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What is Perfectionism?

What is Perfectionism?

In my opinion, perfectionism isn’t helpful or healthy for most people. However, sometimes people argue that perfectionism is striving for excellence. Striving for excellence is fantastic, but it’s not what I mean when I write or talk about perfectionism.

I consulted Merriam-Webster Dictionary for an official definition. The dictionary defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable”. The word unacceptable is central to understanding perfectionism.

Perfectionism is not the same as excellence. Excellence is a high standard but allows for imperfections and mistakes. It is more forgiving than perfectionism. Perfectionism includes having your self-worth tied to your performance or success. It means that mistakes and failure are not tolerated. For perfectionists, a mistake damages your self-esteem and leaves you feeling worthless or incompetent. I think we can all agree that this isn’t a good thing.

These are 14 common traits of perfectionists:

  1. Unrealistically high expectations for yourself
  2. Goal-driven
  3. Workaholic
  4. Tense or stressed most of the time
  5. Fear of failure, abandonment, rejection
  6. Play it safe, don’t like to try new things
  7. Self-Critical
  8. Procrastinate and overthink
  9. Need to please others
  10. Sensitive to criticism or negative feedback from others
  11. Unrealistically high expectations of others
  12. Harsh or critical of others who don’t live up to your high standards
  13. Never satisfied
  14. All-or-nothing thinking

Although many perfectionists are high-achievers, they also like to play it safe. Risks mean the potential for failure. Perfectionists also play it safe by only revealing the “perfect” aspects of themselves. They are sensitive to criticism and don’t want to reveal their struggles, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities.

Perfectionism involves a combination of high standards and high criticism. There are several different types of perfectionism. I categorize them as follows. You may find that some or all of these categories describe you.

A. High standards

  1. Self-imposed high standards: You create extremely high standards for yourself, which may or may not be unattainable. You are goal-oriented and driven. Self-imposed high standard can be motivating and lead to success.
  2. Externally imposed high standards: Culture, media, parents, or someone else has imposed particularly high standards upon you. This is generally demotivating.

B. High criticism

  1. Critical of self: In response to extremely high standards, you are highly self-critical. You notice every flaw and mistake, ruminate about them, and beat yourself up over them.
  2. Critical of others: You expect perfection from others and when they fail to live up, you are critical and easily find fault or assign blame.


If you’re a perfectionist, I would love to hear your thoughts and feedback on the types of perfectionism I’ve outlined. Do they reflect your behaviors? Do you have other perfectionist traits that I didn’t list? Please leave a comment or continue the discussion on my Facebook page.

I wish you much success in your quest for excellence rather than perfection!


© Sharon Martin, LCSW
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What is 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. (2019). What is Perfectionism?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 23, 2020, from


Last updated: 23 Sep 2019
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