perfectionism: the two faces that cause us to achieve or feel tight on the chest


perfectionism: the two faces that cause us to achieve or feel tight on the chest


I think perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it's just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more that a deep existential angst the says, again and again, 'I am not good enough and I will never be good enough'.

 Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear[i]

Perfectionism involves putting pressure on ourselves to meet high standards, which then powerfully influence the way we think about ourselves. This is often linked to concerns over mistakes, perceptions of control, fear of failure, self-preservation behaviours (for example face-saving failure connected to prevailed low-ability or humiliating behaviour such as no mitigating excuse for poor performance) and worries about what the audience may think. Often there is a feeling of never being able to do things good enough.

Research has shared that perfectionism can be helpful and a hindrance.

Is it really possible to be 100% perfect?

What if I’m not perfect?

What is the task I am completing is not perfect?

What will happen if I’m not perfect?

When is good enough, just good enough?

Perfectionism can be considered as positive when the striving for high standards is connected to  feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. This is because it is associated to the pursuit of excellence. That is, when a lot of effort is applied and someone challenges them selves. In this way, this way of being a perfectionist is connected to learning new skills that achieve a good outcome. For those who enact this way of being comments are made such as:

I feel a sense of achievement when I complete an art work

I feel so excited to have completed a series of art works to then exhibit

I feel satisfied knowing I have tried my best

I am so excited to hear what others' think of my dance

I have worked so hard to learn my lines and I can’t wait to perform tonight

I like being organised

I feel prepared for the chairing of this meeting

I feel excited to share our ideas in the pitch

I get pleasure out of writing

However, when it is connected with feelings of never being good enough no matter the result, it is not seen as a productive approach. 

Perfectionism usually has three parts to it:

1. A constant striving for extremely high standards (for yourself and/or others) that are personally demanding. It is not uncommon for an outsider to consider these standards set as unreasonable. 

2. Judging one’s own self-worth based on one's ability to strive for and achieve such insistent high standards.

3. Experiencing negative consequences in relation to setting such demanding standards and expectations, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you.  It is not uncommon to see a fear of failure in front of others, often associated to even minor tasks, and these can be perceived as more difficult to have to consider how to handle rather than the failure itself.  Having goals or intentions is a good thing however, these goals are either un-achievable or only achievable at great cost, and it makes it very difficult to feel good about your self. This is when perfectionism can be problematic.

Having standards and intentions is a good thing. We all need these. However, when they are relentless and attached to such high standards that are perceived as never being reached, or they are not enjoyed, this can become a problem. Often venerability is experienced in connection to perceived failure or criticism. Negative perfectionism has also been linked to low energy levels when it has been liked to stressful situations.

Signs of perfectionism that hinders includes:

·      Relentless striving for self-imposed high standards

·      Demanding standards that impact health and energy levels

·      Constant pushing towards reaching of externally high goals

·      Stress and anxiety

·      Feelings of being on the edge, tense and out of control 

·      Doing your best is not satisfying for you

·      Excessive drive to excel is self-defeating as it leaves little chance to feel good about   yourself

·      Focusing on one thing relentlessly 

·      Fear of failure if don’t meet own goals

·      A lack of calmness and self care if a mistake is made or an occasional slip up is made

·      An enormous cost on wellbeing

·      Enactment of social isolation, frustration, worry, depression, eating disorders, relationship difficulties, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, insomnia, procrastination, poor health, and self-esteem. 

·      Overcompensating

·      Excessive time taken to complete tasks with repeated checking of work

·      Difficulty making easy decisions

So what can we do?

One mindful strategy that has been so helpful for me to think about perfectionism and keeping it in check is to think about a 'Good-Better-Best' approach to completing tasks that I do. The 'Good-Better-Best' strategy allows you to check into what it is you are doing, the effort, and indeed how you are approaching it. You can rate your approach to a task as if it is good (completed, satisfied, and content), best (I'm now starting to overachieve here, can I sit with good?) and best (this is totally overachieving, I've completed the task and then more, perhaps I can step back now). This approach supports the gaining of perspective.

So if I applied this to a task such as water intake for the day it might look like this.

I have the goal to drink more water but am struggling to do this, how can I approach this in a way that is mindful and I am being self-aware of the critique I may be giving myself?

Good = 4 of the 8 cups a day (that is so much better than 0)

Better = 5-6 of the 8 cups a day

Best = 8 or more cups a day

If I achieve at good or better I am still happy with my achievement. I acknowledge this. But I don't criticise myself. As good and better are great achievements.


What do you think?

How could you apply this to your approach to perfectionism?




[i] Gilbert, E. (2016). Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. New York: Riverhead Books.


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Narelle LemonComment