The Perils of Perfectionism – A Pragmatist’s Guide

“Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life. Research shows that perfectionism hampers success. In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction, and life paralysis.”
― Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are

Perfectionism is one of those tricky ideas that sounds like a good thing… but isn’t.  Like flying cars.  Drivers have enough trouble following the road rules in two dimensions – can you imagine if there was up and down as well!

Anyway, I digress.

Perfectionism Dispair
Photo: Pixabay/slon_dot_pics

Perfectionism is a character trait that involves setting incredibly high standards for performance – even flawlessness, alongside being extremely critical of oneself when those (unattainable) standards are not reached.  At its worst, perfectionists can be prone to depression, anxiety and hopelessness.

But perfectionism – like many character traits – exists on a continuum.  It is possible to have elements of perfectionism without experiencing these extreme lows when standards aren’t met.  In its milder forms, perfectionism can result in failing to be satisfied when good results are achieved, never celebrating ‘wins’, and being incredibly demanding of colleagues and direct reports, by expecting them to hold and achieve the same standards you do.

I don’t think that I’m a perfectionist, but I do have some perfectionist tendencies.  I have very high expectations of what I can accomplish (but not always at the individual goal or task level) and I expect a lot from those around me.  In some respects, my expectations of others stem from believing that everyone is capable of greatness – and being frustrated that many ‘don’t bother’ – my interpretation of them settling for good enough.

If you recognise these tendencies in yourself, what can you do about it?

Here are four pragmatic tips for managing perfectionism.


Perfectionism Meditation
Photo: Pixabay/jarmoluk

A regular meditation practice will lead to increased mindfulness.  Mindfulness enables greater perspective, self-respect and compassion.  I use an App called Headspace which includes a range of programmes that help with perfectionism – particularly one called “Acceptance”.

If you haven’t tried meditation before, don’t worry.  The app makes it really easy, and includes short animated videos to help you understand what you will be doing.

The thing to remember about meditation (as a perfectionist) is that there is no ‘right’ way to do it.  And it takes time.  That’s why they call it practise!

Embrace the Pareto Principle

Also known as the 80/20 rule.  The idea being that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

Perfectionism 80/20
The Pareto Principle

As a perfectionist though, you aren’t going to accept me telling you that you should only make 20% of the effort.  So instead turn this one to something you can accept: 80% is better than most people ever accomplish.  Shoot for 80% of your target, and you’ll still be seen as a superstar!  And remember, for most things in life, 100% is non-existent.  It’s a fool’s game.

Redefine your Goals as ‘Guides’

Words are powerful things.  That is why Goal-setting is espoused as so important – if you articulate clearly what you want to accomplish (and more importantly, why) you are far more likely to put in the effort.  But perfectionists have a different problem.  For them, Goals become minimums, not targets.

Instead, use the word ‘guide’.

The purpose of a clearly defined goal is to give you something to aim for, so that you can make decisions and take action in the now that will keep you on track.  But if the Goal becomes immutable and immovable – it not only guides your actions today, but stifles the enjoyment you might gain from redirecting your efforts into something slightly different – or even completely unrelated.

Worse, if the goal is immutable and you don’t achieve it, then you see yourself as a failure, rather than just having failed to accomplish that goal.

Celebrate your Successes.  Often

Perfectionism Journal
Photo: Pixabay/mistockshop

Make a habit of writing down three to five accomplishments everyday.  And I mean every day.

Before you go to sleep each night, in a journal, a diary, or a notebook, write down the things that you achieved that day that you’re proud of.  It might be:

  • Remaining patient and compassionate when a team-mate dropped the ball
  • Making time to play with your kids
  • Enjoying a nice hot coffee without freaking out about what you weren’t getting done
  • Achieving 80% of what you set out to do today

The purpose of this exercise is to help you see that you are achieving a lot.  Every day.  And that is enough.

You are enough.

And nobody is perfect.

Recommended Reading (Amazon Associate Links)

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, PhD

In her ten guideposts, Brown engages our minds, hearts, and spirits as she explores how we can cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, “No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough,” and to go to bed at night thinking, “Yes, I am sometimes afraid, but I am also brave. And, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.”

3 thoughts on “The Perils of Perfectionism – A Pragmatist’s Guide”

  1. I have some perfectionist character traits as well. Not so much that I believe that I am capable of delivering greatness – but I have an unfortunate tendency to think that whatever I am able to deliver at the current point in time is not anywhere near good enough to deserve to be released in public.
    What I however often fail to acknowledge is that by keeping things to myself, I make two grave mistakes: 1) I expect to be able to keep track of everything I’ve got going in its various states of imperfection and drive it forward to publishable perfection while 2) I deny myself the possibility that I would have had – by releasing some of the jigsaw pieces in their imperfection – to get some valuable feedback that might help me to put the pieces together in a better way.
    The idea of guides (or we could call them milestones) rather than goals is a good one. It’s a good way of tricking the perfectionist mind into accepting that there are some places that can be recognized as some sort of accomplishment on the way towards the final, seemingly unattainable goal – and rather than holding back due to missing confidence that the final goal will ever be within reach, we can start out with the confidence that the first milestone can be successfully achieved. Thus we get going and end up at a better new starting point before going for the next milestone and eventually the final goal – sort of leaving home with the base camp on Mount Everest as destination, rather than staying home because the summit is impossible to reach; once we have reached base camp, it will be so much easier to reach Camp 1, and even the summit is closer than it once was.
    (By the way, I am quite a fan of Brené Brown. Her thoughts on imperfection and vulnerability are quite appealing, and there is great power in embracing our own vulnerability)

    • Hi Henrik

      I think a ‘dose’ of perfectionism can be OK if its knowingly moderated. There’s nothing wrong with doing a good job, or with wanting to do a better job. In fact being a learning leader requires you to reflect and consider how you could do better next time.

      With writing my book (now a solid 5,000 words in, with just three days of writing) I feel for the first time I’ve accepted that the first draft won’t be a best-seller… yet. And that getting it finished is more important than perfecting every phrase and paragraph along the way.

      The challenge is (I suspect a little bit like you) I really want the book to change people’s lives for the better… That’s (in hindsight) a lot of pressure to put on yourself before you put pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).

      Milestones is a great way to look at it. In my case, once the draft is complete, a whole range of new milestones kick in that will further hone and refine the book. That’s the point to test whether it ‘reaches’ people in a meaningful way.

      With this new mindset, I’m churning out about 1,500 words every morning before work! At that rate it will take me 50 days to write the book… And it’s feeling do-able!

      So get started – accept a little imperfection (which is really ‘just’ being vulnerable) and share it with the world!

      I know I’m looking forward to it!

      Best wishes

      • Perfectionism is in any case better than it’s absolute opposite – but as you say, knowingly moderated, I think it is a good thing. And it sounds like you have come to terms with how to moderate the perfectionism.
        The interesting thing is to accept that the first milestone – the completed draft – is not where you are finished and therefore nothing to be perfectionist about. It is simply a first step of the way.
        Sort of what would have happened if you had been writing and rewriting the first chapter over and over again; you would never dream of calling that a finished book.
        But the thought (though it might not be correct) that this is now the best possible first chapter is somehow much more appealing and palatable than the thought that “this is the best possible first draft” – which it is, simply because it is the first draft.
        But again – it seems that you have come to terms with it and are able to progress, which is great news. And if you keep the momentum and avoid the pitfall of starting to refine something to perfectionism before the draft is finished, I am sure that you’ll get a long way soon. And remember – if there’s anything you think I can assist you with along the way, please let me know (^=


Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.