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What is perfectionism? 

Perfectionism is the relentless striving towards high and sometimes unattainable goals. Perfectionists often set high standards for themselves and others and measure their self-worth by attainment of these standards. Perfectionism often starts early in life. Some factors that contribute towards developing perfectionism are early attachments with caregivers, an expectation of high standards in early life and feelings of inadequacy or insecurity.

If you are experiencing perfectionism, you may judge your self-worth on your ability to strive for and achieve unrelenting standards. You may spend a long time competing tasks and judge yourself harshly for small failures. In relationships with others you may compare yourself unfavourably with others or find it difficult to be happy for the success of others. People with perfectionism can avoid activities where they are less likely to achieve success.

Although perfectionism can appear a positive trait for success, it can actually impede people in achieving desired goals. Striving towards goals that are unattainable can lead to high self-criticism and demotivation. The mismatch between expectations and reality can also result in adjustment difficulties resulting in anxiety, depression, OCD or low self-esteem. Perfectionism can cause high levels of distress, and it can be very difficult to let go of high standards despite their high personal cost.  

How common is perfectionism?  

Around 30% of individuals are believed to display perfectionism. There is evidence that perfectionism has been increasing in prevalence since the 1990s, potentially because of societal and parental pressures. Greater societal focus on individualism and competition and increased parental expectations and criticism is believed to have impacted this increase.    

What is the treatment for perfectionism? 

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often used to treat perfectionism. Using CBT techniques your psychologist can help you to identify and explore the underlying reasons for your perfectionism, and what is maintaining this. Following this, existing patterns can be evaluated and changed through challenging unhelpful thoughts and changing negative behaviours. Some CBT techniques that your psychologist may use with you include:

  • Identifying existing thoughts and beliefs  

  • Exploring and evaluating current patterns of behaviour 

  • Challenging thoughts and beliefs that may be unhelpful  

  • Creating a more balanced basis for judging self-worth 

  • Exposure to failure in a safe setting  

  • Behavioural experiments 

  • Evaluating current behaviour and introducing new and more helpful behaviours  

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