Having high expectations can motivate you to achieve your very best. In the extreme, however, aiming for perfection can be dangerous to your mental health. In a 2015 TED Talk, self-proclaimed perfectionist Petra Kolber passionately revealed that despite being at the top in her field in the fitness industry, she felt her best was never good enough and she lived a joyless life.

What the Research Tells Us

Perfectionism is considered a personality trait, not a disorder, and it generally falls into one of three styles: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed.

People who consistently set unrealistic goals for themselves and are self-critical no matter the outcome are classified as self-oriented perfectionists. Self-oriented perfectionists may avoid activities when they lack confidence in their ability to perform the task with exactness. For example, Anna does not sign up for the 5K city fun run because she is not consistently running under seven-minute miles.

Other-oriented perfectionists hold high expectations of others, are critical of other peoples’ work, and are often perceived as micromanaging. Character traits related to other-oriented perfectionists are pointing out other peoples’ flaws, bullying, and backbiting. For example, Dani consistently looks over her coworker’s shoulder and is critical of her workstyle. And Robert tells his coworker how to organize his workspace even though the coworker didn’t ask for any help.

Socially prescribed perfectionists believe that an authority figure expects perfection. The person of authority may be a parent, teacher, coach, or friend. The belief that the undue pressure to be perfect is coming from someone outside of the self can lead to feelings of depression and lack of motivation. Consider Holly’s obsession with being at the top of her nursing class because she believes that is what her parents expect or Joe’s belief that his boss will not promote him if he does not perform flawlessly.

The risk for depression is high when a person’s self-worth is tied to meeting extreme personal goals and others’ expectations. Perfectionist personalities exhibit a maladaptive response to success when they ruminate over their perceived mistakes and engage in harsh self-criticism. But the news isn’t all bad: any of the types can become adaptive perfectionists, who have learned to take pleasure in the quest for excellence and focus on what they were able to accomplish. They measure themselves in realistic terms and learn from mistakes.

How to Practice

Begin by becoming aware of how you respond to success and missteps. Logic tells us that perfection is unrealistic. Learning from mistakes can lead to improved outcomes.

  • Reward yourself for what you were able to accomplish on a project or activity.
  • Remind yourself that expecting perfection from others and thinking that others expect perfection from you can leave you at increased risk for depression and self-doubt.
  • Ask someone you trust to give you an honest view of how they see you approach a project. Notice how you react to the feedback.