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What Causes Perfectionism?

What Causes Perfectionism?

The root of perfectionism is believing your self-worth is based on your achievements

Perfectionism is often present when some combination of these factors exist:

  • Rigid, high parental expectations
  • Highly critical, shaming, or abusive parents
  • Excessive praise for your achievements
  • Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate
  • Believing your self-worth is determined by your achievements
  • Black-and-white thinking
  • Efforts to feel in control
  • Cultural expectationsPerfectionism can be a result of harsh parenting.

Many perfectionists grew up with unrealistic expectations from parents, caretakers and/or themselves.

Perfectionism is encouraged in some families. Sometimes parents knowingly or unknowingly establish perfection as the standard. These parents require straight A’s in school or flawless piano recitals. Mistakes are also harshly punished in these families. The punishment may be severe, even abusive. This can include name-calling, yelling, shaming, the silent treatment, and physical punishment. It is conveyed to the child, in words or actions, that mistakes will not be tolerated.

Young children have a strong desire to please adults, even abusive adults. Children don’t have the thinking skills or life experience to understand that sometimes adults are wrong. Children are at the mercy of adults when it comes to building their self-worth. If an adult tells a small child that s/he is a failure, not smart enough, too fat, or not talented, the child will internalize this message. The child will believe this is true and then continue to find evidence to support this point of view.

Perfectionism can also be learned by children growing up around highly successful, perfectionist parents who model this way of thinking and acting. Perfectionism is encouraged when children are praised excessively for their achievements rather than their efforts or progress.

Perfection becomes a way to gain acceptance, love, and praise

Being perfect can also be a defense against a chaotic, unpredictable or unsafe home. Having impeccable grades or a restrictive diet may create a sense of control and predictability.

Culture and the media also have a strong influence on perfectionism. Most American media outlets still feature tall, very slim, Caucasian models. Children grow up with this unattainable vision of beauty. We are saturated with this message, making it easy to believe that if we don’t look like those models, we are not pretty enough or good enough.

Some cultures and institutions such as schools promote a perfectionist mindset. In these situations, it’s not just a family or parent, but a larger system that is teaching and reinforcing that there is an exacting standard of worthiness and anything less is a failure or sign of inherent unworthiness.

For others, perfectionism is self-imposed. Even if your parents didn’t expect perfection, you may have set this standard for yourself.

If no one explicitly accepted you just as you are, you may turn to achievement as a measure of self-worth. I want you to untangle this connection. Your achievement is not who you are. Success is not a measure of your worth. You are perfectly flawed and perfectly wonderful all at the same time.

I invite you to continue reading the Happily Imperfect Blog to learn more. And your suggestions for article topics related to perfectionism are always welcome in the comments.


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What Causes Perfectionism?

Sharon Martin, LCSW

Sharon Martin is a licensed psychotherapist and codependency expert practicing in San Jose, CA. She is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.  

To learn more, visit Sharon's website. And please sign-up for free access to her resource library HERE (worksheets, tips, meditations, and resources for healing codependency, perfectionism, anxiety and more).

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APA Reference
Martin, S. (2018). What Causes Perfectionism?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 19, 2020, from


Last updated: 1 Jan 2018
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.