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What Causes Perfectionism?

By: Kristina Murr

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Chances are you or someone you know is a perfectionist or has been called a perfectionist in the past. But what exactly is perfectionism? Where does it come from?

Let’s explore what perfectionism is and what the causes are.


Defining Perfectionism

Perfectionists tend to have very high standards and expectations around how to go about doing things.

While perfectionists tend to be driven, organized, and reliable, they also can be overly critical and more anxious than some. Perfectionists tend to:

  • Rely on specific methods and routines to achieve goals
  • Can be called “Type-A”
  • Envision an ideal or perfect version of themselves or a specific situation
  • Struggle to accept mistakes


Signs of Perfectionism 

Many perfectionists have a fear of failure, struggle to look past mistakes, and may not respond well to negative feedback. Below are some additional signs that those with perfectionism may exhibit. They might:

  • Have high expectations or standards of themselves, or those around them. In return, it creates pressure to live up to those expectations.
  • Require structure and organization in all activities. For many, this includes needing to be over prepared or always having a plan. They also may need to know exact expectations and instructions.
  • Have high levels of insecurity or self-doubt. They may fear being rejected or judged, regardless of whether or not a mistake is made.
  • Be overly self-criticizing. They may feel as if self-esteem and self-worth are dependent on success, and those values decrease if they believe they’ve fallen short or failed.


Causes of Perfectionism

Perfectionism can be learned by modeling behaviors after others or in response to very specific experiences. Some common causes of perfectionism include:

 Over- or Under-Critical Parental Expectations

In some families, perfectionism is encouraged. This is often seen with sports and graded. For instance, a parent may expect their child to get nothing less than an A grade, and anything less results in shame and/or punishment. Parents may also be highly critical of their child’s performance in athletic endeavors. In these instances, the child may learn to believe that their best is not good enough. Cultural expectations can also play into this.

On the flip side, if parents are emotionally absent or not there at all it can lead to their children striving to be perfect in the hopes that their parent(s) will be more present.

A Fear of Judgement or Disapproval

Many people with perfectionism may struggle with the idea of others disapproving of them, making them feel they need to be perfect in order to earn acceptance and approval from their peers, family, etc. If they are unable to meet these perceived (or in some cases, encouraged) expectations, they strive even harder to meet them at any cost.

A Need for Control

Some people develop perfectionist tendencies to exercise a need for control. This might stem from an unpredictable or unstable home life. In instances of abuse, developing perfectionist tendencies may help the person feel in control of something when other significant areas of their life feel totally out of their control. Some mental health conditions are also primed for perfectionist tendencies, such as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Tying Self-Worth to Achievement

A key aspect of perfectionism is believing that one’s self-worth is dependent on what they achieve. This ties back to parental expectations and a fear of judgement. By adopting this association, someone with perfectionism may develop depression or anxiety. Since it’s difficult for them to define their self-worth in other ways, they may end up feeling like a constant failure or never good enough.


Overcoming Perfectionism

If you struggle with perfectionism, we would be glad to  help you reframe your expectations and create a positive sense of self-worth. For more information or to schedule an appointment, contact us today.

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