How Perfectionism Can Make You Sick — and How to Stop It

These simple strategies can help you address your perfectionism.

There’s nothing wrong with striving to be better — it’s part of the human condition, after all. But when a desire for self-improvement turns into perfectionism, it can be toxic: Scientists have linked perfectionism to higher levels of stress, burnout, and anxiety. A 2007 study of people who died by suicide found that more than half were described as “perfectionists” by friends and family.

There are three main forms of perfectionism, as identified by Canadian researchers Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt, who have been studying the phenomenon for decades: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism, and socially prescribed perfectionism — which is perhaps the most damaging of the three. Socially prescribed perfectionists believe they’re always being judged, and that perfection is the key to acceptance. They live in constant fear of losing a job or a relationship, or being called out as a fraud. 

Perfectionism doesn’t just impact your mental health, it can affect your body, too. Constant dissatisfaction with your job performance, family, or other aspects of life increases stress, which can worsen chronic conditions, manifest as back pain or gastrointestinal distress, or fuel damaging habits like smoking, drinking, and substance abuse. 

When faced with illnesses, perfectionists often struggle with what they perceive as their bodies’ failures: A 2011 report in The Journal of Health Psychology connected perfectionism with early death in seniors with diabetes. “Perfectionism exerts a great deal of stress on health,” wrote researchers, while conscientiousness and optimism “are health-related dimensions that are enabling in their effects.”

Identifying perfectionism in yourself is one thing. Working on it, though, can be frustratingly difficult. The very mindset you’re trying to silence can tell you you’re failing at not being a perfectionist! But there are several strategies that can help you address perfectionism.

Limit social media

People tend to put the best versions of themselves on display online. That can trigger self-critical tendencies in perfectionists, even if an Instagram photo has been carefully cropped to hide love handles or a messy kitchen. If your social media feed brings you more anxiety than joy, consider pausing it for a while or limiting how much time you spend on your go-to apps.

Talk to others
Just hearing out loud how you’re beating yourself up can help put things in perspective — as can learning your friends and colleagues struggle with self-critical tendencies, too. And a trusted friend can give you a (gentle) nudge if you’re being too much of a perfectionist.

Practice self-compassion
Allowing yourself to be imperfect can be a tall order: Rather than pretend a failure didn’t happen, see what parts of your plan worked. Instead of trying to convince yourself a flaw doesn’t exist, make a written list of skills or traits you have confidence in, even if they seem silly or small. Meditation and yoga have been proven to help quiet rumination and self-criticism. Just be careful not to beat yourself up for not being able to clear your mind or achieve a certain pose.

Plan for imperfection Try to reframe the script running through your mind and budget for mistakes. Taking a spin class? Rather than expecting to effortlessly finish the 90-minute session with a smile, tell yourself the goal is to walk in the door and get your legs moving.

Step outside yourself
Start a book drive at work, volunteer with a senior center or go door-to-door for a local candidate. Anything that puts the focus beyond your own ego. When you give freely, others appreciate the effort —whether it’s perfect or not. 

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