The New York Times has a short article on mental health and perfectionism, the tendency to measure success and self-worth by the completion of often unrealistic goals.
Over the last two decades this concept is being increasingly seen as a core component in some types of types of depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive and eating disorders.
A recent study identified several key features of perfectionism as, primarily, excessive concern over making mistakes, with other influences including high personal standards, the perception of high expectations and criticism from parents, doubting of the quality of your own actions, and a preference for order and organisation.
One of the key papers [pdf] in the field that really cemented the idea of perfectionism as an important psychological idea, suggested perfectionism could be focused inward (stringently evaluating and censuring your own behaviour), other-oriented perfectionism (having unrealistic standards for other people) and socially prescribed perfectionism (living up to unrealistic standards which the person perceives others are setting).
For people who already have negative ideas about themselves, perfectionism is thought to work like a constant test. If you can prove to yourself you can pass the test, you feel like a good person.
However, if the standards are unrealistic, you’re always going to fail, and ironically, concern and anxiety about achieving these high standards can actually lead to putting things off, or doing the tasks worse.
This can lead to a vicious circle where people feel their emotional well-being is dependent on them reaching impossible goals, but trying to reach the goal makes them feel even worse.
One of the difficult things in psychological treatment, is often trying to persuade people that performing worse is actually a good thing. ‘Good enough’ rather than ‘perfect’.