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Letting Go of Perfectionism

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There is a very fine line that separates the pursuit of excellence from perfectionism. Pushing yourself to be the best you can be, within reason, is healthy. Setting unrealistic goals — and then berating yourself for falling short of them — is not. The latter is characteristic of perfectionistic thinking patterns.

The irony of the perfectionism conundrum is that perfectionists generally exude confidence. To outsiders, their skills appear effortless and flawless. Can you imagine Martha Stewart stressed out in the kitchen, and then apologetically serving a slightly lopsided cake for dessert? No ... and she probably can’t either. The expectation to be the best, to never fail, no matter what, becomes internalized, even for the less-visible chefs, CEOs, students and engineers among us. As a result, perfectionists usually feel anything but “together,” despite the self-assured façade they may present to the outside world.

Is Perfectionism Limiting Your Potential?

Young perfectionists are often easy to spot: From the frustration over not being able to color inside the lines of a coloring book page to getting a “98” on a test rather than a “100,” the line between reasonable and extreme self-imposed standards is apparent, particularly if accompanied by tears or temper tantrums.

As we get older, our perfectionism is often less blatant and harder for others to see, yet it can be just as — if not more — emotionally problematic.


“Perfectionism can become toxic when people set standards that are impossibly high and believe they are worthless if they can't meet them,” according to a Wall Street Journal article examining the roots of perfectionism. Resulting problems can include discouragement, self-doubt, exhaustion, procrastination and workaholism — not to mention a host of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and eating disorders. 

The impact of perfectionism also extends to interpersonal relationships, and it can take many forms. Perfectionists often tend to set unrealistically high expectations for their partners — and for the relationship itself — leading to inevitable disappointment. Since perfectionists are often people-pleasers, doing whatever it takes to avoid conflict, they might swallow their true feelings about a situation — until resentment and blame erupt seemingly out of the blue. In addition, the “black-or-white” distorted thinking patterns associated with perfectionism can result in skewed assumptions about why their partner did or didn’t do something as trivial as forget to return a phone call (“See, she doesn’t care anymore”). 

And in the workplace, perfectionism can strain professional relationships. For example, the need to constantly review others’ work could be misread by co-workers as distrust, and it could also slow down a project, adding pressure to the team as deadlines approach.

As if the emotional and interpersonal toll of perfectionism wasn’t enough, other research has found that “some of the largest costs associated with perfectionism may be in terms of poor health,” including development of serious illnesses, coping difficulties, social phobias, insomnia and earlier mortality.

That’s a pretty impressive list. And it doesn’t end there. Living in fear of failure — or mediocrity — often means shying away from trying something new, whether a recipe or an innovative approach to solving a problem at work. That can lead to missed opportunities.  

Perfectionism Personified

The following is a snapshot view of a perfectionist. Do any of these ring familiar?

  • You fear being average
  • bicycleYou have excessively high standards — for yourself and others
  • You strain compulsively and unremittingly toward impossible goals 
  • You measure your own worth based on productivity and achievement
  • You would prefer to be safe than to try something new and fail
  • You loathe the thought of appearing foolish or inadequate
  • You exhibit excessive sensitivity to real or imagined disapproval from others
  • You react defensively to criticism
  • You demonstrate cognitive distortions such as all-or-nothing (black-or-white) thinking and overgeneralization

Are You a Perfectionist?

Dr. David Burns, author of “Feeling Good,” developed the Perfectionism Scale, a 10-question self-assessment listed below. For each of the statements, assign a code of +2 (strongly agree), +1 (agree), 0 (neutral), -1 (disagree) or -2 (strongly disagree). 

  1. If I don’t set the highest standards for myself, I am likely to end up a second-rate person.
  2. People will likely think less of me if I make a mistake.
  3. If I cannot do something really well, there is little point in doing it at all.
  4. I should be upset if I make a mistake.
  5. If I try hard enough, I should be able to excel at anything I attempt.
  6. It is shameful for me to display weakness or foolish behavior.
  7. I shouldn’t have to repeat the same mistake many times.
  8. An average performance is bound to be unsatisfying to me.
  9. Failing at something important means I’m less of a person.
  10. If I scold myself for failing to live up to my expectations, it will help me to do better in the future.

Scoring: Add up your scores, noting that negative numbers will cancel any positive numbers. A score of +20 (if you answered +2 to every question) would indicate a high degree of perfectionism. On the flip side, a score of -20 would point to a strongly non-perfectionistic mindset. Roughly half the population tends to score somewhere between +2 and +16, revealing varying degrees of perfectionism.


Reining in Perfectionism 

Practice using the following strategies to help curb your perfectionistic tendencies:

1. Recognize the damage — The first step in breaking perfectionistic thought patterns is to see how self-defeating they really are. As the first step in a program that focused on motivational, cognitive and interpersonal aspects of perfectionism, Dr. David Burns and his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania Mood Clinic asked clients to create a simple “pro versus con” list of their perfectionistic tendencies. Try it. You may be surprised to see few advantages (e.g., “It pushes me to try harder”) lined up against many disadvantages (“I constantly feel so stressed,” “My perfectionism prevents me from taking risks or trying new things because I’m afraid to make mistakes,” “I’m less tolerant of others than I ought to be, and that makes me irritable”).


2. Reprogram distorted thinking patterns — Burns and his team also helped clients notice distorted “all-or-nothing” (black-or-white) thinking that can promote perfectionism. It’s important to realize that overcooking the fish does not mean you are a failed chef. Getting passed over for the promotion does not signal a doomed career. 

When you’re struggling with a negative thought, ask yourself these three questions to determine if it’s part of a distorted thinking pattern and to shift to a more positive thought:

First, ask: “Am I generalizing?” If your thought includes the word “always” or “never,” chances are good that the answer to this question is yes.

Second, ask: “Is it true?” Consider whether your closest friend or family member would agree with your thought.

Finally, ask: “How can I reframe this thought to help myself move forward more powerfully?” For example, if you set a goal to exercise every morning before work and you skipped the last four days, you might be thinking: “This is hopeless. I’ll never be able to stick with this.” To reframe this thought and move forward, try asking yourself: “How can I create a more effective and consistent exercise plan?” This allows you to consider and address what wasn’t working. Perhaps scheduling your workouts for your lunch hour or after work will help you stick with it. Also, try asking yourself: “What can I do right now to turn this around?” Identify an action you can take immediately to help you reach your goal, such as emailing a friend to ask if she’ll go for a run with you after work today. In the end, only by doing something different will you achieve different results. 

3. Practice self-compassion — Perfectionists tend to struggle when it comes to self-compassion. To practice being kinder in the way you treat yourself, start with your thoughts. Imagine talking to your six-year-old self in a soothing, reassuring way. For example, if you’re not happy with how you performed in a job interview, you might say to your younger self: “Honey, don’t be so hard on yourself. Just look at it as a great learning experience. Now you have a better idea of how to prepare for your next interview.” Just as you would be gentle in the way you talk to a child, be gentle with what you say to yourself.  

4. Look outside yourself — The more you focus on helping others, the less you will ruminate on your own perceived shortcomings. Plus, research shows that being kind to others has a boomerang effect — you’ll benefit as well from a “helper’s high,” as documented by Dr. Stephen Post, author and professor at Stony Brook University School of Medicine. 

5. Shift your focus — Dr. Gordon Flett, Canada Research Chair in Personality and Health and Professor of Social Sciences and Humanities at York University, has conducted significant research in the area of perfectionism. Among his findings: “Given the apparent costs of perfectionism, much is to be gained from preventive efforts that highlight the difference between striving for excellence versus striving to be perfect.” The University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center suggests that, as opposed to perfectionistic thinking, “healthy striving” involves: setting standards that are high, but within reach; enjoying the process as well as the outcome; seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning; and reacting positively to helpful criticism.

The perils of perfectionism can be very real, sabotaging your self-esteem, health, personal relationships and your career. Recognizing perfectionism is the first step toward liberating yourself from these often distorted thinking patterns. With gentle self-discipline to keep perfectionism at bay, you can set yourself on the path to living a more fulfilling, peaceful and satisfying life.


Photo Credits: AndreasArledalThomas Leth-Olsen, and Les W Allen via Compfight cc



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