Dear Therapist:

I have been told for a while by others that I have "perfectionistic" tendencies. I am bh doing very well but I do have a significant amount of stress in my life. I struggle with the idea of "perfectionism" being a bad thing. Shouldn't we always be looking for growth, excellence, and to be the best we have to be? What is the difference between healthy and unhealthy perfectionism and how does one tell the difference?



As with many things in life, perfectionism exists on a spectrum. To further complicate matters, the degree to which perfectionism is positive or negative depends on a number of factors, like specific needs, individual reactions to stress, and types of responsibilities. What these factors all have in common is their relationship to one’s environment; they all refer to ways in which perfectionism exists with reference to outside pressures.

When confronted with external forces, most of us automatically react based on the need. Sometimes the need requires a large degree of specificity (or “perfectionism”). At other times, perfectionism can be detrimental (as when a particular task calls for speed over accuracy). For the most part, we are able to quickly analyze each situation, allowing us to determine the necessary amount of “perfectionism.” Really, this is simply identifying how much accuracy is required based on factors like level of importance, necessity for speed, and risk-reward.

For some, it can be difficult to distinguish between tasks that require great attention to detail and those that do not. This can certainly lead to mental and emotional overload. Aside from the emotional issues, it typically also leads to an eventual decrease in productivity. Sometimes it even leads to what used to be known colloquially as a “nervous breakdown.” When perfectionism causes trouble keeping up with other aspects of life (emotional needs, relationships, family time, etc.) we should examine our priorities to verify that they do not need tweaking.

I believe that the most important, and insidious, aspect of perfectionism has nothing to do with external factors or needs. The need for much perfectionism is caused by an underlying, emotional need. This is often the need for control, and for approval. As with many emotional needs, the root cause is often a lack of self-esteem. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, we can feel the need to always be in control, in order to prove to others—and ultimately to ourselves—that we are worthy.

Of course, deciding whether your perfectionism is a problem is more complicated than I could possibly cover in this response. However, there are a few clues that might help you to begin contemplating this. Consider whether you try to be perfect in only certain areas or if it is a more general way of doing everything (perhaps the way that you generally think). If the former, ask yourself whether the possible reward is worth the cost (time, effort, loss of family time, etc.). If you strive to be perfect in most areas of life, try and understand your true motivation. Is it a “want” (something that you truly enjoy and believe is a positive thing) or a “need,” motivated, at least in part by insecurity or another emotional pull.

I don’t know who has told you that you tend to be a perfectionist. If these are people in your life who are affected by such perfectionism (like your boss, spouse, and children) it may be important to at least acknowledge the impact that it may have on them. If it has simply been offhand remarks by people who (perhaps even somewhat admiringly) pointed this out as an observation, it comes down to your own needs. If your tendency toward perfectionism isn’t harming you either practically or emotionally—and is, as you put it, related to your pursuit of growth, excellence, and to be your best—well…what’s the problem?

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


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