Published 9 June 2022. Written by Chris Worfolk.
It is sometimes said that perfect is the enemy of good. But many of us find ourselves bogged down in doing things to such a high standard that even to ourselves it can start to feel unreasonable. In this article, we'll discuss what perfectionism is and what we can do about it.
Hollender (1965) defines perfectionism as "demanding of oneself or others a higher quality of performance than is required by the situation."
Such a definition is, of course, subjective. What standard of performance does the situation require? If we are in a final at the Olympic games, only a very exacting standard would do. on the other hand, in many situations in life, there is a trade-off to be made between getting things done and getting things perfect.
For example, as I write this article I need to make a judgement call as to how many research papers I would read to gather source material. I want the article to be as useful as possible. But if I read hundreds of papers, there is a cost to this: I cannot be writing other articles that could also be helpful, for example.
A key aspect here is that this is a standard we impose on ourselves. Nobody is telling us we have to reach this certain standard: it comes from our own minds.
Is perfectionism bad?
First, let's consider whether perfectionism really is a problem. As we have discussed, it is difficult to be a perfectionist if you're trying to become a world champion. And so in some situations, trying to be perfect may be justified.
To a degree, research supports this. Stoeber & Otto (2006) noted that perfectionism is sometimes associated with positive characteristics.
However, it is often at odds with getting things done. Spending too long on one project causes opportunity costs. Here are some examples:
- Spending too long on a university essay means not revising other topics, or engaging in social activities with friends
- Spending too much time on a work task results in other tasks being delayed
- Constantly revising a book means fewer people get to read it and despite all the revisions, it still never feels finished and may never be published
- Spending a long time writing a simple email is time that could be spent doing something enjoyable
- We may choose not to do something unless we can "do it right" and therefore never do it at all
Perfectionism can cause us to procrastinate. If we feel that completing a task is too large because it must be to a certain standard, we may avoid doing the task altogether.
It can also make us miserable. If we are constantly agonising over whether something should be better or whether we should spend more time on it, we subject ourselves to additional unproductive stress.
When we set unrealistically high standards for ourselves, we will typically fail to meet them, and this leads to a large amount of self-criticism for failing to meet these standards (even though we had very little chance of doing so).
There is good reason to believe perfectionism can be counterproductive. However, individuals with perfectionist tendencies may feel like their perfectionism is a good thing.
For example, we may think:
- One of the reasons I am a high achiever is that I always work hard and never settle for less
- Perfectionism means I avoid mistakes, so my boss never thinks ill of me
- I have a reputation for high-quality work and protecting that reputation is important
This thinking is often flawed. We may think we have achieved a lot, for example, but in reality, if we had been willing to settle for a slightly lower standard we could have achieved many more things in the same amount of time.
However, at the time it can feel like a very legitimate reason.
This is similar to how Metacognitive Therapy looks at underlying thoughts such as "worry keeps me safe". To someone struggling it anxiety, it can often feel like worry is the thing that is protecting them when in reality, they are overestimating how dangerous the world really is.
Where does perfectionism come from?
As previously noted, perfectionism happens when we set unrealistically high standards for ourselves. But where do these standards come from?
Here are some possible options:
Conditions of worth, particularly those developed earlier in life. We feel that we are only worthy of approval if we reach a certain standard such as one expected by our parents or school. We then internalise these values and begin to hold ourselves to such standards.
Another option is that it is a form of social anxiety. We imagine that others will judge us if the quality of our work is not high enough and that this judgement will have negative consequences.
These things could be true. But it is more often the case that people do not judge us as much as we think they do, and that we often overestimate the negative consequences of such events.
Several cognitive distortions could be at play here as well. For example, black-and-white thinking: "I am only going to learn to learn the guitar if I can play it well". Of course, it would be nice to be the next Mark Knopfler. But you can be a comparatively poor guitar player and still enjoy playing!
Or rigid beliefs (musts and shoulds) such as "I must not make any mistakes when giving a speech". This is a common belief for people preparing a speech for work or a wedding and yet most of us know that work speeches are usually boring and wedding speeches are usually poorly delivered, but that it does not matter because it is the meaning behind it.
What can we do about it?
If we think perfectionism may be hindering us, or our clients, what can we do about it?
First, self-monitoring can often be useful. We can sometimes recognise when we are holding ourselves to an unrealistic standard and spotting that allows us to take different actions. We can choose to lower our standards, for example, or time-box the activity by saying "I will spend a maximum of one more hour on this and then it is done regardless of where I get to." Research suggests it can also help reduce symptoms of PTSD (Kleim et al., 2013) and anxiety and depression (Coull & Morris, 2011).
This is especially important when noticing procrastination and avoidance. If we find ourselves feeling overwhelmed by a task, a good way to troubleshoot the situation is to ask "am I holding myself to too high a standard?" and "can I break this task down into smaller chunks?"
Perfectionism typically involves an over-reliance on self-feedback. That is to say that we spend too much time asking ourselves "is this good enough" when someone else would have told us it was indeed good enough a long time ago. So, seeking a second opinion can be useful.
Finally, work on reducing self-criticism. If we decide a task is "good enough" we often label ourselves as lazy or inadequate. By recognising that our standards are unrealistically high and take an unproductive amount of time, we can choose to move on to the next task while avoiding self-criticism.
Coull, G., & Morris, P. G. (2011). The clinical effectiveness of CBT-based guided self-help interventions for anxiety and depressive disorders: a systematic review. Psychological medicine, 41(11), 2239-2252.
Egan, S. J., Wade, T. D., Shafran, R., & Antony, M. M. (2016). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of perfectionism. Guilford Publications.
Hollender, M. H. (1965). Perfectionism. Comprehensive psychiatry, 6(2), 94-103.
Kleim, B., Grey, N., Wild, J., Nussbeck, F. W., Stott, R., Hackmann, A., ... & Ehlers, A. (2013). Cognitive change predicts symptom reduction with cognitive therapy for posttraumatic stress disorder. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 81(3), 383.
Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and social psychology review, 10(4), 295-319.