The difference between healthy perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism

Did you know there are two types of perfectionism? Our wellness expert Caroline Foran, author of The Confidence Kit, explains the difference.

Perfectionism is something that most of us are familiar with. We're either plagued by it, living free of it (and if this is the case, confidence probably won't be an issue for you) or making it work to our advantage. A perfectionist can be defined as someone who is unwilling to accept any standard that’s short of perfection. Critical self-evaluation goes with it, as does concern over how others will evaluate you.

Sound familiar? Well, I'm right there with you.

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What I've learned though is that there are two kinds of perfectionism and it's not all doom and gloom. There is healthy perfectionism - or what you would call adaptive perfectionism - and there is unhealthy perfectionism (maladaptive perfectionism). Both exist on either end of a spectrum, and most of us find ourselves somewhere in between the two (disclaimer: I would have found myself right on the bad side where perfectionism weighs heavily on my sense of worth). Here, we're going to look at the sometimes subtle differences between the two and how to adjust your thinking and your behaviour so that you're leaning more so in the direction of the adaptive kind.


Adaptive perfectionists use their high standards to propel themselves towards their goals; it's positive and motivational. It does not make them feel bad about themselves. It can mean you're a very conscientious person. In this sense, perfectionism doesn't have to be a bad thing. Those who are adaptive perfectionists would credit this characteristic when it comes to the successes they've enjoyed.

Psychiatrist David Burns said of perfectionism in 1980 that a perfectionist is someone “whose standards are high beyond reach or reason”. According to him, this person will “strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals and who measure their own worth entirely in terms of productivity and accomplishment.” This is maladaptive perfectionism. These folks (guilty!) set their standards so high that they cannot be reached, and even when things go according to plan, they could always have gone better. For this kind of perfectionism, there's almost never a sense of achievement or a job well done, because their idea of perfection simply does not exist. This is where perfectionism can become a real problem and it can crop up in many domains of our life, such as the perfect relationship, the perfect house, the perfect body, the perfect performance at work, the perfect way to react to all things that happen in our life - it's exhausting just thinking of the ways in which maladaptive perfectionism can negatively affect our lives.

Ask yourself these questions to determine if your perfectionism is veering towards unhealthy. And don't beat yourself up if you find that's the case - that's just more maladaptive perfectionism at work.

  • Are my standards higher than those of other people?
  • Am I able to meet my standards?
  • Do I get upset if I don’t meet my standards?
  • Do my standards help me to achieve my goal or get in the way?
  • What would be the costs and benefits of relaxing a standard or ignoring a rule?

Undoing years of maladaptive perfectionist thinking isn't easy (I have a whole chapter dedicated to it in The Confidence Kit), but here are a few things that might help.

First of all, realise that perfectionism doesn't necessarily mean it's actually 'good'. Secondly, remind yourself that constant perfection would get old very quickly. Think of someone you love. You don't love them because they are perfect, they're perfect because of their imperfections. Thirdly, if you are reacting to something personal with maladaptive perfectionism, take out a pen and paper and write down what you would say to a friend in the same boat. Shifting your perspective on perfectionism is key. You wouldn't tell your friend they're an epic failure if something goes wrong, or isn't entirely perfect, would you?


For more ways to challenge perfectionistic thinking, read The Confidence Kit.

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