Most people are pleased to wear the label, but there are many negatives attached to perfectionism.

Issue: 8/01

Like workaholism, perfectionism is often viewed as a desirable trait in the business world, or even necessary for success. Upon closer inspection, though, studies have shown that perfectionist attitudes often interfere with success.

A perfectionist is someone who never feels what s/he accomplishes is good enough. S/he feels s/he must extend more than 100% with every task or else be labeled as mediocre or even a failure. Perfectionism is also closely associated with procrastination, the incessant putting off of projects until you feel you can get them just right.

Many engineers procrastinate because they "don't have the time." But it may also be a sign of perfectionist attitudes preventing you from doing something that might achieve 90% of your objectives and be much better than your current methods, even if it's not perfect.

Psychologists tend to define three distinct types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented, meaning you set high standards for yourself that are impossible to meet;

  • Other-oriented, with a tendency to direct your high expectations toward others, especially employees or subordinates;

  • Socially-prescribed perfectionism, feeling like the people around you expect too much from you.

    Perfectionism can easily lapse into stress and depression. This is because severe perfectionists are never satisfied. They always raise the bar so it is just beyond their reach, so in their own eyes, they are always failures.

In researching this article on the Web, PHC Profit Report came across a number of academic and self-help sources that helped shed light on this subject. One of the sites we came across,, is devoted to a lot of pop psychology that is more entertainment than incisive. However, it does have a quiz intended to evaluate your tendencies toward perfectionism and which of the above three brands you tend toward. Check it out at

Otherwise, the best advice, and the one written in the clearest language, comes from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Potsdam Counseling Center. Although aimed at students, the advice offered seems pertinent to everyone.

Causes of Perfectionism

If you are a perfectionist, it is likely you learned early in life that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved, i.e., conditional love. As a result, you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people's approval. Thus, your self-esteem may have come to be based 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.

Various negative feelings, thoughts and beliefs may be associated with perfectionism, as follows:

  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.

  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.

  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection and disapproval.

  • All-or-none thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. They have difficulty seeing situations in perspective. For example, having a profitable year but falling short of target does not mark a business owner or manager as a total failure.

  • Overemphasis on "shoulds." Perfectionists' lives are often structured by an endless list of "shoulds" that serve as rigid rules for how their lives must be led. With an overemphasis on shoulds, perfectionists rarely take into account their own shifting wants and desires.

  • Believing that success comes easily to others. Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, little emotional stress and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

The Vicious Cycle of Perfectionism

Perfectionistic attitudes set in motion a vicious cycle. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals. Second, they fail to meet these goals because the goals were impossible to begin with. Failure to reach them was thus inevitable. Third, the constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce productivity and effectiveness. Fourth, this cycle leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming, which results in lower self-esteem.

It may also lead to anxiety and depression. At this point, perfectionists may give up completely on their goals and set different unrealistic goals, thinking, "This time, if only I try harder, I will succeed." Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.

This vicious cycle can be illustrated by looking at a way in which perfectionists often deal with interpersonal relationships. Perfectionists tend to anticipate or fear disapproval and rejection from those around them. Given such fear, perfectionists may react defensively to criticism, and in doing so, frustrate and alienate others. Without realizing it, perfectionists may also apply their unrealistically high standards to others, becoming critical and demanding of them. Furthermore, perfectionists may avoid letting others see their mistakes, not realizing that self-disclosure allows others to perceive them as more human and thus more likable.

Because of this vicious cycle, perfectionists often have difficulty being close to people and therefore have less than satisfactory interpersonal relationships.

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.

In other words, their goals are realistic, internal and potentially attainable. Healthy strivers take pleasure in the process of pursuing the task at hand 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 To 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. For instance, rather than shoot for a 10% increase in sales every year, make your goal to sell more this year than last, even if it's only by a dollar.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. For instance, if your goal is to lower your golf handicap, don't aim to bring it down from 15 to 10. Aim to bring it down to 14, then next year shoot for 13, and so on.

  • 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, "What can I learn from this experience?" More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.

  • 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. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort.

Once you have tried these suggestions, you are likely to realize that perfectionism is not a helpful or necessary influence in your life. There are alternative ways to think that are more beneficial. Not only are you likely to achieve more without your perfectionism, but you will feel better about yourself in the process.