To stay mentally healthy, balance perfectionist projects with simple, low pressure tasks. Photo by Thomas Bormans on Unsplash

We all have standards.  But sometimes those standards get in the way of action.  There is no point in our requirements being so high that we get in the way of an effective result.  What is perfectionism, when is it a problem, and what can we do about it?


Perfectionism is the behavioural need to act, worry, or be concerned, until an outcome is achieved to a very high standard.  It’s what drives an artist to complete a great work of art to high standards.  But it is also what compels an anxious person to worry and hide from others unless they can display themselves in a way that is beyond criticism.


Perfectionist behaviour has significant advantages in environments where things need completing to a high standard.  I am sure we all want to be operated on by a perfectionist surgeon, for instance.


However, perfectionism can come at a psychological price.  Mental health can suffer through the constant need to perform to a high standard.  This is especially true when a person has no opportunity to rest or let their hair down.

Also, ‘the perfect can be the enemy of the good’.  This phrase means that sometimes it is wiser to do something imperfectly but sufficiently.  This applies to good relationships, which often thrive in an atmosphere of relaxed acceptance, and suffer if one or other person is too demanding.


Anxiety and depression have their own relationship with perfectionism.

Anxiety occurs when we feel pressurised by time.  A good way to make someone anxious is to give them a difficult task with a short deadline.  Difficulty + deadline = anxiety.  In response to such a task, the body can go into a fight-or-flight state, which can be damaging to health.  Perfectionism increases the risk of task difficulty, and therefore increases the likelihood of anxiety.

Depression occurs when we feel despairing in relation to time.  A good way to make someone depressed is to wear them out with impossible tasks.  Eventually, the body goes into shutdown and stops trying to even get out of bed.  Perfectionism increases the risk of perceived failure, and therefore increases the likelihood of depression.


How can we manage our perfectionism so that we stay mentally healthy?  Here are a couple of tips:

  1. To lower anxiety, include some easy tasks with little time pressure.  These can include washing up, going for a walk, chatting with a friend, or gardening.  When doing these balancing tasks, make sure you release yourself from high standards and time pressure – just be present, and let things flow.  This allows you to recover in between your more perfectionist tasks.
  2. To avoid depression, include some tasks which are sure of success.  These can include cleaning a single object, going for a short walk, pruning one bush, tidying one shelf.  When doing these motivating tasks, make sure you stay aware of your success, however small.  You can make a short list, and then tick each item off, for instance.  The aim is to remind your mind and body that you can successfully complete tasks.

The above two strategies allow the mind and body to rebalance, so that we avoid getting overstressed.  We can still have high standards in the rest of our life.  But we are making sure that we don’t get overtired, overanxious, or despairing.

Life is busy enough, and there will always be a pressure to do some things to a high standard.  But equally, to stay healthy, let’s also make sure we balance this with easier tasks with guaranteed success.