Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism

The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism in Introverts

Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism

 In my therapy practice, I work with adults who have what I call “rainforest minds” (RFM). These are people with advanced intelligence and high levels of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, and intuition. They love learning and have many interests. It can be hard for them to find friends or partners due to their intensity, very high standards, and intellectual complexity. 

Many, though not all, are introverts — and they all experience one or both types of perfectionism, healthy and unhealthy. Because perfectionism can be quite problematic,  it’s important to distinguish between the two types, understand the differences, and utilize strategies to best manage them. 

Healthy Perfectionism vs. Unhealthy Perfectionism

Healthy (or intrinsic) perfectionism is just that — healthy. Without understanding what is really going on, it can look obsessive research, overthinking, or self-criticism. But, in fact, it consists of the highest expectations and standards.

A quest for quality. A deep, full-on desire to find the exact word, song, color, book, surgical technique, equipment, course, choreography, equation, or whatever you are working on, because of your intense intellectual curiosity and quest for excellence.


I tell my clients that it is their innate need for beauty, balance, harmony, justice, and precision. Healthy perfectionism is what produces the novel you cannot put down, the symphony that moves you to tears, the building that is both functional and exquisite, the choreography that takes your breath away.

I see it in my acupuncturist who is thorough, sensitive, detail-oriented, and always educating herself. I see it in the client who stays up late at night to rework his poetry, yet again, because his exact expression matters. I see it in my friend who has painted her living room twelve times in four years to get the color just right.

I feel it in myself when dancing the Argentine tango and my partner and I share a perfect moment of connection and unity. 

In the introvert with the rainforest mind, this type of striving comes with the territory. It is not unhealthy or neurotic. It is beautiful.

(Are you an introvert with a “rainforest mind”? Here are 12 signs.)

Unhealthy (or extrinsic) perfectionism, on the other hand, is not beautiful. It is the extreme fear of failure and a sense that even a simple mistake is unacceptable.

(Sound familiar?) It is my architect client who suffers from anxiety and a sense of worthlessness (even though the buildings she’s designed have won awards).

It is the graduate student who procrastinates because he is terrified his writing will be mediocre (even though he easily is a straight-A student).

Unhealthy Perfectionism Often Begins in Childhood

You are not born with unhealthy perfectionism. As children, introverts with rainforest minds are often ahead of their peers in academics and achievements.

If their parents and teachers overpraise them for how smart they are, or emphasize their accomplishments repeatedly, the children may come to believe that acceptance and love is dependent upon being the best, winning, and achieving at all costs. 

Rather than saying, “You’re so smart” to your child, give specific feedback, such as, “Your story has some fascinating characters, tell me more about them.

” Ask how they feel about an accomplishment or what they might do differently next time. Find opportunities where they have to work at something over time, such as learning a musical instrument, a new language, or a sport.

Encourage their curiosity and kindness, and listen deeply. 

Otherwise, unhealthy perfectionism will continue and can turn into a fear of failure, procrastination, and generalized anxiety. Their sense of self is dependent on what they do instead of who they are. If they do not achieve at the highest level, they feel worthless. And this unhealthy perfectionism that starts in childhood continues into adulthood. 

However, the good news is, there are ways to understand and work with both types of perfectionism so that neither is confusing or disabling.

1. Understand what healthy perfectionism is: It’s not something you can change. It’s actually a strength of yours

Imagine what the world would be if everyone had such a drive for depth, beauty, comprehensiveness, and accuracy. Appreciate this about yourself. Let this striving for perfection feed your soul, even if no one else understands (even if they label you as obsessive or neurotic). 

Give yourself permission to feel emotional over a gorgeous sunset, a star-filled sky, or a Toni Morrison novel. Let yourself take time to choose the exact words for your essay, the particular flowers in your garden, or the correct combination of colors for your living room walls. 

2. Recognize that others may not share your high standards (and that’s OK). 

Although it’s good to hold yourself to high standards, this does not mean other people will share this sentiment. It also doesn’t mean they need to raise their standards or work harder, necessarily. You just happen to have a relentless need and innate desire to produce something as “perfectly” as you can (whether it’s a term paper or four-course meal).

So find patience and compassion.

At the same time, keep looking for fellow healthy perfectionists so you can feel better seen and understood; this way, you won’t always be the one waiting for everyone else to catch up.

(You’ll also feel less lonely.) Find ways to get intellectual stimulation, too, such as taking a free online class from a university. You need it, just you need food and water. 

3. There will be times when you need to compromise to get something important finished. 

Prioritize your projects and let the unimportant items be less-than-beautiful or not so precise. For example, do you really need to spend hours on that three-sentence email? On the other hand, you may prioritize spending hours on a cover letter for a job you really want (even if it means missing your weekly dinner out with friends).

Remember, you can have excellence without perfection. Your excellence may, in fact, look perfection to others. If you produce something less-than-brilliant, it is not a failure. 

In addition, get feedback on your work from other people with high standards and similar healthy-perfectionist tendencies. Then, you are more ly to respect and believe what they are telling you and you will feel less frustration.

4. If you have a deadline you must meet, evaluate your work through a “good enough” lens. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is this “good enough” for the situation? 
  • Will I still get an “A” even though it doesn’t meet my standards? 
  • How important is it that this be as thorough as I would ? 
  • Will anyone else see all of the connections I see, or will they find my work satisfactory as is? 
  • How do I really want to spend my time? 

1. Strive for wholeness and balance instead of perfection

If you feel you are experiencing unhealthy perfectionism, try to strive for wholeness or balance instead. For example, try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, such as something is either perfect or worthless. There is an in-between: One error does not make the entire project a failure. 

Remember, too, that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. (Plus, so-called “failures,” such as job losses, friendships ending, or divorces, make great stories for holiday gatherings, memoirs, and TED talks.)  

And be sure to put more emphasis on the process versus the product. Measure your success by enjoyment, complexity, opportunities for growth, learning, effort, impact, or meeting new people.

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2. If you have a loud inner critic, spend time with them in a journal. If they are too persistent, consider therapy

Start a dialogue with your overly critical inner voice, the one that s to tell you the project you’re working on “isn’t good enough” or is mediocre. Then, ask them:

  • What do they need?
  • What are they protecting you from?  
  • What can you do that will allow them to step back? 

Their answers may help you have more self-understanding. 

If you are often paralyzed by perfectionism so that you continually procrastinate, don’t finish assignments, and feel worthless much of the time no matter what you accomplish, consider contacting a therapist. There might be deeper issues that are factors holding you back. If there was abuse/trauma in your past, for example, this can also create perfectionist tendencies. Let a therapist help you sort it out. 

This way, you’ll begin to strengthen your sense of self and see beyond achievement to your deeper identity as a kind, compassionate human. (Reading anything by Brené Brown will help, too!)

3. If you are used to easy A’s or quick success, you may panic if you run into a challenge

If something is difficult, it does not mean you are no longer smart. In fact, it’s a good thing to have to struggle. Think of it as giving your brain an upgrade! 

Being smart is not an either/or proposition. You may have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another. Even though you may be born with a high level of intelligence, you can always change and grow. Learn about this in Good Morning, I Love You by Shauna Shapiro. It will be important to explore new areas where you risk mistakes and failure.       

4. Procrastination is a coping strategy that is not helpful. 

You may procrastinate as a way to explain away less-than-perfect work. If you wait until the last minute to complete a project, for example, you do not have to blame yourself for your seemingly shoddy product. 

So instead of procrastinating, break down projects into small steps if you are overwhelmed. Order the steps, then set either a minimal goal or a time limit to get you started. Give yourself small rewards as you go, being able to watch an episode of your favorite TV show or taking time to text a friend. 

If you are often anxious, make a list of self-soothing tools. Check out apps, too, such as Calm and Headspace. Also, read the book Procrastination by Jane B. Burka, Ph.D. and Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D., which provides an in-depth look at perfectionism as it relates to procrastination. 

If you are an introvert with a rainforest mind, you very ly are dealing with one or both types of perfectionism. It’s not easy to understand or manage this particular aspect of your personality — but remember to keep track of your failures for your memoir, TED talks, and future stand-up comedy routines!

For more examples, suggestions, and resources, read Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth. 

Want to get one-on-one help from an introvert-knowledgeable therapist? We’ve personally used and recommend BetterHelp for therapy. It’s private, affordable, and takes place online. Introvert, Dear readers get 10% off their first month. Click here to learn more.

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Perfectionism versus Healthy Striving

Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism
CMHC Business Hours:Monday thru Friday, 8:00am — 5:00pm

Phone: (512) 471-3515 — Student Services Building 5th Floor


Perfectionism versus Healthy Striving
Perfectionism: myths and realities
Coping strategies
Most people experience an inner drive to improve their performance on some tasks, whether running a faster mile or earning a higher grade.

Perfectionism, however, is not a healthy pursuit of excellence. Those who strive for excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in trying to meet high standards. Perfectionism, on the other hand, results in struggles with self-doubt and fears of disapproval and rejection.


  • Setting standards beyond reach and reason
  • Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
  • Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming overly defensive when criticized

Healthy Striving

  • Setting standards that are high but within reach
  • Enjoying process as well as outcome
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
  • Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Reacting positively to helpful criticism

Perfectionism: myths and realities

MYTH: I wouldn't be as successful if I weren't such a perfectionist.
REALITY: Although some perfectionists are remarkably successful, what they fail to realize is that their success has been achieved despite—not because of—their compulsive striving.

There is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than their non-perfectionistic counterparts. In fact, there is evidence that given similar levels of talent, skill and intellect, perfectionists perform less successfully than non-perfectionists.

MYTH: Perfectionists get things done, and they do things right.

REALITY: Perfectionists often have problems with procrastination, missed deadlines, and low productivity. Perfectionists tend to be «all-or-nothing» thinkers. They see events and experiences as either good or bad, perfect or imperfect, with nothing in between. Such thinking often leads to procrastination, because demanding perfection of oneself can quickly become overwhelming. A student who struggles with perfectionism may turn in a paper weeks late (or not at all) rather than on time with less-than-perfect sentences. A perfectionist employee may spend so much time agonizing over some non-critical detail that a project misses its deadline.

MYTH: Perfectionists are determined to overcome all obstacles to success.

REALITY: Perfectionistic behaviors increase one's vulnerability to depression, writer's block, performance and social anxiety, and other barriers to success. These blocks to productivity and success result from the perfectionist's focus on the final product. Instead of concentrating on the process of accomplishing a task, perfectionists focus exclusively on the outcome of their efforts. This relentless pursuit of the ultimate goal can seriously hinder their efforts. 1. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages of trying to be perfect. When you make your own list of costs and benefits, you may find that the costs are too great. You may discover that problems with relationships, workaholism, eating and substance abuse problems, and other compulsive behaviors (plus the accompanying anxiety, feelings of inadequacy, and so on) actually outweigh whatever advantages perfectionism holds for you.

2. Increase your awareness of the self-critical nature of your all-or-nothing thoughts, and how they extend to other people in your life.

Learn to substitute more realistic, reasonable thoughts for your habitually critical ones. When you find yourself criticizing a less-than-perfect performance (whether your own or someone else's), make yourself stop and think about the good parts of that performance. Then ask yourself questions such as: Is it really as bad as I feel it is? How do other people see it? Is it a reasonably good performance for the person(s) and circumstances involved?

3. Be realistic about what you can do.

By setting more realistic goals, you will gradually realize that «imperfect» results do not lead to the punitive consequences you expect and fear. Suppose you swim laps every day for relaxation and exercise. You set yourself the goal of 20 laps, even though you can barely swim 15. If you are a perfectionist, you soon may feel disappointed at your performance and anxious about improving it. Because you're focused on the outcome, you gain little sense of fun or satisfaction from your efforts. You may even give up swimming because you're not «good enough.» A healthier approach would be to tell yourself that 15 laps is good enough for now. So you continue swimming without anxiety. You don't necessarily stop trying to improve, but you swim mainly for exercise and relaxation—for however many laps you can.

4. Set strict time limits on each of your projects. When the time is up, move on to another activity.

This technique reduces the procrastination that typically results from perfectionism. Suppose you must find references for a term paper and also study for an exam. Set time limits. For example: Decide that you will spend only two hours looking up references, then four (and only four) more hours studying for the test. If you stick to your time limits, you won't spend the entire day searching for elusive references, nor try to study late at night when you are too tired to be effective.

5. Learn how to deal with criticism.

Perfectionists often view criticism as a personal attack, which leads them to respond defensively. Concentrate on being more objective about the criticism, and about yourself. Remind yourself that if you stop making mistakes, you also stop learning and growing. Remember that criticism is a natural thing from which to learn, rather than something to be avoided at all costs. Groups
Short-Term Individual Counseling You may find the following books helpful. Many of these books can be found at UT Libraries.

A Guide to Rational Living by Albert Ellis. Wilshire Book Co, 1998 (3rd revised edition).

How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life by Alan Lakein. New York: New American Library, 1996.
When Perfect Isn't Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony and R. P. Swinson. New Harbinger, 1998.

Other Options:

Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control by Pavel G. Somov. New Harbinger, 2010.
I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power by Brené Brown. Gotham, 2007.
Be Happy Without Being Perfect: How to Worry Less and Enjoy Life More by Alice D. Domar. Random House, 2008.


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