At the end of the day, perfectionism may cause more harm than good in an individual’s life.

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Coping Mechanisms

It can be difficult to live life as a perfectionist, especially when you feel like you always need to excel at everything. However, you can live a healthy life by using healthy coping mechanisms.

A. Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness is one of the best ways of coping with perfectionism, especially because perfectionism is often an unconscious trait. By consciously deciding that you want to cope with perfectionism in a healthy manner, you become more capable of curbing your more unrealistic tendencies. This makes it easier to cope with stress.

B. Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Therapy is a great way to cope with perfectionism. A trained therapist can guide you and draw your attention to unhealthy traits that could affect your life negatively. Through therapy, you become equipped with the knowledge you need to curb yourself when perfectionism threatens to overwhelm you.

C. Self-compassion

It is important to extend grace and kindness to yourself. This will make it easier to handle disappointments and personal failures when they occur. You need to accept that you can’t control everything about you, and you shouldn’t try to. This reduces the obsessiveness that comes with perfectionism.

D. Setting realistic goals

You also need to set realistic goals for yourself. This will ensure that you can perform to the best of your ability instead of overexerting yourself. It is difficult to excel at anything when your goals are unrealistic. Stress levels reduce when you can work towards realistic goals with a feasible plan.

Treatment Options

There are different treatment options available to help deal with perfectionism. To find out which treatment option is best for you, you need to talk to a trained professional;

A. Therapy: There are different kinds of therapy. The style used for you depends on the recommendation of a professional.

  1. Individual
  2. Group

Both types have their advantages and sometimes, a combination of the two is necessary to achieve the desired results.

B. Medication
C. Lifestyle changes


At the end of the day, it is important to remember that perfectionism can have a number of causes and it can affect a person’s life in many ways.

If you are a perfectionist, you should remember that you can seek help to develop better coping mechanisms and responses to life. This is necessary for you to become more self aware and take care of yourself effectively so you don’t push yourself to unrealistic limits.

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Samuel Olawole
Samuel Olawole is a freelance copywriter and content writer who specializes in creating exciting content across a wide range of topics and industries. When he’s not writing, you can find him traveling or listening to good music.

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