FAQ: Myths and Truths about Perfectionism

Myth: If I stop being a perfectionist, I won’t be successful, ambitious, or hardworking anymore.

Truth: Your perfectionism is not actually helping you achieve; in fact it’s probably holding you back! Perfectionism often causes anxiety, stress, depression, and other feelings that get in the way of your thinking clearly or creatively. Perfectionist behaviors like procrastination and avoiding generally lead to less impressive performances in classes, sports, and activities. You might be worried that letting go of perfectionism will make you “lazy.” The truth is, it’s more likely that your work, performances, and relationships will improve once perfectionism doesn’t have such a tight grip on you!

Myth: Perfectionism is actually a good thing.

Truth: “Perfectionist” is sometimes used as a “humble brag” or the cliché answer to the interview question: “What is your biggest weakness?” That’s because there can be healthy perfectionist qualities, like paying attention to details, working hard, and having high standards. But there are unhealthy qualities of perfectionism too. High standards become impossible standards. You are so focused on your future ambitions that you can’t enjoy the present. Attention to detail turns into criticizing yourself ruthlessly for the tiniest mistakes. For too many people (a Johns Hopkins study found 28 percent of teens are dysfunctional perfectionists) perfectionism is definitely not a good thing—it’s a real and serious problem.

Myth: Perfectionism isn’t serious because it’s not a diagnosed mental health disorder.

Truth: While perfectionism itself isn’t a mental health disorder, many studies have shown clear links between unhealthy perfectionist personality traits and depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. Perhaps most disturbing, perfectionism is a predictor of both suicidal thoughts and attempts in adolescents.

Myth: Everyone else looks effortlessly perfect; I have to keep up!

Truth: People often present a very polished version of themselves to the public, especially on social media. But appearances deceive! No one has a flawless life, and no matter how casual someone acts or how amazing her online posts and photos look, there is usually a whole lot of effort behind that grade, performance, or picture. Comparing yourself to those perfect personas will almost always leave you feeling disappointed with yourself—you can’t compete with something that isn’t real!

Myth: I’ve tried to change, and it didn’t work. I’m stuck like this.

Truth: You can change your perfectionism! Your perfectionism was built over time, from many repetitions of thoughts, beliefs, feelings, and actions. Unwinding these patterns also takes some time, as well as the right tools. There’s no one tool that works for everyone; you are a unique person and your experience of perfectionism is unique too. You may have to try some different techniques to find what works for you. Check out my free six-week perfectionist email challenge, The Perfectionism Workbook for Teens, or contact me about therapy to learn more about what tools will work for you.

Wondering if you are a perfectionist? Take this quiz to find out.