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.