When is perfectionism and high achievement unhealthy?

The idea of being perfect is something many struggle with.

The idea of being perfect is something many struggle with. I emphasize the word ‘idea’ because perfection does not exist. It is a destination that cannot be reached. An itch that cannot be fully scratched – yet that knowledge doesn’t seem to quiet down the perfectionist part of many. As someone who has struggled with perfectionism, this topic hits home.

There is literature suggesting that developing perfectionist tendencies is prominent in:

  • Adult children who were either excessively praised or excessively criticized for their achievements
  • Parentified adult children who had responsibilities too mature for their developmental stage
  • Adult children of immigrant parents who felt pressured to carry the hopes and dreams of their parents

Many households, workplaces, classrooms, and societies place tremendous pressure on individuals to perform at a high level and uphold a certain image. You do not need to look far to come across these achievement-based environments. And while it can be an incredible trait to be highly driven in order to reach one’s potential, it can become unhealthy when the process is harming your relationship with yourself.

The self-neglect inherent in perfectionism can be harmful to long-term well-being. There is research that suggests perfectionism draws parallels with addiction. The effect is ‘all or nothing’ thinking, lower self-esteem, dependency issues, excessive need for control, and heightened anxiety, all of which can be damaging to our stress levels and mental well-being.

Hidden signs of perfectionism

  • Externally focused – Basing actions on others’ expectations 
  • Tunnel vision – Adopting a rigid view of success
  • Pessimism – Noticing only the negatives in people, relationships or situations.
  • Self-criticism – Being hard on yourself and thinking your best efforts are not good enough.
  • Procrastination – Delaying important tasks due to overwhelm
  • Micromanagement – Excessive need for control and feeling anxious when things don’t go according to plan 
  • Analysis paralysis – Unable to make personal decisions due to fear of making a mistake or choosing the “wrong” option
  • Neglecting self-care – such as missing meals or work breaks due to fixation on achieving targets.

The underlying pattern is becoming hyper-focused on external factors at the cost of attending to our well-being. Our self-worth becomes based on what we do instead of who we are. The message we are sending to ourselves is we are not good enough. 

While we cannot eliminate perfectionist tendencies, there are ways to address how we relate to it. We can start by creating more distance from our perfectionist thoughts and engaging in reflective practices that plant seeds to allow our minds to register that not only are our efforts good enough, but we as human beings are as well.

Daily practices to overcome perfectionism

Reflect on the Outcome

Take time to reflect how perfectionism impacts your sense of self-worth. How has perfectionism gotten in the way of something in your life? How would you feel if you did not have to battle with your inner perfectionist?

Self Compassion

Notice which thoughts are harmful to your sense of self-worth. Practice challenging these thoughts by talking to yourself compassionately as you would with a dear friend.

Acknowledge Strengths and Small Wins

Engage in a regular practice of acknowledging your small wins, or writing down one thing you like about yourself daily. This allows your mind to refocus on your strengths and accomplishments over your ‘deficits’.

Use Competitiveness to Your Advantage

Flip the script and use perfectionistic tendencies to your advantage by setting an intention to ‘be the best’ at taking care of yourself.

If you are thinking this sounds too simple – it is understandable. And while simple steps sound too good to be true, it does not necessarily mean it is not effective. Simple does not necessarily mean easy.

Like any pattern, when it takes years to build, the process of unlearning and reinforcing new behaviour requires patience and consistency. Learning to embrace progress over perfection can take time, so remember to be kind to yourself as you adopt new practices.

While the approaches mentioned provide ways to create more distance and comfort on a surface level, it can help to explore the underlying factors that led to these patterns. Perfectionism can be one of many unhelpful coping mechanisms that develop from a challenging childhood. This is common for anyone who had to survive in an environment with a serious lack of emotional nurturance and support. Experiences like these are tender and matter. If you sense that you may be living with unresolved hurt, it is recommended to seek support from a trauma-informed counsellor, who can walk alongside you on your journey.

If you are interested in working together, I warmly welcome you to connect with me.

From one recovering perfectionist to another, I hope these insights will offer some comfort and hope in feeling a little less pressure, one day at a time.

With care,


Let’s connect

I express deep respect and gratitude for the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and sel̓íl̓witulh (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations, their ancestral homelands, and the care they provided to the area where I am privileged to live, work, and play.

Copyright Pacific Path 2024

Vancouver, BC Canada