The Problem with Perfection


At this point in the year, most young adults and adolescents are wrapping up their year – studying (cramming) for finals, frantically finishing projects, and turning in outstanding assignments. For most, this is a time of moderate stress and excitement; but for many, this is a time of extreme anxiety and perfectionism. 

We live in a time and culture where the emphasis is placed on grades, number of AP classes, ACT/SAT scores, and what college one plans to attend. There is an unhealthy belief that, “If I am not perfect, I am not going to be successful.” But, what if that wasn’t true? What if you could have high standards and still be successful? What if you could not spend eight hours a night on homework and still get good grades?

My job as a cognitive-behavior therapist is to teach my clients that achieving perfection isn’t possible. Instead, we have to learn how to be OK with less than perfect and how to strive for a healthy pursuit of excellence.

What is Perfectionism?

  • The relentless striving for extremely high personal standards
  • Considering yourself a failure if perfection is not met
  • Unachievable, standards always raised when met
  • Experiencing negative consequences of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to go for them despite the huge cost to you


What’s so Bad About Trying to be Perfect?

  • Leaves you feeling on edge, tense, and stressed out.
  • You often feel that your best efforts are not enough
  • It is self-defeating
  • If you don’t achieve perfection, you feel like a failure
  • It’s draining, time-consuming and impossible


What's the Difference Between Having High Standards and Being a Perfectionist?

High Achievers

Process Focused
Sees mistakes as part of the learning process
Sets standards and then adjusts them accordingly
Self worth is based on multiple aspects of one's personality - it does not fluctuate based on grades/achievements
Willing to try new things regardless of outcome



Outcome focused
Mistakes are unacceptable
Sets inflexible, unrealistic goals
Self worth is based on achievement
Avoids new experiences due to fear of making a mistake                                         


How to Be Less of a Perfectionist

1. Identify and challenge your perfectionist thoughts – e.g., “Anything less than an A is unacceptable.” Ask yourself:

  • Are there unrealistic beliefs in this statement?
  • Is there any evidence to support or not support this statement?
  • Am I being inflexible in how I am thinking?
  • What would I tell my best friend?


2. Identify and challenge your perfectionist behaviors:

  • Do you tend to overcompensate and study for excessive amounts of time? Or Do you tend to avoid the work or procrastinate?
  • Confront your feared situations: Begin by tackling tasks that you have been avoiding doing (e.g., procrastination) or experiment with not doing your perfectionism behaviors (e.g., checking).
  • Set and stick to time limits
  • Practice making mistakes:

Trip in front of someone

Drop something

Order something that isn’t on the menu

Greet someone by the wrong name

Ask for directions to a store in which you are located or is close-by

Ask an obvious question


3. Broaden your self concept:

  • What is important to you?
  • What do you want your life to stand for?
  • Are your perfectionist behaviors in line with your values?
  • What’s the value in being imperfect?
  • What do you want admiration for?
  • What would you like to get good at?

Change doesn't happen overnight (even for a perfectionist), so go easy on yourself and remember that challenging perfectionism is not about lowering your standards. It's about striving for excellence, being willing to try new things, and cultivating a more flexible way of thinking. 

Jennifer Welbel