To feel happy and be worthwhile I must achieve, succeed at what ever I do, and make no mistakes.

To be human is to be imperfect. Yet many people try to be more than human. Some strive for the ultimate in everything they do - no matter what the cost. Others go to all lengths to avoid ever making a mistake, even to the point of restricting their lives.

What is wrong with seeking perfection?

Perfectionistic people often find it hard to admit to their perfectionism. To them it seems normal. But perfectionism is not as good as it sounds:

  • It creates dissatisfaction. By demanding unrealistic standards, you set yourself up to fail. You then feel dissatisfied with the result - and bad about yourself.
  • Striving to be perfect actually increases the risk of failing. Demanding a perfect result will make you anxious - which will make it harder to do well. Paradoxical, is it not? Standards that are too high set people up to fail!
  • Perfectionism blocks productivity. You can spend so much time polishing up one task you get little else done.
  • Believing that you must avoid any risk of failure will keep you in the same old boring job, stop you learning new skills, and restrict you to what seems safe.
  • Your health can suffer. The anxiety and tension that perfectionism causes can lead to physical problems such as hypertension, heart disease, headaches and stomach ulcers.
  • Relationships come under stress. Others get irritated with your striving and fussiness. If you demand that they too behave perfectly, you create a recipe for resentment, anger, and conflict.
  • Finally, you miss chances to learn. If you are afraid to admit any imperfections, you will get defensive when criticised rather than welcome it as a learning experience, and avoid trying anything new where there is a risk of getting it wrong.

Why do we do it?

If it is so harmful, why do people engage in perfectionistic behaviour? The cause seems to be a combination of biological makeup coupled with learning.

  • The human brain prefers to keep things simple - humans have a natural tendency to see things in black and white terms: good v. bad, perfect v. useless, success v. failure, and the like.
  • Learning builds on this tendency. Children use perfectionistic parents as models. Parents may express anxiety or disappointment at low performance, or show children they will not love or accept them unless they do well.
  • The wider culture contributes. We are constantly urged to perform to the maximum - at school, in sporting activities, with our social lives, even at sex.
  • Perfectionism may provide the dubious gain of avoidance: if you believe that things must be done perfectly or not at all, you give yourself a permanent excuse to dodge difficult or uncomfortable tasks - including personal change.
  • Striving for perfection is often a defence against the two common fears of self-devaluation and discomfort.
  • You may also dread that your world will collapse if you reduce your standards. The thought of becoming disorganised, careless, dirty, incapable, and unwanted is highly uncomfortable. Though your striving creates anxiety, it seems less threatening than the prospect of chaos and disintegration.

Catch yourself trying to be perfect

Watch for signs like the following:

  • You worry about your performance.
  • You put things off.
  • You continually redo things.
  • You over-check locks, windows, taps, switches, sleeping children, etc.
  • You are excessively tidy.
  • Conversely, you are excessively sloppy or untidy. (You believe that nothing should be done unless it can be done perfectly, so very little does get done).
  • You worry about cleanliness. You wash your hands more than you need to, vacuum the carpets every day, or forbid your children to play in the dirt. You avoid activities such as camping, picnics, or even sex, because you are afraid of mess or contamination.
  • You engage in compulsive behaviours. You feel as though you are compelled to do things like read books or magazines right through no matter how boring, eat everything in front of you whether you like it or not, or repeatedly wash your hands or tidy your desk if things get even a little out of place.
  • You worry that others will disapprove or you will put yourself down if you do not 'match up'.

For a week or so, keep a diary of the times you find yourself overdoing something. Record where you were and what was happening, your perfectionistic feelings and behaviours, and the thoughts involved. This 'ABC' diary will help clue you in to the extent you do it, and the typical triggers involved.

Look for your perfectionistic thinking

Several distortions of reality may be involved with your perfectionism. Black and white thinking (also called 'all-or-nothing thinking') is common. You view things in extremes: total success v. total failure, superb v. lousy, right v. wrong, perfect v. useless. Over-generalising can lead you to think that because high standards are possible, 'perfection' is too; or that one or a few mistakes means you are 'always making mistakes.'

The real problem, though, is demanding - jumping from the belief that because perfection is possible, therefore you should or must achieve it - coupled with the idea that if you do not, this reflects on your self-worth (self-rating) or will lead to dire consequences and unbearable discomfort (awfulising and discomfort-intolerance).

Self-Devaluation Fears

Look for any variations of the following:

  • 'Whatever I do should be to the highest possible standard if I am to justify my existence or see myself as a worthwhile person.'
  • 'I must minimise any risk of making a mistake or turning out a shoddy result - because this would prove me to be useless, lazy, or careless.'
  • 'To feel all right about myself, I need to have other people see me as careful, concerned, hard-working, and successful.'
  • 'It would be terrible if other people saw me as less than competent.'
  • 'I could not stand to think I had failed or not done my best.'

Discomfort Fears

Also involved may be thoughts about your life becoming disorganised and chaotic - the results of which would be disaster, discomfort and misery:

  • Every problem should have an ideal solution, and I cannot rest till I find the right one.
  • To avoid disaster, I must keep my life predictable and have everything under control.
  • It would be dreadful and frightening if my life and circumstances were to get out of control because I stopped striving.
  • At all costs, I must avoid the emotional discomfort I would feel if I failed to maintain my standards.

From perfectionism to excellence

How can you break out of the perfection trap? Start by getting the idea itself into perspective. To aim for high standards is not a bad thing. It is satisfying to do well. It also helps ensure some degree of quality to human endeavours. High standards only become a problem when you turn them into demands - in other words, when you believe that you always have to achieve to a high level. The solution is 'realistic excellence'. Realistic excellence means going for the best you can - but taking into account some realities:

  1. Your personal abilities and limitations (e.g. a disability, or lack of knowledge);
  2. The resources (time, energy, money, etc.) you have available;
  3. The range of activities you want to put those resources into;
  4. Which activities are most important to you; and
  5. Any limiting features of your circumstances over which you have no control.

The idea is to spread your resources round the various things you want to do so that each gets the time and energy you think it deserves. You may elect to put only a little time and energy into one activity, in order to reserve it for another. Let us say, for instance, you would like to mow your lawns once a week. You may decide to settle for every fortnight, because you want to spend more time on a hobby.

You will be freer to make rational choices when you get rid of the irrational thinking that creates perfectionism.

Start by giving up the idea that perfection is possible. Perfection exists only as an idea in the mind. No matter how desirable it may already be, there is nothing that cannot be improved on. Personal attractiveness, architecture, music - everything has some potential to be just that little bit better. This even applies to nature - beautiful gardens usually have weeds. So give up the idea that it is possible for anything to ever reach a point of finalised perfection.

Check this out for a day or so. Keep asking yourself: 'Is this chair entirely comfortable, entirely uncomfortable - or is it really something between? Is that person completely attractive, completely repulsive, or again, something between?' You will soon discover that it is too black and white to see anything as totally good or totally bad.

The same applies to people. Making mistakes is what humans do. You are a human being - so, surely, you would expect to make mistakes? Why, then, do you think you should never get anything wrong? This is like elevating yourself to the status of a supernatural being.

Mistakes are necessary for growth and development. When you stop making them, you stop learning. Remember, too, that one mistake is no reason for totally giving up on something. If you ate an item on your diet's forbidden list, you do not have to abandon the whole diet. Learn what you can from the mistake, then carry on.

Remember, too, that you can accept yourself no matter what your performance. Question the myth that to be 'worthy' you have to match up to some universal standard. What standard are you using? Who set it? Anyway, why do you have to be 'worthy' - as opposed to just accepting yourself regardless of your performance or achievements?

I am not suggesting you reject any idea of improving yourself. Far from it. But you can set out to improve on specific aspects - for example, your appearance, parenting skills, or whatever - while still accepting the total you.

Also, self-acceptance does not depend on how others see you. Most people will not think badly of you for making mistakes. But even if they did, you are still the same person as you were before. Their views do not magically change you into something else.

As we saw earlier, people with perfectionistic tendencies often fear that if they let up they will become mediocre or their lives disorganised and chaotic. But this is just an illusion. For such a person to become disorganised, they would have to deliberately try. If you unbend a little, the most that is likely to happen is you approach things somewhat more realistically.

Note that perfectionism, anyway, leads to inefficiency. There is a time management principle known as the 80/20 rule which illustrates this. You achieve 80% of the value of a task in the first 20% of the time spent on it. The other 20% of value takes up the other 80% of the time. If you were smart, you would settle for doing five tasks to an 80% level (a total gain of 400%) instead of only one task to a 100% level. This illustrates the common paradox of demanding - thinking that you should or must achieve perfection will often reduce your performance!

To summarise, here is a list of questions to ask when disputing perfectionistic beliefs:

  1. Is perfection really possible?
  2. What are the advantages of striving for the ultimate?
  3. If there are any, are they worth the hassle?
  4. Does it help me achieve more - or does it lead to inefficiency?
  5. Am I enjoying what I am doing - or am I only concerned with the outcome?
  6. What evidence is there that life will fall apart if I drop my standards? Would it be any worse than it is now - or would it be a little better?
  7. How does behaving less than perfectly make me 'unworthy' or a 'failure'?

Perfectionism is a way of thinking

Here is a list of the most common beliefs that create perfectionism, along with rational alternatives:

Perfectionistic Beliefs

Realistic Beliefs

It is possible for some things in life to reach a stage of perfection if we work hard enough at them. In reality, nothing could ever be ‘perfect’. I could work at something for ever, and there would still be room for improvement.
If I do not set high standards, I will end up a failure. Perfectionism sets me up to fail! My achievements have been in spite of perfectionism - not because of it. I could achieve more if I set realistic standards.
If I tried hard enough I could do well at everything I put my hand to. It is impossible to achieve to a high level at everything. Expecting this will only lead to frustration, disappointment, and self-downing.

If I cannot do something to a high standard, there is no point in doing it at all.

An acceptable standard is all that is needed. Anyway, some things you can enjoy simply for the doing - no matter what the outcome.

Making mistakes is evidence of personal inadequacy.

Making mistakes is evidence that I am a human being.

I could not stand the discomfort of knowing I had failed and that others will also know.

I do not like discomfort - but I can stand it. My life would be very restricted if I never did anything that involved some difficulty and pain - like making mistakes.

Action approaches to realistic living

Undercut your perfectionistic habits by combining rethinking with action. Here are some strategies to get you moving.

Reduce the performance level you expect of yourself. Right now, plan to do some things to a lesser standard than before. Then do them. Observe the results - does it lead to disaster? You probably felt uncomfortable - but you stood it. Remember: to increase your success rate, reduce your expectations.

Deliberately check things once only. Force yourself to do one adequate check of locks, switches and tasks you have completed - then walk away. Practise tolerating the anxiety you will feel.

Set yourself time limits. Stop forever polishing up tasks. Set time limits and stick to them. When the period is up, leave that task - even though you know you can improve it.

Admit to your slips and shortcomings. Why not own up - at least to those people you regard as important? Most people will feel better about you for showing that you are human and each time you make such an admission, you undercut your perfectionistic tendencies a little more and reduce the fear of disapproval.

Make sure you see the positives. Paradoxically, people who strive for the ultimate often get little pleasure from their achievements - they tend to focus instead on the ways in which they still fall short. So, for a couple of weeks note in a diary the things you do to an acceptable (not perfect) level. You just might surprise yourself.

Enjoy the doing, rather than worry about the outcome. Finally, note that giving up perfectionism will increase the enjoyment you get out of life. Recreation will be more relaxing when you are less concerned with high performance and tasks more satisfying when you set achievable standards.

Other helpful resources

Links within this programme

Further reading

  • Hauck, P.A., Overcoming the Rating Game: Beyond Self-Love - Beyond Self-Esteem, Westminster/John Knox, Louisville, KY, 1992.


From perfectionism to realistic living

Perfectionism is a way of thinking. Here is a rational alternative to the demand for perfection:

I will always seek to achieve as much as I can, but unfailing success and competence is unrealistic. Better I learn to accept myself as a person, separate from my performance.