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What is Perfectionism?

Perfection is being without fault or error. Perfectionism is the pursuit of perfection or high standards that are either unachievable, or unachievable on a regular basis. Perfectionists often base their value and worth on their ability to meet those standards. These standards are often referred to as ‘unrelenting standards’ because they are usually continual and rarely satisfied. Perfectionists commonly apply these standards to themselves, their performance, and to other people. Perfectionists are not necessarily perfectionistic in all areas of their life.

Common signs of perfectionism

  • Setting standards that are consistently higher than other peoples.
  • Setting standards that are unachievable or rarely achievable.
  • Setting standards or expectations that are inflexible even in the face of conflicting

information e.g. I must get an A even though only one person in the class will get an A.

  • Deciding your worth based on achieving those standards.
  • Difficulty finishing tasks, as the product or performance is never good enough.
  • Avoiding mistakes and hiding them when they occur.
  • Procrastination or not starting things at all, due to fear of not meeting standards.
  • Having to do things the ‘right’ way and seeing others as doing it the wrong way.
  • Attempting to change other people to meet your expectations.


Problems with perfectionism

There is nothing inherently wrong with setting high standards. Having high standards becomes problematic however when they are not achievable or are only achievable at great cost and lead to a range of problems. Your productivity and sense of achievement are enhanced when you do things well. This is very different from ‘having’ to do well to be worthwhile, good enough or adequate. The former brings satisfaction, but the latter often leads to temporary relief followed by a range of problems including:

  • Regularly feeling anxious, stressed and under pressure.
  • Performance anxiety.
  • Feeling exhausted, out of control, and overwhelmed.
  • Not having enough free time.
  • Not starting things due to fear of failing or not doing well enough.
  • Decreased productivity.
  • Difficulties with other people.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Loneliness due to fear of criticism.
  • Vulnerability to depression.
  • Anger or frustration toward others for not performing up to standard, resulting in isolation from others and relationship problems


How does one become a perfectionist?

There is no single answer to this question. Some perfectionists only recall praise when they achieved highly, others received punishment if they didn’t achieve high enough, others observed their parents being perfectionistic, and others can’t recall any particular experience that contributed. Regardless of how it developed with each person, perfectionists have developed high expectations because of one or more of the following:

  • They think this is what others expect of them and they will only obtain approval or affirmation of their worth if they comply.
  • They think this is what others expect of them and failure to comply will lead to criticism, judgement or ‘getting into trouble’.
  • They expect these standards of themself to judge themself as good enough, adequate or worthwhile. This is often to compensate for their perception that they are not good enough, adequate or worthwhile.


But I know I can do better, I have done it before. This may be true but can you achieve to that level on a regular basis? Think for a moment of elite sports men and women. Most individuals or teams only reach their best once or a few times a year.


But I don’t want to be a slacker or lazy. Do not use a black and white approach i.e. I either aim high and do it right or I am slack, sloppy, lazy. Plenty of people are not perfectionists but still achieve highly, and perform important roles.


But shouldn’t I aim to do everything just right? No one has the time, energy or talent to do everything just right or perfectly. When we try to do everything as perfectly as possible, devoting the same attention and energy on the inconsequential things as we do on the really important things, the result is practically nothing gets done and the really important things may not even be started. For example, does a surgeon have to cook their dinner perfectly, drive perfectly, talk perfectly, iron their clothes perfectly?


Basic tips for changing perfectionism

  • Accept your ‘humanness’ as nothing is without flaw and ‘to err is human.’
  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes and view them as opportunities to learn.
  • Accept that perfection is usually a matter of opinion, so how perfect a thing is depends a great deal on who is judging it. No matter how well we do anything there will always be someone who thinks it could have been done better or differently.
  • Lower your standards e.g. aim for 80-85% or for what is sustainable on a regular basis.
  • Set goals and standards for yourself that lead to a sense of fulfilment and satisfaction rather than frustration, blame, and dissatisfaction.
  • Learn to enjoy your experiences, rather than being preoccupied with the end result.
  • Aim for your ‘daily best’ rather than your ‘absolute best’ i.e. doing your best on any given day is not the same as being at your absolute best that may only occur from time to time.
  • Avoid the overusage of words such as should and must.
  • Recognise your worth is due to more than just your achievements.
  • Avoid labels such as worthless and inadequate.
  • Accept people for who they are rather than trying to change them to what you expect them to be.
  • Ask yourself:
    • Are my standards flexible, and are they achievable on a regular basis ?
    • Are my standards causing me problems and would they improve if I lowered then even to small degree?
    • If I aim for perfection how do I know when I get there ?
    • Whoever said I had to be perfect?
  • If you are still not convinced weigh up the pros and cons of perfectionism and the pros and cons of having more flexible standards.
  • If the above sounds too hard give yourself time to change, and start with one area of your life and work on making changes in that area first.