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What Is Maladaptive Perfectionism?

What Is Maladaptive Perfectionism?

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Maladaptive perfectionism is a psychological trait characterized by an excessive preoccupation with flawless performance, an unrelenting pursuit of unrealistically high standards, and an inability to accept anything less than perfection. It often results in impaired functioning and emotional distress, leading to procrastination, anxiety, depression, and feelings of inadequacy or failure.

Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionism

In psychology, perfectionism is a term for a personality trait that involves constantly striving for perfection, maintaining high (sometimes excessive) standards, and refusing to accept anything less than lawlessness.

Perfectionism can be considered either adaptive or maladaptive:

  • Adaptive perfectionism involves setting high standards and striving for excellence in a healthy and constructive manner while allowing for flexibility and self-compassion in the face of setbacks.
  • Maladaptive perfectionism, on the other hand, entails rigidly holding oneself to unrealistic standards, often leading to chronic dissatisfaction, anxiety, and avoidance of tasks or activities for fear of failure.

The Psychology of Perfectionism

In the Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology (Volume 3), Hewitt and Flett explain that, “Perfectionism is a broad and multifaceted personality construct that involves the requirement of perfection or the appearance of perfection for the self or for others.”

The authors note, however, that, “it is important to clarify what perfectionism is not: it is not possessiveness, orderliness, rigidity, conscientiousness, or achievement motivation. Although some of these features can at times coexist with perfectionism, they do not constitute perfectionism.”

Some of the different behaviors commonly associated with perfectionism include:

  • Critical self-evaluations
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Excessive concern with mistakes and errors
  • Self-doubt
  • Believing that others should be perfect
  • Projecting an image of flawlessness
  • Refusal to acknowledge imperfections

Like most personality traits, perfectionism exists on a continuum, and people typically lie somewhere in the middle of the two extremes. Like many traits, perfectionism has both its good sides and bad sides.

On the positive end, perfectionism can push people to do their best and strive to give their maximum performance. On the negative end, it can lead people to be overly critical and judgmental of themselves and others.

What Causes Maladaptive Perfectionism?

What makes some people perfectionists and others not? A variety of factors can influence maladaptive perfectionism. Some that play significant roles in its development include:

  • Genetic predispositions
  • Environmental pressures such as familial expectations or societal norms valuing perfection
  • Early experiences of conditional love or approval tied to achievements

Additionally, personality traits like high levels of conscientiousness and a fear of failure, coupled with experiences of trauma or criticism that exacerbate tendencies toward self-criticism and perfectionistic behaviors, contribute to its manifestation.

In an article for Psychology Today, psychologist Leon F. Seltzer argues that childhood experiences likely play a pivotal role. Children who are raised to believe that the amount of love and approval they receive is directly connected to their accomplishments may be more likely to display perfectionist characteristics.

Effects of Maladaptive Perfectionism

Maladaptive perfectionism can have profound effects on various aspects of an individual’s life, leading to both psychological and behavioral consequences:

Psychological Distress

Maladaptive perfectionism often leads to significant psychological distress, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. The constant pressure to meet unrealistic standards can result in chronic stress, feelings of inadequacy, and a pervasive sense of failure.

Procrastination and Avoidance

Perfectionistic tendencies may manifest as procrastination and avoidance of tasks or challenges perceived as too difficult or risky. Fear of failure or making mistakes can paralyze individuals, hindering their ability to take action and achieve their goals.

Impaired Relationships

Maladaptive perfectionism can strain relationships, as individuals may have unrealistic expectations of themselves and others. They may become overly critical or demanding, leading to conflict and difficulty in forming genuine connections.

Physical Health Consequences

The chronic stress associated with maladaptive perfectionism can have negative effects on physical health. It may contribute to symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, insomnia, and weakened immune function, increasing susceptibility to illness.

Reduced Enjoyment and Satisfaction

The relentless pursuit of perfection often robs individuals of the ability to enjoy activities and experiences. They may become hyper-focused on flaws or mistakes, unable to appreciate their accomplishments or derive satisfaction from their efforts.

Career and Academic Implications

While perfectionism may initially drive individuals to excel in their careers or academics, maladaptive perfectionism can ultimately impede progress and success. Fear of failure may lead to workaholism, burnout, imposter syndrome, or underachievement despite high levels of effort and dedication.

Negative Self-Concept

Maladaptive perfectionism can contribute to forming a negative self-concept centered around achievement and external validation. Individuals may tie their self-worth solely to their accomplishments, leading to a fragile sense of self-esteem that is easily shattered by setbacks or criticism.

Social Isolation

The fear of being judged or criticized for not meeting perfectionistic standards may lead individuals to withdraw from social interactions or avoid new experiences altogether. This isolation can further exacerbate feelings of loneliness, alienation, and disconnection from others.

Pros and Cons of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can either become a negative or positive force in our lives. If you waste valuable time obsessing over perfecting details that really aren’t all that important, it might be because you are ruled by what Seltzer refers to as “the curse of perfectionism.”

But striving toward perfection isn’t always a bad thing. In many cases, we engage in this behavior because the situation demands it. An accountant might not be a perfectionist in all areas of his life, but it becomes a necessity when he’s balancing an account. Otherwise, he might miscalculate, and his clients could end up spending more than they can afford.

Building or remodeling a house is another great example of a situation that demands perfection. Precision is required to ensure the building is structurally sound, meets local building codes, and passes muster with building inspectors.

In some cases, we actually engage in perfectionism as a matter of choice. When we participate in an activity we love, whether running a marathon, knitting a sweater, or baking a pie, we frequently strive for perfection because doing so offers internal rewards. Becoming more accomplished and seeing the results of our efforts is pleasurable and satisfying.

In other words, sometimes, the quest for perfection can actually be intrinsically rewarding.

How to Cope with Maladaptive Perfectionism

Coping with maladaptive perfectionism involves adopting strategies to manage unrealistic standards and reduce the negative impact of perfectionistic tendencies on mental well-being and functioning. Here are several effective coping mechanisms:

Challenge Perfectionistic Thoughts

Identify and challenge perfectionistic thoughts by questioning their validity and considering more realistic and flexible perspectives. Practice self-compassion and remind yourself that no one is perfect.

Set Realistic Goals

Break tasks into smaller, manageable goals and set realistic expectations for yourself. Focus on progress rather than absolute perfection and celebrate achievements along the way.

Practice Acceptance

Accept that mistakes and imperfections are natural parts of life and opportunities for growth. Embrace the concept of “good enough” and recognize the value of effort and improvement, even if outcomes are not flawless.

Manage Procrastination

Recognize when perfectionistic tendencies lead to procrastination and avoidance of tasks. Use strategies such as setting deadlines, breaking tasks into smaller steps, and rewarding yourself for completing tasks, even if they are not perfect.

Seek Support

Reach out to friends, family, or a therapist for support and guidance. Sharing your struggles with others can provide perspective, validation, and practical advice for coping with perfectionism.

Practice Relaxation Techniques

Engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation to reduce anxiety and stress associated with perfectionistic tendencies.

Focus on the Process, Not Just the Outcome

Shift your focus from solely focusing on the end result to appreciating the journey and the learning process. Value the effort, creativity, and resilience in pursuing goals, regardless of the outcome.

Combat All-or-Nothing Thinking

Challenge black-and-white thinking patterns by recognizing and embracing shades of gray. Acknowledge that perfection is subjective and that progress and growth occur through trial and error.

Set Boundaries

Establish healthy boundaries to prevent perfectionistic tendencies from taking over your life. Prioritize self-care, relaxation, and activities that bring joy and fulfillment rather than constantly striving for perfection in every aspect of life.

Seek Professional Help if Needed

If maladaptive perfectionism significantly interferes with daily functioning or causes distress, consider seeking professional help from a therapist or counselor who specializes in cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or other evidence-based treatments for perfectionism.

By implementing these coping strategies, individuals can gradually reduce the grip of maladaptive perfectionism and cultivate a healthier, more balanced approach to life and achievement.


Dorevitch, B., Buck, K., Fuller-Tyszkiewicz, M., Phillips, L., & Krug, I. (2020). Maladaptive perfectionism and depression: Testing the mediating role of self-esteem and internalized shame in an Australian domestic and Asian international university sampleFrontiers in Psychology11, 1272.

Hewitt, P. L., & Flett, G. L. (2010). Perfectionism. In I. B. Weiner & W. E. Craighead (Eds.), The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology, Volume 3. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons.

Kelly J. D., 4th (2015). Your best life: Perfectionism–The bane of happinessClinical orthopaedics and related research473(10), 3108–3111.

Nazari N. (2022). Perfectionism and mental health problems: Limitations and directions for future researchWorld Journal of Clinical Cases10(14), 4709–4712.

Stoeber, J. (2014). Perfectionism. In R. C. Eklund & G. Tenenbaum (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Sport and Exercise Psychology.  Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Thomas, M., & Bigatti, S. (2020). Perfectionism, impostor phenomenon, and mental health in medicine: A literature reviewInternational journal of medical education11, 201–213.

Wang, Q., & Wu, H. (2022). Associations between maladaptive perfectionism and life satisfaction among Chinese undergraduate medical students: The mediating role of academic burnout and the moderating role of self-esteemFrontiers in Psychology12, 774622.

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