The Imperfection of Perfectionism

by Lisa Green, LPC – MHSP, Executive Director

Perfect. It’s a word I and others tend to use a lot, and often in way that doesn’t mean… well, perfect. We use it interchangeably with words like “good” or “great,” or even “good enough.” While language is flexible enough to allow for that, the reality is, many of us have also gone the other way to blur the line between “good” or even “excellence” in our performance or behavior, and turned it into a expectation of perfection. A challenge to “be good,” or “do your best,” has morphed into a need to “be perfect.” And though those are two different things, (goodness is a fruit of the Spirit, perfectionism is decidedly not) perfectionism instead of goodness has taken hold for many people as the standard. This is neither healthy, or a Biblically based expectation. The Scriptures make clear that we are being sanctified, being made into the likeness of Christ- it is an active and current process, and we understand that the idea that we can be perfect as in “sinless” in the current life is an impossible and damaging expectation.

But for most of us, the expectation around perfectionism doesn’t have to do with the actions or attitudes we would consider sins- it is more subtle than that. For most of us, it is about performing to a high, and usually unrealistic standard in a few specific areas, in order to avoid negative feelings and gain acceptance, admiration, or love. Brené Brown, a well-regarded research psychologist wrote in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.”

If it’s so damaging to us, why do some many of us engage with perfectionistic thinking? The reality is, it is often praised and rewarded in our society, and we almost always learn it from other people, including directly from our families of origin. For instance, if a child only felt really seen, loved, and accepted when they weren’t making mistakes, or was only celebrated when they did really well in school or sports, or when what they did made mom happy, perfectionism became really important to that child’s sense of self-worth and value, and even relational patterns. We can also pick it up more indirectly, from a broader society that reinforces those same beliefs- that if I can be perfect I can feel in control and avoid anxiety or shame, because having approval and a sense of worth comes from being “good enough,” where good enough = perfect. 

What does it cost us?

Perfectionism can be damaging and even harmful to our health and wellbeing. It can lead to an increase in mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, and can have an impact on physical health due to stress and behavior. Perfectionists are also much more prone to burnout, which is already an area of concern for many CCWs. You may also not be surprised to hear that researchers see higher rates of perfectionism now in younger generations, and more in girls than boys (1)- the “standards” out there are high, unrealistic, and very visible to anyone on the internet, or a school or community that values success and performance above other things. 

Am I a perfectionist?

A lot of people can identify that they have perfectionistic traits, either because of their own insight and personal work, or feedback they’ve gotten from others, (or the ever-helpful internet quiz). There is no one way to name a perfectionist, and people are generally not perfectionistic about every area of life- we pick a few favorites, usually because those are the areas we learned or were taught to value the most to return a sense of worthiness, or where control mattered the most. These can be areas like work performance, school/grades, appearance, relationships or relational interactions, housekeeping, health/diet, and more.

Researchers have also identified two different types of perfectionists, those who evaluate standards based on an inner “personal standard,” and those focus more on what other people may think as a guide for behavior, with special attention to the potential for negative evaluation or feedback. These two types even show up differently in brain activity, when engaged in a task designed for the participant to make mistakes. (2)

Other characteristics to look for include:

  • Often disappointed in yourself- Do you find that no matter what you do, you’re always falling short of what you intended to do, or can only keep up your intentions for a short time? This can be a sign of ongoing unrealistic expectations, which can in turn be a sign of perfectionism.
  • Very high expectations for self- Speaking of unrealistic expectations, perfectionists often have much higher expectations for themselves than others- if you find yourself saying, “I would never expect you to do that- but I need to,” then you may hold yourself to unrealistically high expectations for perfection. A lot of “I should” showing up in your language can also be an indicator here.
  • Procrastination- Do you find yourself procrastinating on tasks you know you can do, just not able to muster up the will? There is more that one reason for this avoidance coping, but one of them certainly may be perfectionism- the sense that doing it “right” will take so much time and energy from you that you don’t want to engage with a task, even if you could have it done and over with, if doing it less than perfectly were on the table. This can also be in service of avoiding a mistake, or avoiding a feeling of incompetence that is reasonable to the task, but uncomfortable or shame inducing. 
  • Comparison- Perhaps you find yourself comparing yourself often to others, and what they are or seem to be accomplishing, and feel the need to match (or exceed) that, especially in certain areas of life. This is especially true if, as the Evaluative Concern type perfectionist (2), you expect others are also comparing you to themselves or “better” others, and finding you falling short.
  • Never satisfied due to changing expectations- Because perfection is simply not attainable, people who strive for it find they just can’t reach it, no matter what. So the target for “perfect” can change based on an overly negative perspective, and a sense that nothing will be good enough. The difference between reaching for excellence (I got the A in that class like I wanted, and I feel good about it!) and perfection (I got an A in the class, but I know that final paper wasn’t really my best effort, and I feel like I let myself or my professor, down… I should have done better) can really be highlighted here.
  • Long time to finish– Working on a task or project for a long time when it could be done in a shorter period can also be a sign- especially if a large part of that time is spent on looking for mistakes, tweaking or redoing multiple times, etc. How many times do you write/rewrite that email, or adjust that spreadsheet, or practice that phrase in your host language before you were willing to use it? Here again the difference in doing something “well” and “perfectly” can be hard for the perfectionist to discern, and excessive time spent “finishing” or “getting ready” can be a good indicator.

What is the alternative?

Earlier, I referenced the different between being good or excellent, and perfect. One of the first steps to recovering from perfectionism is being willing to pay attention and notice where the difference lies. It can take some time to learn, and it can help to have feedback from caring others. Recognizing where your expectations for yourself are unrealistic and even unhealthy, and what a healthier and more realistic expectation would look like is another helpful practice, and again an areas where it can be helpful to have feedback if this is difficult for you to gauge. Then, practice engaging in something to the point that it feels good or excellent (decide ahead what that looks like), and mindfully stopping short of what it takes to be perfect.  This handout can be a helpful way to explore how your expectations and priorities may not be lining up with your reality, and how to adjust your expectations and actions to be more reasonable, and more in line with priorities.

Growing in self-compassion is also a crucial part of unlearning perfectionism, and you can read and resource yourself for self-compassion work here.

For many people, doing the deeper work of understanding where their perfectionism comes from also helps to dismantle its hold. Exploring why you have the beliefs about needing to be/do perfectly can help you to understand that it may have been an adaptive coping skill and the way you learned to earn love, affection, approval, or admiration as a child or young person, and then to recognize that it is not continuing to serve you to strive for that sense of worthiness in the same way. Brené Brown again says it well: “If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging,” outside of what we can accomplish, and because of who we are- people loved by God.

Recovering from perfectionism takes a willingness to wrestle with uncomfortable feelings, to look deeper into your darker places and shine a light on the areas that certainly don’t feel perfect, and to practice the sort of remarkable self-compassion and love for yourself that are already being offered by a loving Father- and likely, gracious others. It is hard work, but the reward is well worth it.


Want a helpful exercise to take the next steps? Start with “Managing Priorities & Expectations” (a downloadable PDF) here.


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