You were born to be real, not perfect.

Constantly striving for perfection is often revered, signifying someone who is successful, productive and adept at achieving positive outcomes. Yet, the negative aspects of maintaining perfectionistic tendencies can be debilitating and destructive to the maintenance of happiness and mental wellbeing.

Perfectionism in this sense, involves relentlessly striving to meet unrealistically high and demanding standards and subsequently judging your sense of self worth based on how well these standards are met. It is easy to understand why meeting high expectations is often desirable, particularly in certain settings such as the workplace, where they may contribute to a sense of efficiency, organisation and preparation. However, always expecting to be perfect in every endeavour isn’t a realistic goal for a variety of reasons, least of which is that it is incredibly demanding and not possible to be perfect in one area of your life without having to make sacrifices in another.

“always expecting to be perfect in every endeavour isn’t a realistic goal for a variety of reasons”

When you fail to live up to unsustainable and sometimes even unobtainable high standards, the negative consequences of perfectionism can be seen. You may find that constantly engaging in perfectionism can lead to feeling constantly on edge, tense and stressed. The reason for this is that attempting to obtain perfectionism is incredibly demanding and when you fail to meet the unrealistic expectations (an unavoidable outcome at some point) it is likely to be experienced as a personal failure. This leads to feelings of failure that become enmeshed in your perception of who you are.

Perfectionism also breeds avoidance of situations and experiences that carry the possibility of failing (e.g. not trying a new sporting activity because you don’t know if you’ll be good at it) or giving up new endeavours easily (e.g. dropping out of a course quickly when you don’t feel you’re as good as good as the other participants). Perfectionism may also cause other problematic behaviours, such as struggling to make even small and inconsequential decisions quickly (e.g. what to wear in the morning) or constantly checking or seeking reassurance (e.g. frequently looking in the mirror to check your appearance). These behaviours can take up a great deal of time and stop you from encountering many positive experiences.

Apart from missing out on enjoyable and valuable experiences, consistently avoiding new situations prevents you from having the opportunity to challenge your perfectionistic thinking. If you had only stuck with the new sport, you might have learnt that you can still have a whole lot of fun even when you’re not the best player on the team!

Perfectionism is maintained by a number of unhelpful thinking styles that are commonly associated with the experience of poor mental health outcomes (check out our blog on black and white thinking!).


Combatting Problematic Perfectionism

If you engage in perfectionistic thinking in one or more areas of your life, it might be useful to try some of these tips:

  • Challenge your rules about perfectionism by comparing the costs of aiming for perfect with the costs of aiming for excellent
  • Don’t set yourself up for failure! Question whether your perfectionistic thoughts are realistic, reasonable and achievable?
  • It might be useful to consider whether you would expect someone else to perform to the same standard? If not, then why should you have to?
  • If your perfectionism is linked to one area of your life (e.g. work) think about other areas or other interests that you have that you could channel some of your energy towards to achieve a sense of satisfaction.