The Stress of Perfectionism

Medical Reviewer

Most people don't admit to being an out-and-out perfectionist. For one thing it makes them sound just a little weird and for another it makes them fallible to imperfections. Therefore it's more acceptable and much more common to hear something along the lines of "I'm a bit of a perfectionist, but only where work is concerned".

And here's the problem. It's a rare thing to find someone who is a 'work perfectionist' who can switch off and become someone else at the end of the day. It's far more likely that the issues of the working day intrude into leisure time. Perfectionists are often at work even when they are meant to have days off or take a vacation. They may not have papers or a computer in front of them but their mind is churning over past decisions and actions to a point where quality of life is affected.

There are different aspects to perfectionism that seem to work for or against us. It clearly works to our advantage to know that a surgeon or aircraft pilot sets high standards for their work. It isn't helpful for those same people to maintain such precise standards in their family life, where the pursuit of perfectionism can lead to huge personal anxieties and dysfunctional relationships. Not surprisingly, stress and anxiety are known associates of perfectionists, and there is some evidence to suggest 'high perfectionists' die younger, but only in certain circumstances. For example, psychology professor Prem Fry, found that perfectionists with type 2 diabetes had a much lower risk of death because of their attention to detail over the management of their disease.

Many people set high standards for themselves yet have perfectly well balanced lives. The real problem is when people start to worry about mistakes. It is the ruminating concerns that something could have been done better, or may have been overlooked, or hasn't properly been finished that gnaw away at some people. This concern with mistakes seems to be a key area that differentiates excellence from perfectionism.

Do vacations help the perfectionist? Yes and no according some research conducted with academics and published in the Journal of Applied Psychology*. Pre-vacation perfectionists showed more symptoms of exhaustion and fatigue than their colleagues. During the vacation the sense of wellbeing was the same across all volunteers. On return to work however the perfectionists quickly reported pre-vacation symptoms. The problem, it seems, is due to so-called 'perseverative cognitions', that is, not being able to stop thinking about work. As to why these thoughts didn't drag wellbeing down during the vacation, the researchers feel they help to plug the gap between feelings of guilt (I should be working) by rehearsing future intentions in their head. In other words these people never experienced a psychological detachment from work.

Of central concern to perfectionists is the fear that if they give up their way of thinking and behaving things will start to fall apart. Many have the intellectual insight to know that perfectionism can actually harm performance more than it helps but their sense of self-worth is so integral to perfectionism it's hard to let go. For those willing to try, mindfulness-based training or CBT can offer some relief to perfectionists and help to restore balance into their lives.


  • Flaxman PE, Ménard J, Bond FW, & Kinman G (2012). Academics' Experiences of a Respite From Work: Effects of Self-Critical Perfectionism and Perseverative Cognition on Postrespite Well-Being. The Journal of applied psychology PMID: 22545621