The Flawed Nature of Perfectionism

A common theme among people with anxiety and depression includes the tendency to have a highly critical self, while striving for perfection. Because of the strictness of perfectionists' way of thinking, they are generally under much distress.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic has substantially heightened anxiety and stress around the globe, this atmosphere is particularly difficult for those who strive for perfection, whether it is stemming from themselves, other people, or their life roles (Flett & Hewitt, 2020).

“That is, perfectionism is problematic at the best of times, but it is especially problematic during the worst of times, and arguably, right now is the worst of times for billions of people” (Flett & Hewitt, 2020). “Life is restricted and lives are at risk.”

Perfectionism has an adaptive side to it (Flett & Hewitt, 2020). "On a positive note, perfectionists are likely well represented among those people who are being conscientious and trying to do the right thing to limit their personal exposure and do their part in stopping the spread of COVID-19." However the strive for perfection can lead to "excessive devotion to work " and emotional as well as physical burnout, which can "prolong and exacerbate emotional distress."

"It is tragic when people with enormous talent never get to enjoy their accomplishments because they evaluate themselves and others according to exacting standards" (Flett & Hewitt, 2020). One consideration is to replace "striving for perfect" with "striving for excellence".

In a study of medical students' psychological distress, it was determined that perfectionism and impostor phenomenon were the strongest predictors of anguish (Henning, 1998). Both constructs include "setting and attempting to attain unrealistic goals for oneself" (Thomas & Bigatti,2020). Those who exhibit imposter syndrome and those who strive for perfection both have similar cognitive distortions and engage in "all-or-nothing mentality and overgeneralize mistakes". Perfectionists strive for nothing less than perfection, a need for approval, and tend to ruminate.

Perfectionism can lead to anxiety, depression, poor sleep, low self-esteem, stress, and burnout (Kilmen & Arikan, 2019). There is also a correlation between perfectionism, disordered eating, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Research also shows perfectionism is playing an increasing role in suicide risk (Flett, Hewitt & Heisel, 2014). Concealing and "silencing the self" are also linked to perfectionism which amplifies the risk for suicide. Those perfectionists who mask often hide "behind a self-presentation of high achievement and apparent invulnerability" (Flett, Hewitt & Heisel).

The Big Three Perfectionism Scale developed by Smith (2016) is a validated inventory that measures three factors: self-critical perfectionism, rigid perfectionism, and narcissistic perfectionism.

Those who identify as self-critical perfectionists have "four facets called concern over mistakes, doubts about actions, socially prescribed perfectionism, and self-criticism" (Kilmen & Arikan, 2019). Rigid perfectionism includes "two facets: self-oriented perfectionism and self-worth contingencies." The narcissistic perfectionism factor has "four facets: Other-oriented perfectionism, hypercriticism, entitlement, and grandiosity" (Kilmen & Arikan).

Can perfectionism be altered?

"The self-criticism that pervades perfectionism needs to be removed and replaced by unconditional self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness" (Flett & Hewitt, 2020). When failures are perceived as learning opportunities, we tend to see ourselves and others as more open to life-long learning.

Perfectionism can also be prevented (Flett, Hewitt & Heisel, 2014). "Key themes that can and should be incorporated when designing and implementing multifaceted preventive programs in the future include: (a) fostering self-acceptance and self-compassion instead of experiencing shame and self-criticism; (b) promoting appropriate goal-setting and goal appraisal versus setting and maintaining impossible standards; (c) combating ambivalence about giving up the need to be perfect since the distressed perfectionist must be highly motivated to change; and (d) developing resilience to feelings of shame and the ability to cope with interpersonal conflict and feelings of being rejected by others."

Now is the perfect time to evolve and accept the self as part of the human race. Learning the art of self-compassion can aid one's view of self and considerably enhance quality of life. Time is of the essence.

Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached through emailing her at, calling (513) 206-3026, or

Flett, G. L., and Hewitt, Paul, L. (2020). The perfectionism pandemic meets COVID-19: Understanding

the stress, distress, and problems in living for perfectionists during the global health crisis. Journal of

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Flett, G.L., Hewitt, P.L., and Heisel, M.J. (2014). The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited:

Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General

Psychology, 18(3), 156-172. Retrieved from

Kilmen, S., and Arikan, S. (2019). The Big Three Perfectionism Scale: Factor structure and measurement

invariance in Turkish sample. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment. DOI:10.1177/0734282919846030

Smith, M. M. (2016). The Big Three Perfectionism Scale (BTPS). Measurement Instrument database for the

Social Science. Retrieved from

Thomas, M. and Bigatti, S. (2020). Perfectionism, impostor phenomenon, and mental health in medicine:

A literature review. International Journal of Medical Education 11, 201-213. DOI:10.5116/ijme.5f54.c8f8

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