Harvard Mental Health Letter

Becoming a better perfectionist

A first step is to turn self-criticism into problem solving.

People who are perfectionists set high standards for themselves. In itself, this is not such a bad personality trait to have — it helps some people become corporate leaders, skilled surgeons, or Olympic champions. But it is the dark side of perfectionism that gives this quality a bad name: a tendency toward endless self-criticism and focus on mistakes rather than on achievements.

Perfectionism is sometimes a manifestation of a psychiatric disorder. In people with eating disorders, for example, perfectionism may show up as excessive self-criticism about weight or appearance. In people with depression, it may appear as a tendency to ruminate about failures. And in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), it may be expressed as an obsession with arranging things symmetrically — such as lining up hangers or placing clothes in drawers in a specific way.

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