On the surface, perfectionism may seem harmless. After all, most of us strive to be our best every day. In reality however, perfectionism can become an outsized desire to avoid mistakes, errors, and failures that—let’s be honest—are common in life.

While not a psychological disorder in itself, perfectionism is linked to anxiety and other mental health issues, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Keep reading to discover what causes perfectionism, its connection to anxiety, and how perfectionism and mental health are related.

Possible Causes of Perfectionism

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, perfectionism may be hard-wired in your system. Moreover, this inborn trait appears to influence the way an individual sees the world.

Perfectionists tend to demonstrate a “fixed” mindset, rather than a “growth” mindset. People with growth mindsets believe in their ability to learn and grow over time. As a result, they find it easier to weather setbacks. Failure isn’t tied to their sense of self-worth. Individuals with fixed mindsets, on the other hand, believe people are born with natural talents and abilities. These individuals set exceedingly high standards and strive to avoid failure at all costs. Failure can therefore shake up how they see themselves.

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Common Signs of Perfectionism

Having high standards doesn’t automatically make someone a perfectionist. Mental health professionals tend to look at a person’s overall behavior and thought patterns to decide whether they’re a perfectionist. They look for these warning signs:

  • Striving to meet high standards
  • Need for order and neatness
  • Concern over mistakes
  • Sensitivity to criticism
  • Self-criticism

Perfectionists sometimes also set unrealistically high standards for their loved ones or other important people in their life.

Is Perfectionism a Symptom of Anxiety?

Though the exact relationship between anxiety and perfectionism is tricky to untangle, perfectionism and anxiety often go hand in hand. People who’ve been diagnosed with anxiety, for example, tend to display more perfectionistic traits than the average citizen, according to a meta-analysis published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Perfectionism can produce a flood of anxious thoughts and feelings when an individual’s performance falls below their excessively high standards. Part of the reason for this is that they connect their self-worth to their performance. In the work world, they’re prone to performance extremes, either setting unreasonably high standards or feverishly avoiding failure.

Perfectionists tend to see themselves, and life in general, through the lens of extremes — either good or bad, victory or failure. This type of extreme thinking increases anxiety. It leaves no room for the mistakes or roadblocks that are common in everyday life.

As a consequence, when things go wrong, perfectionists are more likely to dwell on their concerns, thus feeding their anxiety.

Mitigating Perfectionism

There are a number of strategies to help manage perfectionism. Many times, those struggling with their perfectionism get lost in the countless “what ifs” of the future, the many things that could go wrong. While dismissing these thoughts can provide temporary relief, some people find themselves trapped in a loop, their minds continually returning to dwell on these thoughts.

Exposure and Response Prevention (E/RP) is a thought-process which encourages individuals to recognize their fears and work to accept that life is inherently full of uncertainties. Making a conscious decision to accept the possibility of unwelcome events can help refocus your energy and thoughts onto what you do have the power to control.

Perfectionism and Your Mental Health

Research has linked perfectionism to a variety of mental health problems, including anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and several eating disorders. Perfectionism thus appears to take a toll on one’s mental wellness. Given this fact, experts believe it’s important to take into account a person’s overall mental health when addressing their perfectionist tendencies.

For more information, call UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital at 1-877-624-4100 or 412-624-1000.

Sources

The Relationship Between Perfectionism and Psychopathology: A Meta‐Analysis, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2016.

Dr. Sheila Achar Josephs. Reducing Perfectionism in Teens. Anxiety and Depression Association of America.

American Academy of Pediatrics. What Creates Perfectionism.

About UPMC Western Behavioral Health

UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital is a nationally recognized leader in mental health clinical care, research, and education. It is one of the nation’s foremost university-based psychiatric care facilities through its integration with the Department of Psychiatry of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. UPMC Western Psychiatric is the hub of UPMC Western Behavioral Health, a network of nearly 60 community-based programs providing specialized mental health and addiction care for children, adolescents, adults, and seniors throughout western Pennsylvania.