Imperfection and perfection go so hand in hand, and our dark and our light are so intertwined, that by trying to push the darkness or the so-called negative aspects of our life to the side… we are preventing ourselves from the fullness of life ~ Jeff Bridges
I vividly remember less than a handful of races in my career. The one that nags me most is the one where I was invited to run. I had won the race the prior year and the race directors offered complimentary entries to the male and female victors. I was in. During the course of the race, with about 10 miles left, I had a meltdown at an aid station and wanted to bail. It wasn’t because I was hurt nor sick, but that I wasn’t in first place. My delay cost me at least 5-10 minutes, but I continued disgruntled and sad (and still bettered my prior years’ time by 8 minutes).
It took me years to understand how my perfectionist mindset was not a valuable trait.
By avoiding failure at any cost, a perfectionist can make it harder to reach their own lofty goals.
But the drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self.
In fact, perfectionistic tendencies are linked to many clinical issues: depression and anxiety, self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and even suicide.
Culturally, we might see perfectionism as a positive. Even saying you have perfectionistic tendencies can be seen as a compliment to yourself.
Perfectionism gets complicated quickly. Some researchers say there is adaptive, or ‘healthy’ perfectionism characterized by high standards, motivation and discipline versus a maladaptive, or ‘unhealthy’ version when your best never seems good enough and not meeting goals is frustrating.
Regardless of type, perfectionism can lead to feelings of inadequacy and shame. While we might recognize these behaviors in our friends, family, and colleagues, we tend not to see it in ourselves.
Here are signs you might have perfectionist tendencies:
Unrealistic Standards. Do you constantly strive to live up to unrealistic expectations in all aspects of your life? It’s pervasive. Just as innovators want to develop the perfect prototype, parents want to raise perfect children.
Over-generalization. “I made a mistake once and always mess up.“ Tying your self-worth to external approval leads to self-criticism and feelings of inadequacy. One mistake doesn’t define you, your career, nor your accomplishments. It’s the big picture that counts.
Compulsive Behavior. Do you relentlessly refine endless versions of your work? Do you obsessively preen and clean? Compulsive behavior like reorganizing and rearranging are warning signs of perfectionism.
Catastrophic Thinking. Another clue is when minor mistakes feel like major disasters. A verbal slip-up, typo, poor review, or bad haircut throw your whole day off course. Any form of feedback is interpreted as inflated criticism and a balanced perspective gets lost.
Reassurance Seeking. The insecure perfectionist continuously seeks validation and others’ approval. Constantly seeking reassurance does not just hurt the individual, but is draining for the recipient. Over time, it often destroys valuable relationships.
Compliment Dismissal. Perfectionists struggle to accept compliments or celebrate accomplishments. They think, “It’s not my best.” They haven’t matched the high standards exhibited by others. But confidence is a practiced art.
Excessive Procrastination. Procrastinators who delay starting or completing tasks are often closet perfectionists. Most people postpone dieting or saving, for example, because the time is never quite right.
While some of these traits and behaviors might occur in your life, a perfectionist might resonate with all of these traits a majority of the time.
How do you remain in balance? Below, are some strategies anyone can use to start to unwind these patterns:
Set Smaller Goals. Find the middle ground between high performance and mediocrity. Break tasks into smaller steps, time-bound decisions, and focus on progress rather than ideal outcomes.
Broaden Perspective. Most situations don’t carry life-or-death outcomes. Question your standards and evaluate if they’re necessary. Adjust expectations to align with what matters. A broader perspective creates psychological distance from perceived failures.
Recalibrate What Matters. Recognize when you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Extra hours on a document, garden, or email must achieve proportionate impact.
Embrace Self-compassion. Be kind to yourself. Even experts get it wrong—doctors, negotiators, artists, and lawyers. Life scuppers most plans. Striving for the impossible is exhausting and a source of inevitable disappointment. Don’t wear perfectionism as a badge of honor; it’s just a ton of weight.
Automate Processes. This step will reduce the friction of indecision. Automating processes, habits, and routine tasks reduces delays caused by indecision. This might look like asking the question “What is the worst thing that could happen if I make this decision?” Then asking “If that happens, what will I do about it?”
Celebrate Progress. Acknowledge achievements, no matter how small. Recognize that progress comes from consistent effort, not from striving for the unattainable. Done is better than perfect.
Challenge All-or-Nothing Thinking. Recognize the tendency to see things in extremes. Embrace being good enough and lower the benchmark. Separate self-worth from performance.
One of the biggest reasons behind a need for perfectionism is the push to “get it right.” When we aim for huge successes, and fall short, we feel worthless. What we don’t seem to see is that work towards our goals – the process – is and accomplishment within itself. Give yourself permission to try and maybe even fail – learning in the process, making progress, and coming as far as you have.
Wanting more tips? Accountability? I’d like to hear your story.