Maladaptive Perfectionism or Unhealthy Perfectionism

Written by: Dr Joseph Kekulawala
Last updated date : March 29, 2022

Increasingly perfectionism is divided into two types. The first is adaptive or healthy perfectionism, which refers to high but achievable standards. It is healthy and productive. There is another type of perfectionism. The type that concerns psychologist, teachers at school, parents and managers. This second type of perfectionism is unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionism. Similar to healthy perfectionism, maladaptive perfectionism is associated with high standards. However, with maladaptive perfectionism, the high standards are combined with harsh self-criticism, low self-esteem and negative self-beliefs. Invariably unhealthy perfectionism leads to feelings of distress, anxiety, frustration and sadness. In this article, we will use the two terms maladaptive perfectionism and unhealthy perfectionism interchangeably.

Chapter 1:
What Causes Maladaptive Perfectionism?

Mental health researchers and professionals point out several causes for unhealthy perfectionism. They include:
  • We had highly critical parents or parents Who had high expectations for us.
  • Low self-esteem or feeling inadequate or not worthy and believing that your self-worth or value was only determined by your achievements and success.
  • They are growing up in a culture where there are high expectations—pressures on you as a child to achieve well either at school, sports or arts.
  • Excessive praise as a child by parents and teachers.
Often it is a mix of these causes which together bring about perfectionism.

Chapter 2:
Signs of Perfectionism

Perfectionism occurs across the spectrum. No two people with healthy or unhealthy perfectionism are the same. Unhealthy perfectionism is connected to disordered eating. Here people strive to maintain a certain weight, restrict calories or exercise in an extreme manner. Unhealthy perfectionism regarding body image leads to people having quite negative views of their body and pushing themselves to an extreme to achieve it.

Perfectionism often comes up at school or work. People with unhealthy perfectionism work very hard to get perfect grades or results. There is underlying anxiety with achieving anything but an excellent result. Here maladaptive perfectionism leads a person to read, revising and edit their work several times. Perfectionists often delay handing the work in due to worries about it being not up to scratch.

Perfectionism can also appear in relationships. Parenting is a classic example. Here perfectionistic parents put a lot of pressure on themselves and their children to achieve or be up to a high standard. Often there is disappointment and criticism when the child fails to meet the parent’s lofty heights standards. Perfectionism happens in friendships. Someone with perfectionism will strive to impress, appease the other often instead of getting their own needs met.


Chapter 3:
When to Get Help for Maladaptive Perfectionism

Perfectionism is not a mental illness. However, it can lead to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression. It can also greatly impact someone’s quality of life. Suppose you think your perfectionism is causing you to have mental distress or is impacting your satisfaction in life. In that case, you should consider getting help.

Healthy perfectionism can sometimes swing over into unhealthy or maladaptive perfectionism. You might have been someone who was hi achiever, someone who didn’t struggle with underlying negative call beliefs or low self-worth. However, when under more stress, it is possible for someone who once had healthy perfectionism too, due to the stress, to experience unhealthy perfectionism.

If you are a perfectionist and under increasing amounts of stress, and you think that your perfectionism is spiralling out of control. Then, it may be worth getting help.

Ask a friend or family member who you trust, someone who knows you well. They may be aware of your perfectionistic tendencies. You may have spoken to them about it. Have a frank and open discussion with them, if you feel comfortable, about your perfectionism and your thoughts about getting help for it. They may be able to support you and even point you in the right direction.

Perfectionism, the core beliefs and underlying thought processes we often carry from our childhood. If you are thinking of getting help with your perfectionism, find a time when you are not too stressed. It takes time to work through perfectionism.


Chapter 4:
Strategies to Help with Maladaptive Perfectionism

At Epsychonline, we have a six-week course on perfectionism. You can find the course via our homepage or the search bar above. In that course, we discussed different strategies to help with maladaptive perfectionism.

Thinking errors

Firstly there are thinking errors or unhelpful thought patterns which perfectionists fall trapped too. Often it is a pretty extreme, all on nothing mindset where there is no acceptance of a middle ground. Anything short of success is a massive failure. In our course, we teach different ways to become aware off and all or nothing mindset. We then Guide people with worksheets to challenge these unhelpful thoughts and replace them with more balanced and healthy ways of thinking.


Secondly, often perfectionists have a mindset which is that failure is bad or wrong. However, failure can sometimes be an opportunity, a chance for a fresh start and even a blessing. One way to approach maladaptive perfectionism is to develop a growth mindset. Failure is treated fairly as a chance to learn and grow.

Celebrating small wins

Thirdly, learning to be grateful for small wins and achievements is a skill in itself. Due to the high standards, perfectionists often don’t see and acknowledge the small wins they have each and every day. Learning to be grateful for an accomplishment, acknowledging and taking credit for small successes can be a healthy buffer to maladaptive perfectionism.

In touch with your emotions

Fourthly, being in touch with your emotions is essential to managing unhealthy perfectionism. Suppose you can tell when you are anxious or unhappy. In that case, that is sometimes a good indicator that you are in a perfectionistic mindset. He is being able to tap into your emotions and feelings often can tell you when to pause and reset with respect to your perfectionism. Let’s think of examples. John, who struggles with perfectionism, is working hard ahead of his final piano exam. He is practising a couple of hours in the morning and at night after returning home from a busy day of work. John feels burnt out, tired and grumpy. If John can tap into his emotions, they will tell him that he is overworking and that his perfectionism is becoming unhealthy or maladaptive.

Perfectionism is a common personality trait. If you think your perfectionism has become unhealthy or maladaptive, then it might be the right time to get help. We hope this article has been helpful in your journey to finding answers. Please send us any feedback sessions or comments that you have.