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Dysfunctional perfectionism: causes, symptoms and treatment

Dysfunctional perfectionism: causes, symptoms and treatment

September 26, 2022

Does it cost you to enjoy doing nothing? Do you feel guilty for not doing what, according to you, you should have done? Do you think you should be able to do things better?

Have you never been satisfied with the things you do? When you get something you have proposed, are you only able to enjoy it for a short period of time? Do you criticize yourself if you do not reach the goal? What have you marked yourself? Do you pay too much attention to your mistakes? Do you feel unsuccessful if you do not achieve what you propose? Do you tend to leave things for tomorrow or the last day?

If you have answered yes to most of these questions, it is very possible that this article interests you, since you could have fallen for dysfunctional perfectionism . A phenomenon that, despite not being a mental disorder in itself, can lead to serious headaches.


  • Related article: "Perfectionist personality: the disadvantages of perfectionism"

What is dysfunctional perfectionism?

The dysfunctional perfectionism (in English, "maladaptative perfectionism"), is the establishment and the effort to fulfill some quality standards too demanding (high goals) for oneself, which are self-imposed and relentlessly persecuted despite the suffering they generate.

It consists of focusing on errors rather than on the process and progress of the task, being excessively self-critical when the goals are not met (even calling the achievement achieved a failure) and assessing the achievement of the goals in terms of all or nothing (things are done either "right" or "wrong"). In addition, the perfectionist persists despite the occurrence of adverse consequences (social isolation, insomnia, depression ...).


Finally, it is about basing one's self-esteem almost exclusively on how well these high goals are pursued or achieved. This means that the self-esteem of these people is very fragile and changing: One day they can feel competent and happy to have achieved their goals, and the next day feel inept or unsuccessful and think that "they are not worth" .

Areas of life in which one can be a perfectionist

Perfectionism can be present in every aspect of life. Some people will only be perfectionists in an area, such as work, but the most common is to have several vital focuses in which perfectionism comes to light.


Let's see some examples, in which you may feel identified:

  • Work and / or studies : do not make any mistake at work, pretend to be the best, know everything, devote a lot of time to tasks so they are as perfect as possible ...
  • Sport and exercise : get a certain body (thin, slender, muscular ...), dedicate superhuman efforts to get it, go every day to the gym religiously to achieve that goal, swim at least X kilometers a day ...
  • Physical appearance and / or weight : devote a lot of effort to take care of the physical appearance, weigh less than "X" kilos, be always the latest in fashion, be perfectly combed and make-up ...
  • Personal hygiene : be always clean and at all costs.
  • Friendships and social relations : be the best friend, always be there unconditionally despite your own problems or obligations, always be "interesting and fun".
  • Music and other hobbies : dedicate hours and hours to try to compose the best music song of the last century, discard what has been composed because "it is not good enough".
  • Appearance of a person's house : excessive concern when guests come home, having the house completely tidy and clean, concern for what the guests may think ...
  • Child care : concern and efforts to be the best father or mother in the world.
  • Intellect : pretending to know everything perfectly, forcing yourself to read about especially complex topics ...

In short, any area that is important to that person. When dysfunctional perfectionism affects a hobby, like music, it can become a focus of anxiety and not pleasure. From the moment in which the activity is carried out to achieve a very demanding (and often unrealistic) objective and the process itself is not enjoyed, the activity can lose the playful and pleasant connotation it once had.


Most important components of dysfunctional perfectionism

According to Shafran, Egan and Wade (2010), the essential components of dysfunctional perfectionism are:

  • Very high, demanding and self-critical quality standards
  • Efforts to meet high standards despite the negative effects on the person (suffering)
  • Basing self-evaluation in the achievement or approach to these standards
  • Low tolerance to failure and / or errors, with corresponding excessive self-criticism
  • Cognitive rigidity
  • Attention bias towards the negative: they identify all the details that they have done wrong or that have moved them away from the high standard. When the perfectionist objective is reached, it is not usually taken into account or tends to be minimized
  • Frequently they call themselves "fraud" or "failure as a person"

What are the goals or high standards?

The establishment of goals and goals in life is something totally natural, and even adaptive, but in the case of perfectionist people it can be a problem . It must be considered this way because by not achieving these goals perfectionists can criticize themselves in a very unfair way, as if they live a life of penance and self-flagellation, and persist in their efforts despite suffering. The concept of "high goal" is very relative, because what may be demanding for one may not be for another (eg, for one to swim 4 kilometers a day can be very demanding and demanding, but for Mireia Belmonte it can be easy peasy). What must be clear is that a standard is high when it is self-imposed by the person with perfectionism, is perceived as demanding (requires much effort and sacrifice) and pursued rigidly. But, If I set myself high standards does it mean that I tend to dysfunctional perfectionism? It is important to clarify that it is not enough that there are personally demanding standards to speak of dysfunctional perfectionism; A person can feel satisfaction working to achieve these standards and allow themselves to be flexible with their goals when the situation requires it (Shafran, Cooper and Fairburn, 2002).

Negative consequences of dysfunctional perfectionism

Below we will detail the most frequent negative consequences:

  • Emotional : depression (sadness, low mood in general) and anxiety (restlessness and stress).
  • Social : social isolation, loss of friends, competitiveness for being the best.
  • Limited interests : focused almost solely on one task (eg, focused on work and not leaving time to socialize) and limit pleasurable activities because they do not allow pursuing high goals (eg, never read or watch a series without more objective what to enjoy)
  • Physicists : exhaustion, muscle tension, digestive problems.
  • Cognitive : Rumination is frequent (think of mistakes made over and over again, review them, self-criticize for not having amended them in time), low concentration.
  • Behavioral : checks to detect errors, repetition of tasks, excessive time to do something, procrastination ...

One of the most noticeable global consequences is low self-esteem. That is, perfectionism is not the cause of low self-esteem, but rather "feeds" it. It is more likely that a person with low self-esteem will take refuge in perfectionism to excel in something and thus be valued positively by himself and by others.


Relationship with procrastination or postponement

Procrastination, the habit of postponing tasks until the last moment, it is a very frequent behavior among perfectionists. The reasons why it is postponed are several:

  • Worry and fear of making mistakes or doing it wrong.
  • To think that the activity will require a lot of time due to our self-demand.
  • Concern about not being able to do the perfect things.
  • If things do not go as one would like, one can always resort to the old excuse of "I left it for the last moment, so it has not gone all the way I would like, not because I am not capable".

Is there treatment?

You have to bear in mind that dysfunctional perfectionism is not a disorder and, consequently, there is no specific treatment to manage it. However, one can speak of psychological intervention aimed at modifying the habits and beliefs on which it is based.


As each person has his own reasons for falling into extreme perfectionism, personalized attention is needed to modify the way we relate to our expectations; in this sense, the intervention based on cognitive-behavioral models it is usually the most used option, since it influences both the internalized ideas and the observable acts of everyday life.

Bibliographic references:

  • Shafran, R., Cooper, Z. and Fairburn, C.G. (2002). Clinical perfectionism: a cognitive-behavioral analysis. Behavior Research and Therapy, 40, 773-791.
  • Shafran, R., Egan, S. and Wade, T. (2010). Overcoming perfectionism: A self-help manual using cognitive-behavioral techniques. London: Robinson.
  • Egan, S.J., Wade, T.D., Shafran, R. and Antony, M.M. (2014). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. New York: Guilford.

Why perfectionists become depressed | Dr Keith Gaynor (September 2022).


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