If you ever ask someone what it’s like to be a perfectionist, they will tell you it’s both a blessing and a curse. Because they hold themselves to a higher standard, everything they do, from working to exercising to cleaning, will be nothing short of ideal. But, if you ask a perfectionist how they feel about all of these things, they are also likely to tell you they are never satisfied. Plagued with never-ending stress, anxiety, and constant feelings of inadequacy, a perfectionist continues to strive for an ideal that is impossible to obtain. And now, researchers are finding that all of this perfection-seeking behavior can have serious repercussions for a person’s health.

According to Professor Gordon Flett, of the Department of Psychology at York University in Canada, about two in five people are perfectionists, and they typically fit into three main categories: The self-oriented perfectionist is the type who sets their own high personal standards of perfection, while the other-oriented perfectionist exacts high standards on others. Then, there is the socially prescribed perfectionist, who was forced into the mold by the other-oriented perfectionist holding them to higher standards. They all have one thing in common: every area of life is held to the exact same, impossible standard.

“Many [perfectionists] are compulsively driven. It’s not free will, there is an internal pressure and it can be unrelenting,” Flett told Medical Daily. “And with extreme cases there is an irrational importance attached to it, which goes along with having to be perfect.”

In other words, perfectionism means striving for a “mirage goal,” according to Bridgit Dengel Gaspard, clinical social worker and founder of NYC Inner Voice Dialogue. “When I am X weight, I will be happier, for example,” she says. “And when you’re chasing this goal, you’re not living your life in the moment. Instead, you are constantly measuring yourself against this mirage that doesn’t really exist, and you wind up having very little self-esteem as a result.”

You can only imagine what this may do to your body. Daryl Cioffi, professor of neuropsychology and a licensed mental health counselor, said a constant state of anxiety can cause a very real physical reaction. “Any time you start to freak out, it signals to your amygdala, the fear center in your brain, and the fight-or-flight center kicks in,” she said. “Perfectionists likely have an overactive fear center. In your brain, too much energy going to your fight-or-flight center means not enough energy going to everyday operations.”

As a result, we become exhausted, and this leaves us vulnerable to a whole list of things.

You’ll Run Yourself Down

Perfectionism has long been linked to exhaustion and subsequent susceptibility to disease, better known as burnout. In a recent study, British researchers examined 43 studies conducted over the past two decades pertaining to perfectionistic-linked burnout. They found burnout was more rampant within the work environment, where inner levels of perfectionism were also supported by external pressures and a lack of validation.

But becoming run down physically and emotionally often sets you up for even greater physical health issues. “By thinking that you have to be perfect, you may be putting yourself at a level of stress that means you’re not going to be protected from health problems and, in fact, exposed to increased risk.”

A 2006 study conducted by Danielle Molnar of Brock University in Canada found that perfectionism and eventual burnout leads to more sick days. After evaluating participants for their levels of perfectionism, they found that those who experienced socially prescribed perfectionism had poorer overall physical health. This translated into more visits to the doctor, taking more days off from work, and experiencing a wide variety of health problems that compelled them to rate their own personal health as low.

But perfectionism-related stress not only leaves you more vulnerable to health issues, it can also slow your recovery. In Flett’s own research, he and his colleagues looked at 100 heart attack patients, and found the perfectionists were slower to recover and more susceptible to future cardiac issues. Slower recovery was also observed in perfectionists with Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis.

“Our studies show that when someone has a serious illness, like heart disease, that perfectionism… is a magnifier of difficulties and stressors. And if you don’t give up on the perfectionism, it’s going to hinder your recovery,” he said.

More alarmingly, a 2009 study found that earlier mortality was also more common among perfectionists. Prem Fry, a psychology professor at Trinity Western University in Canada, examined 450 adults aged 65 and older for 6.5 years. The participants were initially given a questionnaire to assess their levels of perfectionism, and then researchers observed their health for the follow-up years. Ultimately, they found that those with high perfectionist tendencies were 51 percent more likely to die earlier than those with lower perfectionist scores. They reasoned that this was likely due to the high levels of stress and anxiety they found in these people.

The Mental And Physical Go Hand-In-Hand

Often, the physical side effects of being type-A come from the mental repercussions of a stress-filled life. It’s not surprising that those who admit to being perfectionists also suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders that feed into this physical response.

Cioffi said that the anxiety associated with perfectionism could also lead to depression. “Anxiety and depression are very closely related in the brain chemically, so you kind of have the perfect storm for that to happen as well.”

Recent research suggests this depression often takes a darker turn. A 2014 study led by Flett looked at the literature surrounding perfectionism and suicide rates in professionals who feel pressure to be perfect from their jobs. They found that incidences of perfectionist-related suicide in doctors, lawyers, and architects was much higher than those with less demanding professions.

Gaspard noted that, for perfectionists, experiencing failure can often drive them over the edge. “The perfectionist part of you won’t let you forgive yourself, and that can turn into suicidal thoughts and depression,” she said. “These are variables that, with the right person, can cause intense suffering, and put them at risk ultimately of suicide.”

Anorexia nervosa is also a popular example of perfectionism’s mental and physical repercussions. In an international study examining 322 women from the United States and Europe, researchers from New York Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan found a direct link between the severity of anorexia nervosa and the extent of perfectionism.

“Perfectionism can definitely lead to eating disorders,” Gaspard said. “In some cases, those with eating disorders end up over-exercising, resulting in electrolyte imbalances and heart issues.”

How To Cope

While it’s hard to change personality traits, there are ways to cope with perfectionist impulses. Mindfulness, working with others, and seeking help when things become too much to handle can definitely help.  

Mindfulness, or the practice of focusing on the present moment, acknowledging it, and accepting it for what it is, works well for perfectionists because it teaches them to think in a mode contrary to what they’ve become accustomed to. “Mindfulness is the opposite of perfectionism,” Gaspard said. “It involves allowing what is here to be here, while perfectionism is constantly leaving the current moment to fix things.”

Psychology Today also states that because being mindful is counterintuitive to the way we are programmed — we often struggle with being in the present, free of distraction — failure is expected at the beginning, and can thus help perfectionists learn to cope with it. Mindfulness also teaches people to let plaguing thoughts go, freeing them from self-judgment and a need to control outside circumstances. Often practiced with meditation, mindfulness can help you come to terms with impulses, while also helping you to relax.

Flett also added that focusing outside of yourself can help perfectionists cope. Rather than relying on yourself to achieve impossible ideals, focusing that energy outward helps prevent feelings of inadequacy. “I think that people need to become less self-aware in the negative sense, as in less self-preoccupied,” he said. “People who are prone to perfectionism need to realize you can feel good about yourself by volunteering, so that your attention is no longer directed at yourself, but instead focused on feeling good by helping other people.”

Finally, it is important that perfectionists learn that the burden of the world is not on their shoulders, and it’s okay to ask for help. “Lower the façade,” Flett said. “If you are really struggling, do not be afraid to share your upsets with others, and accept help and support. Perfectionists will often convince themselves they are the only ones, and their failures then become a personal deficiency. If they seek help from others, they will learn there is a commonality to their issues, and that it’s not a personal flaw.”

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Molnar D, Reker D, Culp N, et al. A mediated model of perfectionism, affect, and physical health. Research in Personality. 2006.

Shanmugasegaram, S, Flett G, Oh P et al. Personality and coping in cardiac rehabilitation patients. Canadian Journal of Cardiology . 2007.

Fry P, et al. Perfectionism and other related trait measures as predictors of mortality in diabetic older adults: A six-and-a-half-year longitudinal study. Health Psychology. 2011.

Flett FL, Hewitt PL, Heisel MJ. The destructiveness of perfectionism revisited: Implications for the assessment of suicide risk and the prevention of suicide. Review of General Psychology . 2014.

Halmi K, Sunday S, Strober M, et al. Perfectionism in anorexia nervosa: variation by clinical subtype, obsessionality, and pathological eating behavior. AM J Psychiatry. 2000.