Cover Photo Image
  • Do you feel like what you accomplish is never quite good enough?
  • Do you often put off turning in papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?
  • Do you feel you must give more than 100% on everything you do or else you will be mediocre or even a failure?

If so, rather than simply working toward success, you may in fact be trying to be perfect. Perfectionism refers to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors aimed at reaching excessively unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen as desirable and necessary for success. However, perfectionistic attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can both rob you of a sense of personal satisfaction and cause you to fail to achieve as much as people who have more realistic goals.

Causes of Perfectionism

You may have learned that other people value you because of what you accomplish or achieve. Your value may be based on other people’s approval and primarily on external standards. This can leave you vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense.

A number of the following negative feelings, thoughts, and beliefs may be associated with perfectionism:

  • Fear of failure: equating failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes: equating mistakes with failure. If you orient your life around avoiding mistakes, you miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval. If people see your flaws, you fear that you will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of protecting yourself from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • All-or-none thinking. You fear that you are worthless if your accomplishments are not perfect. A straight "A" student who receives a "B" might believe, "I am a total failure."
  • Overemphasis on shoulds. You have an endless list of shoulds that serve as rigid rules for you lead your life. An overemphasis on shoulds, results in missing your own wants and desires.
  • Believing that others are easily successful. You tend to assume others achieve success with minimum of effort, no errors, emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. You view your efforts as unending and inadequate.
The Vicious Cycle of Perfectionism

Perfectionistic attitudes set in motion a vicious cycle. First, you set unreachable goals. Second, you fail to meet the goals because they were impossible to begin with. Failure was inevitable. Third, the constant pressure to achieve perfection combined with consistent failure reduces productivity and effectiveness. Fourth, this cycle leads you to be self-critical which results in lower self-esteem. It may also lead to anxiety and depression. At this point you may abandon current goals for new ones thinking, "this time if only I try harder I will succeed." Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.

This cycle is illustrated by how some perfectionists deal with interpersonal relationships. They anticipate or fear disapproval and rejection from others. Thus, they react defensively to criticism which frustrates and alienates others. Without realizing it, they also have unrealistically high standards of others, and become critical and demanding. Perfectionists may avoid letting others see their mistakes, not realizing that self-disclosure allows others to perceive them as more human and more likeable. Because of this vicious cycle, perfectionists often have difficulty being close to people and therefore have less than satisfactory interpersonal relationships.

Unhealthy Symptoms Of Perfectionism
  • Rejects failure. The hope is that the path toward goals is direct, smooth, and free of obstacles.
  • Expects uninterrupted stream of positive emotions. Assumes that one should always be happy which leads to rejecting/avoiding painful emotions.
  • Is never satisfied. It consistently sets goals and standards that are impossible to meet, which in turn, rejects the possibility of success. No matter how much perfectionism achieves, it never takes pleasure from accomplishments because it is never good enough. Regardless of objective successes, perfectionism never feels successful.
  • Rejects reality. Perfectionism refuses failure ns painful emotions while holding on to unrealistic expectations.
  • Pays the cost of rejection. Rejection of failure results in anxiety because the threat of failing is always present. Rejection of painful emotions leads to intensification of emotions that are suppressed, which causes more pain. Rejection of real-world limits and constraints leads to setting unreasonable and unattainable standards for success, which can never be met. There is a constant feeling of frustration and inadequacy.
  • Ignores the process. The journey is not valued. It is seen as a series of obstacles to achieve the goal. Perfectionism is unable to enjoy the present because it is obsessed with the next step.
  • Responds to criticism with defensiveness and perhaps aggression. Criticism exposes flaws which are unacceptable if perfection is desired. Perfectionism wants to be perceived as worthy and valuable even if it feels unworthy and defective.
  • Can find fault in almost anything and be extremely hard on everyone. Perfectionism is unforgiving of itself because of the belief that errors/mistakes are avoidable and can be controlled.
  • Is rigid. It communicates and thinks in categories: Ought, have to, must, should. It uses these rules to impose perceived control. Perfectionism would rather do it by itself than relinquish control and trust others to complete it.
  • Dwells on failures and quickly dismisses successes.
  • Often leads to experiences of anxiety, low-self-esteem, body image and eating concerns, sexual dysfunctions, and depression.
Healthy Striving

Healthy goal setting and striving are quite different from the self-defeating process of perfectionism. Healthy strivers tend to set goals based on their own wants and desires rather than primarily in response to external expectations. Their goals are usually just one step beyond what they have already accomplished. Their goals are realistic, internal, and potentially attainable. They take pleasure in the process of pursuing the task rather than focusing only on the end result. When they experience disapproval or failure, their reactions are generally limited to specific situations rather than generalized to their entire self-worth.

What You Can Do About Perfectionism

The first step in changing from perfectionistic attitudes to healthy striving is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism. Some of the following strategies may help:

  • Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment.
  • Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100%, try for 90%, 80%, or even 60% success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity, not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task. Recognize that there can be value in the process of pursuing a goal.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, "have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?"
  • Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, "what am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?"
  • Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask,
  • Think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it. Ask yourself, "what can I learn from this experience?"
  • Avoid all-or-none thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to discriminate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. Put forth less effort on less important tasks. Practice "good enough" effort on those tasks and more energy into higher priorities.

Back to Top