Is perfectionism holding you back? Aim for excellence and develop your potential

Is perfectionism holding you back? Aim for excellence and develop your potential

Do you notice that despite all your efforts progress is slow, checking and rechecking your work thinking it is not good enough? Do you notice thoughts such as “What if I cannot do my work to a high standard?” What if I fail the course/not get a good job?

When we are very busy, we may have difficulty prioritising multiple deadlines. We wonder how we will complete everything to a high standard in the time available. As a result feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment and frustration can reduce our motivation and increase tension.

Aiming for high standards can be motivating, and it is satisfying and rewarding to see good results. However, it is a myth that relentless striving to achieve flawless results is essential to success. In fact, doing so is at the expense of our health, and it has a negative impact on us and those around us (Hewitt et al, 2017).

Understanding perfectionism

Perfectionism is described as the relentless striving for unrealistic standards, overthinking and feeling highly distressed when facing setbacks or mistakes. Our tenacity and efforts to meet expectations are exhausting and can lead to burnout (Hill & Curran, 2016).

And when results are not as good as expected, it can be a reason to avoid further attempts to prevent another setback. This can cause disappointment and distress. It can limit us as we do not take risks and stay within what feels safe and familiar.

It is a combination of highly demanding standards and harsh evaluations of oneself and our performance. Setting unrealistic goals and believing that we should not make mistakes increases our fear of negative results and worry about being judged negatively (Ben-Shahar, 2009).

Our goal is to do well because we care about the work, but when the results are not what we expected despite our efforts, it can be frustrating. It can lead to self-consciousness, worrying about not being as capable as we think we are, or as others think we are. It can be very stressful to imagine making a mistake and anticipating feeling embarrassed or disappointed (Ramirez Basco, 1999).

There are many factors that lead to perfectionism. For example, in our current world of constant connectivity and consumerism, we can see ads picturing perfect lifestyles promoted with aspirational captions describing impossible ideals.

In addition, the tendency to equate time with efficiency creates a sense that one should be productive and efficient all the time. As a result, it can be difficult to take breaks because we cannot afford to do so as there is too much to do.

In an uncertain world, we may try to control things to create predictability. It can initially seem like we are managing, however, the boundaries blur between what we can control and what we cannot, increasing frustration, self-doubt, and feeling stressed and exhausted.

It is normal to have self-doubt when starting a new project that challenges us beyond our comfort zone. If we focus on all that could go wrong, anticipating negative results, it will negatively affect our confidence in achieving our goals (Hill & Curran, 2016).

It is then understandable that when setting unrealistic standards (although we think they should be achievable) the biggest fear is failure. Our attention is on what is wrong rather than what is good enough.

We believe that if we were capable we should not have to work so hard, increasing our self-doubt and we view this as evidence of our inability to meet high standards (Curran, 2023).

When does perfectionism become a problem?

It can be challenging when fear of failure limits us from pursuing meaningful goals in life, worrying about not making progress. It can add significant pressure when there is a need for approval or a sense that our self-worth is contingent on getting things right to be valued.

Furthermore, we can become highly self-conscious and sensitive, worrying that we are letting others and ourselves down, becoming very self-critical believing that mistakes and setbacks are unacceptable, having trouble letting go despite thinking that it is OK for others to make mistakes. As a result, it strains our relationships (Ramirez Basco, 1999).

When we make mistakes, we tend to interpret them as signs of our lack of ability and feel discouraged. In addition to adding significant pressure, it can cause stress symptoms, which can negatively impact our well-being.

Without realising, we limit ourselves and miss out on development opportunities by not stepping beyond our comfort zone. As a result, tension reduces our ability to maintain an open mind, and we think we need to work harder and longer. We can manage by acknowledging our feelings and taking breaks to restore energy and focus.

What is the difference between perfectionism and excellence?

Perfectionism is when we want to achieve high standards but fear of failure and setbacks hold us back causing distress. While pursuing excellence is when we are engaged and motivated by challenging and attainable goals. It is when we believe we are capable and trust that with our efforts and determination we can achieve them (self-efficacy) (Bandura, 1997).

Perfectionism makes it hard to acknowledge good work even if the result is very good. It often results in feeling insecure, never content, and uncomfortable about success as the dominant belief is that it is not good enough.

While, when aiming for excellence we know when the work is of high quality and can derive a sense of accomplishment when completing the task (Gaudreau, 2019). It allows us to tolerate mistakes and errors as part of the learning process, and we can use insights to improve and gradually develop mastery and achieve our potential (Dweck, 2017).

Strategies to do well and keep well

Reframe the fear of failure: When we believe that we should not make mistakes, viewing them as signs of our lack of ability, impacts our confidence in our ability. Instead, view errors and setbacks as part of the learning process. Keeping in mind that it is a challenge because we care about doing good work.

Notice when you have negative thoughts about your work or anticipate adverse outcomes. Then ask yourself: “Is this thought helpful?” and then ask: “What one thing can I do now to move forward?”

Aim for excellence: Mastery is achieved through effort and practice. Through trial and error we find out what works and what does not. In an iterative process, we make adjustments to improve and develop our knowledge and skills. Embrace mistakes because we learn from them, and we develop mastery of a skill over time. It reduces strain and stress when we focus on the progress we are making, It allows us to persevere with our work while protecting our health and wellbeing.

Focus on making progress: Often, our expectations of how things should be get in the way of working effectively towards our goals. We do not realise that these add pressure and reduce our focus. Make progress towards your goals by paying attention to the work you are doing and working through the steps (Amabile & Kramer, 2011).

It is essential that our goals are realistic and achievable within the time and with the resources we have available. Once we identify these, we can remain engaged when we have concrete and manageable steps to guide our efforts.

It is reasonable to expect that any piece of work we want to do well will require hard work and significant effort. An understanding of a concept or the creation of a viable product or project may require many trials and errors. If it does not work on the first attempt, it does not mean you cannot get a positive result later.

By taking time to reflect on your work, you can make adjustments and improve it, while preventing the negative effects of stress.

Practise self-compassion: It is about acknowledging that we all make mistakes sometimes. Treating ourselves with kindness, like we would treat our best friend. Taking a moment to pause and redirecting our attention to the present moment..

Noticing negative thoughts about our work, ourselves, or anticipating negative outcomes helps us to raise our awareness to redirect our attention. It is helpful to ask ourselves, “Is this thought helpful?” And ask: “What one thing can I do now to move forward?”
This process helps us acknowledge our intentions to do good work and persevere (Gilbert, 2010).

Looking after yourself: Breaks provide an opportunity to step back from our work and take care of ourselves. Taking time to restore energy and connecting with others and nature whenever possible.

When we take a break and are away from screens, it creates some distance from the task, gaining perspective when focusing on it again. It allows us to ground ourselves and redirect our attention to what matters.

By developing health habits, such as having a sleep routine, eating healthy food and including movement (whatever is accessible depending on circumstances), and spending time outdoors during the day we can boost our mood and restore our energy levels.


Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011) The progress principle.Using small wins to ignite joy, engagement, and creativity at work. Boston: Harvard Business Review Press.

Ben-Shahar, T. (2009) The Pursuit of Perfect. How to stop chasing perfection and start living
a richer, happier life.
USA: McGraw-Hill.

Brown, B. (2010) The gifts of imperfection. London: Penguin. 

Curran, T. (2023) The perfection trap. The power of good enough in a world that always wants         more. London: Cornerstone Press.

Dweck, C. S. (2017) Mindset. Changing The Way You think To Fulfil Your Potential. London: Robinson.

Gilbert, P. (2010) The compassionate mind. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.

Gaudreau, P. (2019) On the distinction between personal standards perfectionism and excellencies: A theory elaboration and research agenda. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 14(2), 197-215.

Hewitt, P.L., Flett, G.L. & Mikail, S.F. (2017) Perfectionism: A relational approach to     conceptualization, assessment, and treatment. New York: Guildford Publications. 

Hill, A. P., & Curran, T. (2016). Multidimensional Perfectionism and Burnout: A Meta-Analysis. Personality and Social Psychology Review,
           20(3), 269–288.

Ramirez Basco, M. (1999) Never good enough. Freeing yourself form the chains of perfectionism. New York: The Free Press. 


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