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Perfectionism is a tendency not to see a task or project as worthwhile unless the end product is perfect.

What is Perfectionism?

In the field of mental health, perfectionism is viewed as a personality trait. While most people engage in perfectionist behavior from time to time, true perfectionists are unable to perform a task unless they know they can do it perfectly. Rather than focusing on the process of learning or simply aiming to complete a task to the best of their ability, people with perfectionism see the end product as the most important part of any undertaking.

Perfectionism can lead to procrastination because many people who are perfectionistic do not want to begin a task until they know they can do it perfectly. Some perfectionists take an excessive amount of time to do a task. For example, a person experiencing perfectionism might spend three hours sweeping the kitchen in the hopes of removing every trace of dust. There is a correlation between obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), obsessive-compulsive personality, and perfectionism, but not all perfectionistic people have OCD and not all people with OCD are perfectionists.

Examples of Perfectionistic Behavior

Most people want to achieve success, so working hard or excelling at pursuits are not necessarily indicative of perfectionistic behavior. Instead, perfectionistic people are plagued by the belief that nothing they do is worthwhile if it is not perfect. Instead of being proud of progress, learning, or hard work, they might constantly compare their work to other people's work or be fixated on achieving flawless output.


Some examples of perfectionism might include:

  • Spending 30 minutes writing and rewriting a two-sentence email to make it perfect.
  • Believing that missing two points on a test is a sign of failure.
  • Being unable to be happy when other people achieve things you want.
  • Comparing yourself unfavorably and unrealistically to others; for example, a writer might feel bad because he/she is not as good as Ernest Hemingway.
  • Focusing on the end product rather than the process of learning.
  • Believing that anything less than a perfect or ideal outcome is not worth achieving.

What Causes Perfectionism?

A number of factors can contribute to the development of perfectionism. Anxiety and insecurity can lead to perfectionist behavior. Children of parents who are perfectionistic are more likely to become perfectionists themselves, and people with a history of high achievement sometimes feel overwhelming pressure to live up to previous achievements, leading to perfectionist behavior.

How is Perfectionism Treated?

Perfectionism can be measured using the Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale, and this scale can provide mental health professionals with insight into the specific sources of perfectionism; a person might be a perfectionist in one domain but not another. Therapy is particularly helpful in treating perfectionism because it helps people experiencing the condition to re-frame their thoughts in such a way that perfection is not the end goal of each undertaking.


  1. Perfectionism. (n.d.). University of Illinois Counseling Center. Retrieved from http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=113
  2. Rettner, R. (n.d.). The dark side of perfectionism revealed. LiveScience.com. Retrieved from http://www.livescience.com/6724-dark-side-perfectionism-revealed.html
  3. Szymanski, J. (2011, October 3). Perfectionism: Healthy or hurtful? Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Retrieved April 30, 2013, from http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/10/is_perfectionism_helping_or_hu.html



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Last updated: 05-02-2014


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