The Difference Between Healthy and Unhealthy Perfectionism in Introverts

According to a psychotherapist, many introverts experience both forms of perfectionism — and it often begins in childhood.

 In my therapy practice, I work with adults who have what I call “rainforest minds” (RFM). These are people with advanced intelligence and high levels of sensitivity, empathy, creativity, and intuition. They love learning and have many interests. It can be hard for them to find friends or partners due to their intensity, very high standards, and intellectual complexity. 

Many, though not all, are introverts — and they all experience one or both types of perfectionism, healthy and unhealthy. Because perfectionism can be quite problematic,  it’s important to distinguish between the two types, understand the differences, and utilize strategies to best manage them. 

Healthy Perfectionism vs. Unhealthy Perfectionism

Healthy (or intrinsic) perfectionism is just that — healthy. Without understanding what is really going on, it can look like obsessive research, overthinking, or self-criticism. But, in fact, it consists of the highest expectations and standards. A quest for quality. A deep, full-on desire to find the exact word, song, color, book, surgical technique, equipment, course, choreography, equation, or whatever you are working on, because of your intense intellectual curiosity and quest for excellence. 

I tell my clients that it is their innate need for beauty, balance, harmony, justice, and precision. Healthy perfectionism is what produces the novel you cannot put down, the symphony that moves you to tears, the building that is both functional and exquisite, the choreography that takes your breath away. I see it in my acupuncturist who is thorough, sensitive, detail-oriented, and always educating herself. I see it in the client who stays up late at night to rework his poetry, yet again, because his exact expression matters. I see it in my friend who has painted her living room twelve times in four years to get the color just right. I feel it in myself when dancing the Argentine tango and my partner and I share a perfect moment of connection and unity. 

In the introvert with the rainforest mind, this type of striving comes with the territory. It is not unhealthy or neurotic. It is beautiful.

(Are you an introvert with a “rainforest mind”? Here are 12 signs.)

Unhealthy (or extrinsic) perfectionism, on the other hand, is not beautiful. It is the extreme fear of failure and a sense that even a simple mistake is unacceptable. (Sound familiar?) It is my architect client who suffers from anxiety and a sense of worthlessness (even though the buildings she’s designed have won awards). It is the graduate student who procrastinates because he is terrified his writing will be mediocre (even though he easily is a straight-A student).

Unhealthy Perfectionism Often Begins in Childhood

You are not born with unhealthy perfectionism. As children, introverts with rainforest minds are often ahead of their peers in academics and achievements. If their parents and teachers overpraise them for how smart they are, or emphasize their accomplishments repeatedly, the children may come to believe that acceptance and love is dependent upon being the best, winning, and achieving at all costs. 

Rather than saying, “You’re so smart” to your child, give specific feedback, such as, “Your story has some fascinating characters, tell me more about them.” Ask how they feel about an accomplishment or what they might do differently next time. Find opportunities where they have to work at something over time, such as learning a musical instrument, a new language, or a sport. Encourage their curiosity and kindness, and listen deeply. 

Otherwise, unhealthy perfectionism will continue and can turn into a fear of failure, procrastination, and generalized anxiety. Their sense of self is dependent on what they do instead of who they are. If they do not achieve at the highest level, they feel worthless. And this unhealthy perfectionism that starts in childhood continues into adulthood. 

However, the good news is, there are ways to understand and work with both types of perfectionism so that neither is confusing or disabling.

What to Do About Healthy Perfectionism

1. Understand what healthy perfectionism is: It’s not something you can change. It’s actually a strength of yours.

Imagine what the world would be like if everyone had such a drive for depth, beauty, comprehensiveness, and accuracy. Appreciate this about yourself. Let this striving for perfection feed your soul, even if no one else understands (even if they label you as obsessive or neurotic). 

Give yourself permission to feel emotional over a gorgeous sunset, a star-filled sky, or a Toni Morrison novel. Let yourself take time to choose the exact words for your essay, the particular flowers in your garden, or the correct combination of colors for your living room walls. 

2. Recognize that others may not share your high standards (and that’s OK). 

Although it’s good to hold yourself to high standards, this does not mean other people will share this sentiment. It also doesn’t mean they need to raise their standards or work harder, necessarily. You just happen to have a relentless need and innate desire to produce something as “perfectly” as you can (whether it’s a term paper or four-course meal).

So find patience and compassion. At the same time, keep looking for fellow healthy perfectionists so you can feel better seen and understood; this way, you won’t always be the one waiting for everyone else to catch up. (You’ll also feel less lonely.) Find ways to get intellectual stimulation, too, such as taking a free online class from a university. You need it, just like you need food and water. 

3. There will be times when you need to compromise to get something important finished. 

Prioritize your projects and let the unimportant items be less-than-beautiful or not so precise. For example, do you really need to spend hours on that three-sentence email? On the other hand, you may prioritize spending hours on a cover letter for a job you really want (even if it means missing your weekly dinner out with friends).

Remember, you can have excellence without perfection. Your excellence may, in fact, look like perfection to others. If you produce something less-than-brilliant, it is not a failure. 

In addition, get feedback on your work from other people with high standards and similar healthy-perfectionist tendencies. Then, you are more likely to respect and believe what they are telling you and you will feel less frustration.

4. If you have a deadline you must meet, evaluate your work through a “good enough” lens. 

Ask yourself:

  • Is this “good enough” for the situation? 
  • Will I still get an “A” even though it doesn’t meet my standards? 
  • How important is it that this be as thorough as I would like? 
  • Will anyone else see all of the connections I see, or will they find my work satisfactory as is? 
  • How do I really want to spend my time? 

What to Do About Unhealthy Perfectionism

1. Strive for wholeness and balance instead of perfection.

If you feel you are experiencing unhealthy perfectionism, try to strive for wholeness or balance instead. For example, try to avoid all-or-nothing thinking, such as something is either perfect or worthless. There is an in-between: One error does not make the entire project a failure. 

Remember, too, that you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes. (Plus, so-called “failures,” such as job losses, friendships ending, or divorces, make great stories for holiday gatherings, memoirs, and TED talks.)  

And be sure to put more emphasis on the process versus the product. Measure your success by enjoyment, complexity, opportunities for growth, learning, effort, impact, or meeting new people.

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2. If you have a loud inner critic, spend time with them in a journal. If they are too persistent, consider therapy.

Start a dialogue with your overly critical inner voice, the one that likes to tell you the project you’re working on “isn’t good enough” or is mediocre. Then, ask them:

  • What do they need?
  • What are they protecting you from?  
  • What can you do that will allow them to step back? 

Their answers may help you have more self-understanding. 

If you are often paralyzed by perfectionism so that you continually procrastinate, don’t finish assignments, and feel worthless much of the time no matter what you accomplish, consider contacting a therapist. There might be deeper issues that are factors holding you back. If there was abuse/trauma in your past, for example, this can also create perfectionist tendencies. Let a therapist help you sort it out. 

This way, you’ll begin to strengthen your sense of self and see beyond achievement to your deeper identity as a kind, compassionate human. (Reading anything by Brené Brown will help, too!)

3. If you are used to easy A’s or quick success, you may panic if you run into a challenge.

If something is difficult, it does not mean you are no longer smart. In fact, it’s a good thing to have to struggle. Think of it as giving your brain an upgrade! 

Being smart is not an either/or proposition. You may have strengths in one area and weaknesses in another. Even though you may be born with a high level of intelligence, you can always change and grow. Learn about this in Good Morning, I Love You by Shauna Shapiro. It will be important to explore new areas where you risk mistakes and failure.       

4. Procrastination is a coping strategy that is not helpful. 

You may procrastinate as a way to explain away less-than-perfect work. If you wait until the last minute to complete a project, for example, you do not have to blame yourself for your seemingly shoddy product. 

So instead of procrastinating, break down projects into small steps if you are overwhelmed. Order the steps, then set either a minimal goal or a time limit to get you started. Give yourself small rewards as you go, like being able to watch an episode of your favorite TV show or taking time to text a friend. 

If you are often anxious, make a list of self-soothing tools. Check out apps, too, such as Calm and Headspace. Also, read the book Procrastination by Jane B. Burka, Ph.D. and Lenora M. Yuen, Ph.D., which provides an in-depth look at perfectionism as it relates to procrastination. 

If you are an introvert with a rainforest mind, you very likely are dealing with one or both types of perfectionism. It’s not easy to understand or manage this particular aspect of your personality — but remember to keep track of your failures for your memoir, TED talks, and future stand-up comedy routines!

For more examples, suggestions, and resources, read Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth

Want to get one-on-one help from an introvert-knowledgeable therapist? We’ve personally used and recommend BetterHelp for therapy. It’s private, affordable, and takes place online. Introvert, Dear readers get 10% off their first month. Click here to learn more.

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Written By

Paula Prober is a licensed psychotherapist, consultant, author, and blogger in private practice in Eugene, Oregon. She consults internationally with gifted adults and parents of gifted children. Her book, Your Rainforest Mind: A Guide to the Well-Being of Gifted Adults and Youth, is an in-depth look at giftedness in adults and teens via case studies of therapy clients. She blogs at Your Rainforest Mind, a blog in support of the excessively curious, creative, smart, and sensitive. Paula’s new book, Journey into Your Rainforest Mind: A Field Guide for Gifted Adults and Teens, Book Lovers, Overthinkers, Geeks, Sensitives, Brainiacs, Intuitives, Procrastinators, and Perfectionists, was released in June 2019. You can find it at your independent bookstore or on Amazon here.