On Perfectionism and How to Overcome It

Today I am writing about perfectionism, that deadly trait that infects so many people, causing low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and procrastination. Perfectionism is really about having unreasonable standards for your own or others’ performance. When you are a perfectionist, it means you never can live up to your internal standards. This causes unhappiness and depression. It may also cause anxiety.

Closely linked to perfectionism is all-or-nothing thinking. Although the real world is an analog world, we often think of it in binary terms. Our job is “good” or it is “bad.” A vacation is “wonderful” or “horrible.” People are “interesting” or “boring.” What makes all-or-nothing thinking part of perfectionism is that it makes your standards rigid and inflexible. There’s no grading on a curve with binary thinking. Your performance is an “A” or an “F.”

So what’s wrong with perfectionism anyway? Doesn’t it make one perform better?

The answer is no. Perfectionism actually leads to lower performance. When you have unreasonably high standards you are more likely to get disappointed when you fail to meet that standard. And disappointment makes people try less hard. It saps the will and depresses the spirit.

So you might be wondering how do I change my perfectionism? (And how do I do it instantly!) 🙂 The key to altering perfectionist tendencies is to do several things:

1. Set reasonable and flexible standards for your performance and others.

2. Reserve higher standards only for those tasks that truly require them.

3. Test out your standards. See if it’s necessary to actually be so perfect. Try doing things less well, and see if the sky falls.

4. Remember life is not just about performance. It is also about enjoyment, fun, and relaxation.

5. Think in terms of a continuum or grey scale. Instead of using all-or-nothing terms like “good” or “bad” instead use a 10 point rating scale. The dinner was a “6.” The movie was a “2.” This gets you thinking along a continuum, which is healthier and less stressful.

6. Always ask yourself before you decide on standards whether the task is actually worth doing at all. If something is not worth doing, then it is not worth doing perfectly. So for instance, when you purchase some small item that doesn’t work out, perhaps it makes sense to toss it out, or give it away, rather than gathering up the packing materials, driving 30 minutes, and returning it. Not perfect, but perhaps a better choice.


The End (Notice the slight imperfection.)

Copyright 2007 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions


Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

1 thought on “On Perfectionism and How to Overcome It

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Is Perfectionism Learned As A Child?

    I’m glad that you are feeling much better and that your magical flu medication kicked in! Your blogs are great and I am enjoying your thoughts.

    In response to your ideas and information on perfectionism, I come across many ‘perfectionistic’ children in my elementary classroom.I’d like to share my thoughts and would love to hear what you think! Do you think perfectionism starts in youth? I believe that it somehow starts as a child, maybe even infant? My teacher friends and I always sit around discussing this huge trend in our classrooms (over doughuts, or course!). How did this trait come about? And is it genetic? Or is it the sucky snacks that parents send with their children from Trader Joe’s…just kidding.

    Personally, I feel that it could be a combination of two factors. First, parents in this day in age are called the “hoovering generation”- meaning they are exposed to too much mass media (aka. Dr. Phil) and essentially freak out about what their child eats, their social circle, and what their reading level they are reading in school…causing anxieity and stress on the individual child. Basically, this is not letting their developmental appropriate stages to develop naturally in a low-stress way. As a result, we as teachers see children unable to brainstorm thoughts, take a risk in drawing a picture on their own, or even play with a new friend outside. Children with perfectionistic qualities often times will begin a writing page and will become too stressed in writing their name perfectly,that they are unable to finish their classwork. Often times, I see perfectionistic students obsessively cracking their knuckles, pulling at their eyebrows, or hiding their work from their parents afraid of what their family considers ‘failure’.

    Second, I feel a strong pull to say that perfectionism is just simply in our wiring. Is it genetic? If you notice, most people with perfectionistic qualities are somehow children of other perfectionistic parents or parent. A trait that is wired into an infant at birth, may be totally reinforced into a child later in life by their environment. Again, I see this with the child who is unable to draw a picture of a dinosaur at school, but goes home and is pushed to read a 2nd grade level reading book. Talk about anxiety! Parents are worried, and so now their children worry as well.

    I guess I feel stronlgy that perfectionism struggles begin in our younger years.
    We are exposed or engrained at an early age, and then it is only life situations that feed the fire. A little PlayStation 2, a flunked test or two, and a huge cherry Slurpee from Seven-Eleven couldn’t do that much harm, right?

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