Perfectionism in Life

Bill Abbate
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Do you struggle with perfectionism? Many of us do. Why is it we hold such high standards in parts of our lives, while others could care less? Perfectionism is a complex subject affecting many areas of our lives.

What is Perfectionism

Where do perfectionistic tendencies originate? Perfectionism is often the result of internal pressures from the fear of disapproval from others. In other words, it usually comes from self-defeating thoughts that push us to attempt to do the impossible - achieving perfection.

The definition of perfectionism in the Oxford Dictionary is:

Perfectionism (noun) - refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.

For most of us flawed and imperfect human beings, there is little good in perfectionism. Before looking at some ways to tame the perfectionist in our personality, let's dig a little further into understanding its types and forms.

Two Types of Perfectionism

Two types of perfectionism are commonly recognized - adaptive and maladaptive.

  • Adaptive perfectionists tend to be more optimistic, seek excellence in their work, and desire to improve. While adaptive perfectionism is considered healthier than maladaptive perfectionism, it is not ideal and has many issues.
  • Maladaptive perfectionists lean toward setting unrealistic goals. They spend excessive time trying to make something perfect and usually give up. As a rule, they do not handle criticism well, are often stressed and anxious, fear making mistakes, and apply unrealistic standards to others' work. Because of these traits, they find it difficult to delegate.

Which of the two types do you identify with most?

Three Forms of Perfectionism

Research by P.L. Hewitt and G.L. Flett shows at least three forms of perfectionism – Self-Oriented, Other-Oriented, and Socially-Prescribed.

  • Self-Oriented perfectionism is about holding yourself to high standards of perfection.
  • Other-Oriented perfectionism is about holding those around you and others to high standards of perfection.
  • Socially-Prescribed perfectionism is about trying to fit into other people's expectations of high standards of perfectionism.

Which of the three forms do you identify with most?

Signs of Perfectionism

If you have more than a couple of the following, you likely lean toward perfectionism. If so, it will behoove you to control these tendencies as they can detrimentally affect your work and life.

  • You have incredibly high standards, setting exceedingly high targets that cause a great deal of stress.
  • You are extremely hard on yourself when something goes wrong, whether it is your fault or not.
  • You fear failure because of unrealistic expectations of achieving perfection.
  • You are unhappy much of the time, self-critical, and have low self-esteem.
  • You procrastinate because you worry about not doing something perfectly and fear failing, making you wait until the last minute to start.
  • You become defensive when confronted with honest or constructive criticism.
  • You are highly critical when you spot a mistake. You find mistakes easily, even when others do not, whether they are real or imagined.
  • There is no middle ground between complete success and failure, creating an all-or-nothing approach in you.
  • You spend an excessive amount of time trying to perfect something, to the point of sacrificing personal time and sleep, possibly affecting your health.
  • Although inevitable, mistakes are not allowed. When you find an error, you stop everything in an attempt to fix it.
  • Things must be done in a very particular way to satisfy you. You find it unacceptable when something is not done precisely the way you would do it.
  • Some form of depression can set in when you miss a target or goal.
"At its root, perfectionism isn't really about a deep love of being meticulous. It's about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success." - Michael Law

There are many free assessments online. I find the online assessment at Psychology Today to be one of the best. Click here to go to the assessment.

Dangers of Perfectionism

Since absolute perfection is absolutely impossible, to attempt perfection can result in many issues at work, at home, and in life. Some of the negative outcomes created by perfectionism include:

  • Poor job or academic performance
  • Low self-esteem
  • Procrastination
  • Fear of failure
  • Feelings of unworthiness
  • Strained and fewer relationships
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Conflict
  • Depression
  • Suicidal tendencies
  • Toxic comparisons
  • All-or-nothing thinking
  • Avoiding challenges
  • Lack of creativity
  • Lack of drive
  • Unrealistic/unreasonable expectations of yourself and others

Which of these has affected your life?

"Have no fear of perfection – you'll never reach it." – Salvador Dali

What Can You Do about Perfectionism?

The first thing you can do about perfectionism is to come to terms with the fact that you are not and will never be perfect. If you are not and can never be perfect, how can anything you do be perfect?

Nothing on the face of the planet is perfect, so how could any human being be perfect. If you are a Christian, you know there has only been one perfect being on earth, and he was the Son of God! No one before or since has been perfect.

Perfection exists only in fairy tales, or does it? You live in the land of reality, so can you accept you are not perfect and cannot do everything perfectly? The only way to become a mature person is to accept responsibility for your imperfect self.

Since most perfectionism outside of a legitimate medical condition is based on behavior, I suggest you find a good coach to help if it is affecting your work or personal life. If there is a physiological/psychological/medical reason for it, please seek the appropriate medical help.

From first-hand experience, the easiest way to overcome perfectionism is to:

  • Accept you are not and will never be perfect
  • Be kind to yourself
  • Give yourself permission to fail and make mistakes
  • See mistakes and failure as opportunities to learn, not the end of the world
  • Do your best, then release it/let it go/hit the send button
  • Realize no reasonable person expects you or anyone else to be perfect
  • Cast your fear aside and press on to the next task
  • Slow down, open your eyes, ears, and heart. Allow yourself to breathe slowly and deeply. Relax.
  • Watch this video and heed its message. It may make you laugh, but the message is serious!
"Have no fear of perfection – you'll never reach it." – Salvador Dali

The best way I have found to deal with perfectionism is to take the above suggestions to heart and then experiment. Start small if you must. Try to reasonably complete one thing then let it go. Even though it is not 100% perfect, you will be pleasantly surprised to find little will happen.

To further strengthen your progress, find someone you trust to work on this with you. You will each benefit as a result.


What's the worst that can happen if you don't do something perfectly? Does the world end? No? There you go! You are only "horribilizing" the outcome. STOP IT (please see the video)! The outcome may not be perfect, but it is extremely doubtful it will be horrible!

Before attempting to do anything perfectly in life, how about work on yourself first? If you can make yourself perfect, maybe then you can do something else perfectly…

I challenge you to permit yourself to be imperfect, enjoy your life, and live with freedom from perfectionism!

"Perfectionism is a delusion that can rob one of a very successful, enriching life if not careful." - April Bryan

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Semi-Retired-Leadership/Executive Coach -Personal & Career Growth Expert -Editor and Leadership Writer at Illumination -Author

Richmond, VA

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