UCL Alumni


Ten signs that your perfectionism may be toxic for you

Multi-award-winning speaker and leadership coach Harriet Waley-Cohen (BSc Psychology 1998) reveals the ten signs of toxic perfectionism.

A photo of speaker Harriet Waley Cohen

"I’m a perfectionist" used to be the clever interview answer to give when asked about your greatest weakness. While it might underpin traits such as being hard-working, reliable and having high standards with great attention to detail, perfectionism also has major downsides. Research has linked it to anxiety, depression and eating disorders, along with higher blood pressure and stress levels. 

How can you tell if perfectionism is failing to propel you to greater success, and is actually holding you back instead? Watch out for these 10 signs of toxic perfectionism.

1. An underlying sense of low self-worth. If your perfectionism is driven by secret self-doubt, imposter syndrome or inadequacy, then it’s unlikely that anything you ever achieve will give you confidence for more than a nanosecond. Not everyone with low self-worth becomes a perfectionist, but perfectionism is usually by driven by the search for a solution to not feeling good enough.

2. Validation desperation. If your main reason for striving for perfection is to win praise, compliments or awards, it’s not a strategy that will help you feel better long-term. Yesterday’s pat on the back will not make you feel good about yourself today. Unfortunately, worries about your value will reappear quickly, and you’ll need more validation to feel on an even keel. This is not a game you can win, because the arrival of the compliments is out of your control as it is completely reliant on the actions of others. The minute praise stops arriving or you don’t get it when you thought you would, you’re back at square one and questioning your worth. 

3. Exhaustion. Perfectionism can be incompatible with self-care. Pushing yourself to achieve at ever higher levels may drive you towards extreme tiredness or burnout, a physical and/or mental breakdown. Do you often feel like you might fall apart at any moment and are hanging on by a thread? Success without wellbeing is not true success; if it comes with a mental or physical collapse you will not stand out as a superstar, quite the opposite. 

4. Caffeine and sugar overload. To keep achieving and pushing yourself hard, you have to push past tiredness and your body’s signs to stop. Enter caffeine and sugar, which give you just enough lift to keep going. Except caffeine makes you jittery, anxious, and messes with sleep; the sugar messes with energy and clarity of mind. Both are sources of shame – why can’t you keep going without them, no one else seems to need this much stimulation to perform? You might notice that a drink or 3 in the evening has become your only way to wind down, which adds even more trouble to the situation. 

5. Relationship strain. When no one else is trying as hard or giving as much as you are, and you’re close to burnout, you’ll fail to appreciate everyone else’s contribution. There will be zero room for error on anyone else’s part. The hard time you give yourself in your head will also be given to everyone else.  You’ll be snappy. No positives will be acknowledged, only negatives. Even at home, there is often no wriggle room for mistakes – how hard can it be to load the dishwasher just right, is your partner an idiot or what?! Intimacy, compassion and empathy may be lacking, which will damage your relationships. 

6. Inner critic in overdrive. If you have a voice in your head that constantly criticises your every move, making you obsess over every small mistake (even the imaginary ones), then your perfectionism will be messing with your peace of mind and emotional wellbeing. This is a painful, exhausting way to live, as everything you do involves an internal battle before you can act. Everything you do or say gets analysed, and it can be hard to sleep because you keep turning things over in your mind and beating yourself up. Why didn’t you word that email better or think of that sassy comeback at the time? 

7. Achievements feel hollow or meaningless. No matter what you achieve, you don’t stop to celebrate or give yourself a pat on the back. You might even brush off what a big deal it was for you or what it took to get there, and swiftly move onto point 8 because…more more more is always better, right?! 

8. Ever higher goal setting. Nothing is ever enough. No matter what you achieve, there is always another level you could get to. Never mind breaking your personal best for your 5k time, let’s see if we can shave another 5 seconds off next time. Smashed your sales target? Let’s double it for laughs! But this isn’t funny, at all. It’s impossible for anything you achieve to ever feel good enough or make you feel great about yourself long-term. 

9. Procrastination and self-sabotage. Being a perfectionist means there’s always a bit more research you can do before writing that paper, your website could be tweaked before you launch, and your bod could do with another month of working out before you’re toned enough to start dating. Needing things to be perfect can act as a massive break on ever getting started or stopping yourself from progressing. Not exactly your ticket to success, is it? 

10. Lack of life balance. Perfectionism is incompatible with life balance because you have to keep achieving and improving. There’s not space for relaxation, fun or hobbies. Everything you do has to have a serious purpose or it feels like a waste of time. You might notice your nearest and dearest complaining that you’re no fun anymore or never have time for them because you’re always working/insert the thing you always need to achieve at. Life balance is nowhere to be seen. Instead, you have a horrible mix of anxiety, exhaustion and lack of fulfilment. 

How many of these apply to you? If three or more of the points hit home, then it might well be time to take action to preserve your health, happiness and relationships.

Taming toxic perfectionism…

The first thing I’d say to someone who’s realised their perfectionism has become toxic is congratulations for noticing! That’s a really brilliant first step.

Secondly, understand why it’s not working for you and make the decision to do things another way. The first step is to embrace the motto ‘done is better than perfect’. Even if you didn't get every specific detail right, it's more important that you finished a task. For example, it’s better to get something out there; better to hit send on your report than not get it done at all or delay its completion. 

The other thing I’d say is to recognise and celebrate the smaller achievements all the time and know that every small step on the path to getting the ‘big thing’ done is a success. This means you won’t always end up beating yourself up for not being good enough or achieving enough, and instead you’ll be able to celebrate yourself for all that you are, and all that you’re achieving. 

This blog post was written by Harriet following her UCL Connect session on how to overcome toxic perfectionism. Find out more about UCL Connect, our programme of professional development events, resources and networking opportunities.

Learn more about Harriet's work on her LinkedIn page. To network with alumni like Harriet, join UCL's official alumni group on LinkedIn