The Pros and Cons of Perfectionism

You must do the right thing the first time. Nothing good comes from making mistakes.

Are you nodding your head as you read these statements? These are classic thoughts of the perfectionist. A perfectionist is someone who constantly strives to achieve extremely high standards. You would expect perfectionism to be a good personality trait, but it usually isn't.

In an online article in Psychology Today, psychologist Hara Estroff Marano writes, "Perfectionism may be the ultimate self-defeating behavior. It turns people into slaves of success-but keeps them focused on failure, dooming them to a lifetime of doubt and depression."

While successful people set high standards for themselves, these standards are achievable, even if they are extremely challenging. Successful individuals enjoy what they are doing, are generally happy, and take satisfaction and pride in a job well done.

A perfectionist, however, sets unrelenting standards and ties his or her self worth to the ability to live up to these standards. Since they cannot meet their own unrealistic expectations, it becomes a vicious cycle. Perfectionists tend to become procrastinators; they never finish, or don't even start, challenging tasks out of fear of falling short or making mistakes. Perfectionism causes people to become rigid in how they think and perform, which limits their ability to solve problems and develop appropriate coping skills.

Marano writes that perfectionism is a blueprint for breeding psychological disorders. Fellow psychologist Allen Schwartz, Ph.D., concurs. He writes on his blog, "...all the patients I have seen over the years who are perfectionists are anxious, depressed, and obsessive in their thinking."

Not surprisingly, perfectionists also tend to develop eating disorders, which pose significant health dangers and can even cause death. Perfectionism is one of the leading risk factors for serious eating disorders.

According to Marano, perfectionists are made, not born, and, unfortunately, the incidence of perfectionists is on the rise. Many parents today believe their children's performance reflects on them, and they use their child's performance as a basis for doling out parental approval and affection. Since children equate lack of affection and approval with self worth, these children tend to be fearful and have low self-esteem.

Just as perfectionists are created, they can be unmade. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is widely used to treat eating disorders and other self-defeating behaviors arising from perfectionism. In fact, an enhanced form of CBT (CBT-Eb), which targets perfectionism, low self-esteem, and interpersonal difficulties, is extremely effective.


Schwartz, Allan N. LCSW, Ph.D. "On Being A Perfectionist." Web. 23 May 2006.

Marano, Hara Estroff. "Pitfalls of Perfectionism." Psychology Today. Web. 15 April 2010.

Center for Clinical Interventions. "Perfectionism in Perspective ***NEW***." Web.

Anderson, Pauline. "Complex CBT Effective in Treatment of Severe Eating Disorders." American Journal of Psychiatry, online 15 December 2008. Medscape Medical News. Web.

Barclay, Laurie MD. "Eating Disorders: An Expert Interview With Andrea D. Vazzana, PhD." Medscape Medical News. Web. 6 March 2009.

Wilson, Amy. "The Cost of Perfection ." Psychology Today. Web. 26 September 2005.