Perfectionism – friend or enemy?

You have probably met someone who you would say is a perfectionist, or maybe you are one yourself. Being a perfectionist means wanting to do things extremely well, or as the Centre for Clinical Interventions in Western Australia says, it is ‘putting pressure on ourselves to meet high standards which then influences the way we think about ourselves’. Perfectionism can be viewed as a ‘friend’ to help us do a good job and be productive. You want to doctor or nurse, for example, to have a degree of perfectionism, as otherwise they would not work carefully to identify the problems and give you the correct treatment! However perfectionism can be ‘foe’, as it is really an illusion and not actually possible.

Striving for an unrealistic level of perfectionism can cause stress and disappointment. It can also mean not delegating tasks that should be delegated, not starting or finishing a task, or never being satisfied with your performance. It can lead to procrastination, hoarding, difficulties making decisions, reassurance seeking, checking and avoidance of activities. So the message is that there is a big difference between the healthy striving to do a good job and the unhelpful striving for perfection. Do you have a need to do things right the first time, or think that you must do everything well? Do you think there is no point in trying if you can’t do it perfectly, or rarely give yourself credit for what you do? Does your perfectionism prevent you from completing your work or other duties? If you answered yes to some of these questions, then you might want to do some work on reducing perfectionism.(1)

How do we become perfectionists? As we grow up we are influenced by many factors, such as culture, government, family, school, peers, media, to name a few! As a result we develop unconscious beliefs about ourselves, others and the world. These might include the need for full approval from others and to be 100% competent in life! Perfectionists may define their self-worth by how well they perform. Sometimes it is about wanting to feel in control, but the reality is that things cannot be totally controlled. These beliefs lead to traps in our thinking such as all-or-nothing thinking e.g. “If I don’t do really well with this task, then it is not worth doing, or I must do things perfectly and never fail!” These patterns also lead to self-critical thinking.

So how can you deal with perfectionism. Be aware of the above issues, and identify which areas you want to tackle first e.g. home, work, eating, relationships, sport. Then work on setting some achievable goals in these areas. Refer to my New Year’s blog for more information on SMART goal-setting. And here are some general tips on how to be less of a perfectionist:
1. Be aware of expectations – your own and others. Question whether they are
2. Doing things perfectly does not make people value you or approve of you
more. It can, however, wear you out!
3. Weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of being a perfectionist. You may
want to keep some of the advantages, and let go of some of the disadvantages,
or you may find that there are more disadvantages and decide to change how
you do things.
4. Try lowering your standards a little, for example, aim to do a good job instead
of a perfect job. You may be surprised at the effect. Frustration and procrastination
are likely to decrease, and you may well fi nd that satisfaction increases.
You will even create some time to relax.
5. Establish some limits on what you do – for example, in terms of time you
might spend on a task.
6. Be aware of fear that might hide behind perfectionism – maybe fear of failure
or criticism. Fear can maintain unhelpful behaviours, and the way to deal with
fear is to challenge it. You may want to do this one step at a time (see Step 4)
and get some support from a friend or your GP to help you.
7. Recognise that you can change – avoid saying, ‘I can never change’ or ‘I always
have to do the job this way’.
8. Keep things in perspective.
9. Work out some questions to challenge your thinking around being perfect.
Examples might be:
● ‘Who says that I must always be perfect?’
● ‘What would happen if I made a mistake occasionally?’
● ‘Would it be the end of the world?’
● ‘What is the worst that could happen?’
● ‘Would that be so terrible? Could I live with that?’
10. Remember, very few things are perfect. It is okay to be average. In fact, challenge yourself to be mediocre!(2)

And now let’s talk about procrastination! Procrastination, or putting things off, is a form of avoidant behaviour. It might be used to avoid a stressful situation, such as a student procrastinating over their assignments and handing them in late as a result. Do you ever use distractions to avoid doing the jobs you need to do? Sometimes using distractions can serve to help you avoid uncomfortable feelings. Common distractions are going on the Internet, going to the beach, listening to music, watching movies, seeing friends or smoking. Sometimes we are just seeking pleasure in our distractions, which is not a bad thing — but if the cost is too great, then it is a problem (3).

Sometimes there is an element of truth in the excuse, but sometimes there is little truth, and so one way of dealing with procrastination is to be honest with yourself. Another example of procrastination is delaying starting on your goals, such as exercising. Procrastination can also be related to expecting too much of yourself and tending to be a perfectionist. For example, an individual may procrastinate and be late with a piece of
work because they want it to be perfect. Procrastination may also stem from fear of failure or criticism, a fear of uncertainty, a desire to be approved of by important people in your life or a desire to be in control of things. Sometimes it is related doubting your abilities. In the case of a person expecting a lot of themselves, they need to challenge their thoughts and beliefs in relation to these expectations, and develop new perspectives on themselves and life.

In terms of wanting to be in control or fear of uncertainty, we need to let go of or challenge some of our ideas as we cannot be in control of everything and life does involve uncertainty. Then we need to challenge our fears by finding ways to get on and do the jobs. To deal with perfectionism or procrastination, we can also adopt different behaviours. We need to set realistic goals, breaking them down into small steps, with realistic timeframes. The next step is to get started, even if you don’t feel like it, even if there are some uncomfortable feelings associated with the task or even if you would prefer to do something more pleasurable. In this way you can see that dealing with procrastination involves sitting with your uncomfortable feelings. There are some strategies that assist with this, including using mindfulness or awareness of the feelings, and to observe these feelings in a non-judgemental way (3).

I will be posting an e-book on mindfulness soon, so look out for it on the website!

And if you want to work through a treatment program for perfectionism, go to, to resources, consumers and then the modules on perfectionism. There are 9 short workbooks, which are excellent.

(1) Centre for Clinical Interventions modules on perfectionism:, accessed 12th Feb 2014.
(2) Howell, C. (2009). Keeping the Blues Away: The ten-step guide to reducing the relapse of depression, Radcliffe, Oxford.
(3) Howell, C., & Murphy, M. (2011). Release your worries: a guide to letting go of stress and anxiety. Exisle, Wollombii, NSW.

Contact Dr Cate

If you would like to speak with me, please contact me via phone, email or the website.

I look forward to talking with you about mental health and wellbeing education, coaching, speaking or writing.


Sign up now

Join Dr Cate’s subscription list to receive regular information about upcoming events and workshops.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

We never trade, sell or rent your information to anyone!