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arrow_red.gif       Understanding perfectionism    |    Tips    |    Resources   

 Understanding perfectionism

What is perfectionism?

"Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it"

                 ~ Salvador Dali


Perfectionism involves setting excessively high standards that are inflexible, unrelenting, and unrealistic.

Why is it a problem?

Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours appear to be positive traits because they seemingly lead to many benefits: they can bring success, and high standards are often praised by others.  Perfectionism may also help to prevent mistakes and give a sense of control over life, protecting us from fears, harm, and uncertainties.

However, the constant desire for perfection can be very costly. Research shows that perfectionism can actually result in worse performance, missed opportunities, strained relationships, poor mental and physical health, and unhappiness.

Perfectionism has strong links to Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Social Anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Depression.

Do you recognise any of the following perfectionistic tendencies?

  • Do you have niggling thoughts that something is never quite right until it is “perfect”?
  • Are you always analyzing situations for potential consequences and bothered by what’s not “right”? 
  • Are you highly critical if things fall short? 
  • Do you constantly doubt your decisions and actions, fearing that you’ve made mistakes?    
  • Do you find it difficult to stay in the present moment, with your thoughts focused on worrying about the future or ruminating about the past?
  • Do you obsess over details, sometimes to the extent that you lose sight of the bigger picture?

  • Do you find it hard to relax or enjoy things because there is always “something” that needs to be done?
  • Do you feel overwhelmed because of the effort it requires to do things perfectly?
  • Are you often stressed, anxious or depressed because of your high standards?
  • Do you feel ashamed or worthless when you don’t do well?

  • Are you ever paralyzed by perfection where you procrastinate or fall behind because of a need to do something “just right”?
  • Do you work on something to the extent of avoiding other important things in your life? 
  • Do you never quite achieve what you feel you should? 
  • Are you too cautious to try new things in case you don’t do them well? 
  • Are you indecisive, delaying until you can make the correct choice?

Test yourself

 Tips for overcoming perfectionism

arrow_red.gif     Tip Sheet for Overcoming Perfectionism  pdf_icon.gif

Below we provide some tips for challenging your perfectionism. 

Sometimes we have many subconscious thoughts that drive our perfectionistic behaviours. Here's some examples, with some alternative ways of thinking about the issue:

Perfectionistic thought
Healthier alternative
I need to be perfect otherwise people won’t like me. Most people are very accepting. I am accepting of others who are not perfect.  Besides, not everyone will like me even if I am “perfect” – no matter how hard I try, I can’t completely control other people’s reactions.
I failed, therefore I am worthless.Things did not go to plan but one failure does not define me.  Everyone makes mistakes yet they get to try again. What can I learn for next time?
I tend to get behind in my work because it takes me a long time to do something “right”. It takes me a long time to begin as I get overwhelmed by everything I ought to be doing.
Sometimes I just need to get things done on time. I need to give it a good go but not at the expense of all other demands and opportunities.

How can I do things differently?

Achieving high standards; getting started and finishing on time

Wanting to excel at everything is surely a good thing, yet it comes at a significant cost. It might be helpful to be more selective about where and when you apply your high standards.  Have a think about which aspects of your life are these standards most important to you? Will these standards actually lead to a better result, or will it not matter much in the end? How do your friends and colleagues get good results without going to extremes?

  Realistic goal setting; achievement; procrastination; time management.

Concerned with mistakes

Sometimes our concern over not making mistakes is so strong that it prevents us from moving forward or trying new things. Not all mistakes are worth the worry, even if it seems that errors are a barrier to high standards. 

In fact, trial and error are essential for learning and achievement.  You didn’t learn to walk by doing it “perfectly” first time— you had to fall and stumble many times, making many adjustments to do it well. 

Take small risks. Fail often. Give yourself the freedom to err—utilise the early stages to try things; it takes many steps to achieve high standards.

      Fear of failure; indecisiveness; decision-making; positive risk-taking; trying new things.

Discomfort and being on guard

We may find it difficult to relax and enjoy ourselves because we never quite achieve the “just right” feelings of perfection we crave.  This leaves us with a feeling of discomfort and we are constantly on the lookout, expecting things will go wrong. Part of being comfortable is learning how to accept that we cannot control the world, or even our reactions to it.  We can however control how we manage our responses, and learn techniques for calming our distress.

      Relaxation techniques; managing worry; discomfort tolerance; Mindfulness; Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT); Highly Sensitive Person (HSP).

Self esteem and the need for approval

We may feel that we need to be perfect so that others will value us.  We want others to love and accept us.  However we don't often love or accept ourselves. We don't feel we are worthy of the attention or love of others.  We may think that "If only I were better then people would like me - If I were better looking, more intelligent, funnier, wealthier, good at sports, good at everything, then this would give people reasons to like me".  It's as though we see only flaws in ourselves - "I am flawed and not very good and therefore people shouldn't love me". 

Everyone feels this way at times. However, being perfect or being the most interesting person in the world won’t "make" others love us—acceptance comes from within. 

Explore:       Self-esteem; self-acceptance; assertiveness; positive psychology.

Perspectives on Perfectionism

Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it
Salvador Dali
The maxim, "Nothing prevails but perfection," may be spelled PARALYSIS
Winston Churchill
If you demand perfection or nothing, you will always end up with nothing
Francis August Schaeffer
If you look for perfection, you'll never be content
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
When you come up a bit short on excellence, you still win. When you strive for perfect, you're just never quite good enough
Dawn Gluskin
Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.
Robert Watson-Watt
Because there is a word for perfection, people will always imagine that they know it
Idries Shah, Reflections
As we try to achieve perfection, society changes and we just become more imperfect
Joao Matod
We learn from failure, not from success!
Bram Stoker, Dracula
Why would anyone want perfection when growth comes from flaws?
Shannon L. Alder
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.
The only man who makes no mistakes is the man who never does anything
Theodore Roosevelt
A person who makes few mistakes makes little progress.
Bryant H. McGill
The greatest mistake you can make in life is continually fearing you will make one
Elbert Hubbard
The most valuable thing you can make is a mistake - you can't learn anything from being perfect
Adam Osborne
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett
It's an imperfect world, so you fit in perfectly
Bryant McGill
Imperfects are funny, lovable and perfect to be happy. Perfects are appreciated and left alone everytime!!!
Nelson Jack
Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live
Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

 Helpful Resources

Mental Health Professionals

You might find it helpful to discuss your perfectionism experiences with a health professional who can provide insight and perspective on the issues. Some therapists specialise in dealing with perfectionism and will be able to provide tips and techniques for managing problematic aspects of perfection.

Courses and Workshops

  • Swinburne University Psychology Clinic runs a group therapy program on perfectionism.
  • Universities often run student support groups and study sessions on particular issues - perfectionism is a common issue for students - so check with your local university.
  • ADAVIC runs lectures and workshops for managing perfectionism. Please see our current events.

Peer Support

You might like to share your experiences and seek support from fellow members of the community. ADAVIC can link you in with others who understand your experience, via our:


Test Yourself
Articles and Research
Peer Support
Online Learning
Tools and Techniques



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This webpage on self-esteem was made possible through the support of Community Enterprise Foundation™, Rotary Club of Balwyn and City of Boroondara via the project; “Practical tools for managing perfectionism, procrastination, and self-esteem”.

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