Toxic Habits: Perfectionism

This week on the Savvy Psychologist, Dr. Ellen Hendriksen covers 3 types of perfectionism and the 8 problems that flourish wherever perfectionism takes root.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #65

This week, we’ll start a series on surprisingly toxic traits that, at first glance, can seem harmless or even productive.  

First up, the finish line that can never be crossed: perfectionism.  

Perfectionism is tricky - a tiny sprinkling can be good, but a generous helping is paralyzing and self-defeating.  A concept we talk about often on the Savvy Psychologist podcast is that many things exist on a spectrum.  Indeed, a touch of perfectionism includes something called “positive striving.” Positive striving means having high, but not unattainable, standards. It also means the striver feels satisfied and happy when those standards are reached.

But as we move up the spectrum of perfectionism, we cross a line into unrealistically high standards, a rigid and unforgiving devotion to those standards, and a belief that one’s self-worth is contingent upon results.  

In addition, did you know there are actually 3 kinds of perfectionism?  Two are damaging, but one is truly toxic. Let’s take a look.

3 Types of Perfectionism

Perfectionist Profile #1: Self-Oriented Perfectionism.  You are your own harshest taskmaster.  As the name implies, the perfectionism is focused on you and your own performance.  Self-oriented perfectionists set their bar too high and, when they inevitably fail to clear it, punish themselves with self-criticism and guilt.

Perfectionist Profile #2: Other-Oriented Perfectionism. These souls control the actions of everyone in their life, particularly their partners and children, and expect only the best at all times.  If others’ work isn’t perfect (which it never can be), arguments, blame, and distrust result.

Perfectionist Profile #3: Socially Prescribed Perfectionism.  This is the most toxic kind. With this kind of perfectionism, we perceive our actions as being critiqued by an imagined, all-seeing audience that expects nothing but a flawless performance.  

This type of perfectionism is the most likely to result in depression, anxiety, and anger problems.  Why?  When we perceive that others are always moving the goalposts, still expect us to score, and will chew us out if we miss, we come to believe that our efforts are futile and that we can’t do anything about it.  In other words, we become hopeless and helpless, the two hallmarks of depression.  

So how can you tell if you or someone you love is struggling with one of these 3 types of perfectionism?  Look for these 8 signs:


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.