The Paradox of Perfectionism

Striving for perfection can be hard on the body and the spirit. Instead, learn to work within your limitations and remember that the people around you are only human.

Two people in an office are assigned the same project and the same deadline. Joe does his best and leaves at 5.30 PM, whistling. Jane, on the other hand, rewrites, starts again, checks her work endlessly, and finally leaves the office at 9:00 PM., unhappy with her final product. The difference? Joe is a flexible thinker and Jane is a perfectionist.

Perfectionism is an increasing problem in both the workplace and at home, says Professor Stephen Palmer of the Centre for Stress Management inLondon,England. “Most of the clients I see for occupational stress and burnout are perfectionists.”

Good Intentions, Poor Results

There is nothing wrong with striving to do the best you can. The key is in knowing your limitations.

The flexible person says, “I will aim for perfection and give it my all, but if it is not perfect, so be it.” The perfectionist strives for 110%, and says, “I must perform well, and if I do not, I am a failure.” When perfection eludes him, he starts to feel like a failure. The irony is that the time and energy put into doing the perfect job is likely to exhaust him to the point of burn out and results in a job that is poorly done.

An Unhealthy Habit

In his book, When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough, McMaster University psychologist Dr. Martin Antony says that some people are perfectionists only at work, in sport, or in relationships. Other people strive to be perfect in every area of life, with potentially fatal results.

A study by Dr. Sidney Blatt ofYaleUniversityhas linked perfectionism with a high risk of depression and suicide. “The idea is that perfectionism is linked to self-criticism,” explains Blatt.

You are not likely to die in the pursuit of perfection, but a constant cycle of striving, failure, and self-criticism does create stress, which floods the blood with hormones like epinephrine and cortisol. Both have been proven to impair your immune system, making you more vulnerable to everything from the flu to cancer. Perfectionists can expect others to be perfect, too, leading to arguments, broken relationships, and more stress.

Perfectionism at Work

Perfectionism in the workplace often manifests itself as over-preparation, says Dr. Antony. “You’ll put in way too many hours trying to get everything just right. You’ll read reports and then reread them, write and rewrite. Your behavior is determined by what’s going on in your head. What you’re really saying to yourself is: ‘I’ve got to do a perfect job. If I put in all this effort and all those checks, I might avoid failure.'”

To avoid setting this trap for yourself, experts suggest the following:

  • “Challenge your thinking,” says Palmer. “Think of the times you’ve made a less-than-perfect presentation and survived. Now replace your perfectionistic thoughts with ‘It’s strongly preferable to do well, but realistically, nothing bad will happen if I don’t.’
  • Find out if your perfectionistic beliefs are true. Leave a pertinent fact off your overhead or make a spelling mistake on a slide. You will learn very quickly that the world will not end if you do not get it exactly right.

Perfectionism at Play

Among the most common signs of perfectionism in sport are unrealistic expectations, says leadingUKsports psychologist Tony Gleadell. Let’s say you are a great practice golfer. But during competition, the pressure to do well is so great that you play badly.

“If your game doesn’t flow straight away, you start to fall short of your expectations,” explains Gleadell. “That creates extra pressure, and you tighten up.” And then, of course, you could not hit the ball in the hole if your life depended on it.

You need to set realistic goals, says Gleadell. And compare like with like. Are you a pro golfer? No. Then aim for what you can do, not for what you cannot, says Gleadell. “You’ll have less stress. You can let your talent take you where it will, and you’ll have fun being there.”

Procrastination: A Classic Perfectionist Ploy

Imagine that you have to write a speech for your friend’s wedding. You sit down with a sheet of paper, but you feel too anxious to be creative, and the anxiety makes you feel hungry. So you get up to fix a snack. After that you wash the kitchen floor, defrost the freezer, cut the grass, do the laundry, and wash the car.

Procrastination is a classic sign of perfectionism. You are thinking “I want to write the best speech ever, but I am scared of writing one that is less than ideal because it means I am a failure at some level.” So instead, you engage in what psychologists call displacement behaviors. They reduce your anxiety for a bit, but then you realize that you have run out of time!

Try this instead, suggests Palmer:

  • Prioritize —List the things that need doing and beside each one write what will happen if you do not do it today. Now grade each task according to the seriousness of the consequences. Chances are that the kitchen floor can wait but the speech cannot.
  • Break the task up into chunks —Writing the speech is much more daunting than just writing the first paragraph. Then you can take one step at a time until you are done.

Ease Up on Friends and Family

Perfectionists often expect everyone around them to be perfect, and become angry when they are not. According to Lynn Alden, clinical psychologist and relationship expert at theUniversityofBritish Columbia, having perfectionist expectations of others is consistently linked with marital discord and tense friendships. “There’s something toxic about expecting others to be perfect. The other person can’t meet those expectations, so the perfectionist directs a lot of anger and disapproval at them.”

To combat this, make a conscious decision not to force your perfectionist ways on others, then see what happens. For example, just be quiet and let your partner wash the dishes however he chooses. We bet you will not catch any rare diseases, despite the fact that he did the task differently than you would have.

The Paradox

The paradox of perfectionism, says Palmer, is that perfectionists often under-perform in all areas of life. Flexible thinkers, on the other hand, those who say “I’ll aim to do my best, but if I don’t achieve it, too bad”, tend to be more successful, happier, and more balanced.


Blatt S. The destructiveness of perfectionism: implications for the treatment of depression. Am Psychol. 1995;50(12):1003-20.

The many faces of perfectionism. American Psychological Association website.


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