Perfectionism: How Can it Affect Mental Health?

When I say perfectionism, I do not mean striving to do well and getting things right. What I mean by perfectionism is a crippling fear of getting things wrong, having unreachable and unachievable standards for yourself and maybe others too. I’m talking about the perfectionism that gets in the way of someone living their life, affects relationships and usually leads to a lack of achievement. I recognise that when channeled in the right way, perfectionism can be a good trait to have but without training it can be devastating.

I am a perfectionist and I would say that perfectionism plays a huge role in my mental well being. I am not only a perfectionist with myself but often without realising it I put my perfectionism on others. I had never really thought about my need for everything and everyone to be perfect until I was set a task by my psychologist to look at the costs and benefits of my perfectionism. I found it a fairly frustrating task as I felt it wouldn’t change things and it hasn’t. I am still my anxious, perfectionist self but I think that being aware of my perfectionism and of the way it affects my life is very helpful and I hope that this can help others too.

I found some benefits to my perfectionism, I felt that it gets the best out of myself and others and that it makes me feel safe and my life appears better to outsiders. I am less anxious when I know that things are right and without error despite how exhausting it is to make sure that things are just so. I felt that by everything being right it made me feel strong and powerful, like it was impossible to reach me and hurt me but I also recognise that it makes me rather unapproachable and leads to a lot of loneliness and isolation. Doing this task made me realise I had a huge fear of embarrassment and ridicule and felt that being wrong and making a mistake would open up opportunities for this. I felt like others would accept me, like me and want me if I was perfect and did everything perfectly. I guess a part of it is worrying about the way other people view me. I also wrote ‘nothing is done halfheartedly’ and I agree with that, I always put in a lot of time and effort into the things I do. Other benefits included, going the extra mile, not relying on others, working well alone, motivation and determination.

I did find positives to my perfectionism but the costs were huge. I didn’t realise what a painful, lonely, difficult life my perfectionism has created for me. I upset others because they are unable to live up to my standards, standards that they aren’t even aware of. It creates a ‘walking on eggshells’ environment. It affects my treatment and therapy as I lose all trust if they get anything wrong and I expect my treatment and recovery to be perfect and have no ups and downs. It leads to a lot of avoidance, whether that be avoiding a situation or avoiding my GP surgery because they got something wrong and I cannot cope with that. Nothing is perfect and so every situation becomes a negative, nothing is relaxing or safe and I often feel disappointed and let down. I find myself getting stuck on the smaller details and completely missing the bigger picture.

I would not say that my perfectionism has made me successful. I take ages to start anything because everything must be right before I begin. I have difficulties in relationships and find it hard to work with others. I feel suicidal because I will never be good enough for myself and that’s a difficult way to be. I doubt myself, I judge myself, I isolate myself. I don’t even realise I’m doing it. I didn’t even realise I had problems with perfectionism until recently. Perfectionism is not my illness but it contributes to it.

Perfectionism can have a huge affect on mental health. It has the potential to take all enjoyment out of life, cause huge amounts of anxiety. It’s isolating and can lead to self hatred, low self esteem, low mood, obsessive compulsive thoughts, suicidal thoughts and eating disorders.