The Fantasy of Perfectionism                                          

Do you ever agonize over trying to make the “right choice”? Mentally trash yourself because you made a mistake? Spend long hours editing to achieve the perfect report, or over planning the perfect party?  If the answer is yes to any of these, you may be a perfectionist and at risk of anxiety, depression and burn out.  This quest for perfection can look very different, but the outcome is often the same. 


Many people strive for perfection, believing that when they achieve this ideal they will be happy and fulfilled. They fear making a mistake, being criticized or doing anything less than 110%.  They work long hours and stay up late. But the stress of trying to be perfect is exhausting and makes it almost impossible to relax.  

Sometime they may be so paralyzed and overwhelmed by the idea of doing a perfect job that they give up before even getting started.  This type of perfectionism results in a cycle of constant procrastination and self-recrimination.

The question remains: Do you want to be perfect or do you want to be happy?  Believing that perfection is required can over time lead to anxiety and depression. Let me be clear: working hard with a goal of reasonable excellence is of course important and healthy.  Problems arise however, when working hard and doing well become intolerance for any error or natural humanness. A rigid intolerance versus a healthy desire to do well can lead to being frustrated by every slight flaw making it hard to enjoy life and be happy. 

What is the difference between the Tooth Fairy and Perfection? 

Nothing! They both don’t exist!

Perfectionism is a fantasy mind state with some very concrete tendencies such as:

  • Being very focused on pleasing others at the expense of oneself
  • Imagining that if an ideal can be achieved, feelings of worth will follow.
  • Frequently feeling disappointed because high expectations are seldom achieved.
  • Taking others comments personally, which leads to defensiveness and poor relationships.
  • Feelings of shame.
  • Feeling undeserving of happiness.
  • Swinging from feeling great after a success to feeling like a complete failure after a set back.
  • Workaholism and seldom feeling entitled to take a break.
  • Procrastinating and feeling overwhelmed.
  • Being overly critical of others when they don’t do things the “proper” way.
  • Being overly critical of self and feeling bad about every thought, behaviour and comment deemed “wrong”.
  • Trying to hide flaws and therefore not sharing openly with others.

Anxiety and Relationships

Perfectionists may tend to feel very insecure in relationships. Feelings of unworthiness lead them to live in constant fear of upsetting others. This creates significant worry and anxiety. Perfectionists blame themselves for relationships ending. “If only I was more loveable, “. Never ending thoughts of “If only I hadn`t …” are exhausting. There may be frustration at having tried so hard and given up so much only to be rejected. But how can you do everything for someone else and be true to yourself? 

Origins of Perfectionism

Society teaches us what is acceptable and what is not. Our parents, just like their parents before them, were taught through punishment and reward that mistakes are not allowed. They pass this intolerance for flaws onto their children. Perfectionism can also be learned by watching parents who are high achievers and demand perfectionism of themselves.   

How Perfectionism Backfires

Ironically, perfectionism backfires and erodes our self-confidence when the ideal of “perfect” is never achieved. Perfectionism results in living in fear of mistakes that creates constant anxiety. Unrealistically high expectations mean that when things fall short, we will be upset with ourselves and others. We can’t forgive ourselves for not being perfect. We may become overly focused on small flaws we perceive in ourselves. Perfectionists may work themselves into exhaustion and burnout.  When we hear the internal self say you “must” or you “should” we are being motivated by anxiety rather than intrinsic drive.  

Edmund Burne, author of the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook, states that “The more perfectionistic you are, the more often you are likely to feel anxious”.  We end up with a part of our mind that is always judging.  It judges everything we say and do and, in turn, judges everyone else.  When we are so focused on doing the “right” thing and pleasing others we lose sight of the internal guide that directs us to be true to ourselves, which leads to unhappiness and depression. Perfectionists find it hard to just have fun because a part of them says, “you are not allowed to”, and there is an underlying fear that something bad will happen soon.   

Overcoming Perfectionism

Although perfectionism is endemic to our society you do not need to succumb to its clutches.  There are many strategies to overcome it:

  • Acceptance of yourself is the antidote to perfectionism. When you accept yourself, you no longer need to criticize yourself or need to try to change anyone.  
    Consider that you are a divine creation and you are loved by God, and the Creator of the universe. You are loveable just the way you are.
  • Try not to take other people’s behavior personally.  
  • Live like children. They are usually happier than adults because they live in the moment; They express their feelings and do not hold grudges.
  • Use your eye for detail to find the strengths in yourself and others.
  • Decide that your worth is not determined by achievements. You have inherent worth. You are loveable and acceptable just the way you are.  
  • Be authentic. Mahatma Gandhi wisely noted that “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony”
  • Decide to accept others as they are. 
  • Notice your thoughts and perfectionist thinking. Challenge these thoughts. Perfectionist thoughts like “I must not make a mistake” lead to stress, upset with self, and sadness.  A more realistic thought is: “Everyone makes mistakes”.
  • Focus on positives. Rather than focusing on everything you haven’t done today, focus on what you have accomplished and give yourself a pat on the back. 
  • Take a break. Perfectionists have a hard time giving themselves a break. Set out how much time you want to spend on something and then take a break.    
  • Value the fun factor. 
  • Practice self-compassion. Treat yourself like you would a best friend. Be positive and encouraging. 
  • Practice gratitude.
  • Pick bite size goals. Sometimes we get overwhelmed with everything we need to do, which can lead to immobility. Instead, breakdown tasks and do one at a time. Prioritize the most important items.
  • Do something you enjoy every day.

It is not too hard to see how trying to be the ideal employee, parent, spouse and have a flawless life can lead to burnout and unhappiness. Instead of appreciation and sainthood you may feel anxious, resentful and sad.   

Letting go of perfectionism involves being courageous enough to listen to your heart, be yourself and live with flaws. Being human means you are unique with amazing strength and a few quirks, which makes you a beautiful and original human being…perfectly imperfect.

By Nancy Hurst PhD Compassionate Counselling Inc. 780-482-1847

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