Perfectionism is a major source of two widespread problems: procrastination and unhappiness.1 Sometimes perfectionism causes just one or the other, but it usually causes both. Perfectionism also hinders self-development and behavioral change.1
Perfectionism is as widespread as it is harmful. Many people admit to being perfectionists, and most know that it’s not helpful, and yet few people change their ways. Let’s explore why this is such a sticky problem and what we can do about it.
First, I should clarify what I mean by “perfectionism,” which is a multifaceted concept with a four-part definition:
- Perfectionism is an all-or-nothing mindset.1 Perfectionists believe that there is only total success or complete failure; you’re either somebody, or you’re nobody.
- In addition to seeing the world in this black-and-white manner, perfectionists also view the abilities and characteristics of people as essentially permanent. Thus, a perfectionist sees herself as a finished product that cannot be changed.1 Not surprisingly, perfectionism is associated with having a fixed mindset, which is the belief that you are stuck with whatever your current ability levels are.2
- Also inherent to perfectionism is the belief that the perfect ideal actually exists and can therefore be achieved.1 Hence, anyone who fails to live up to that perfect ideal is open to judgmental criticism.
- Lastly, perfectionists believe that they cannot pursue excellence without maintaining their worldview.1 They believe abandoning perfectionism means settling for mediocrity.
Although it’s easy to see how someone might adopt these beliefs, each element of the perfectionist mindset is both unhelpful and illogical. Here’s why.
- The world isn’t black-and-white; success isn’t all-or-nothing. Nearly everything falls on a spectrum, including nearly all human traits. The world is complicated. People are complicated. There are many shades of grey.
- People are not finished products awaiting judgement. People are dynamic, ever-changing, and very much improvable. The growth mindset, as opposed to the fixed mindset, is the factually accurate view of human ability.2 Our brains change and grow throughout our lives because the brain is like a bunch of muscles.
- Furthermore, perfect doesn’t even exist. There’s no such thing. It is unrealistic to believe that anyone or anything can ever be perfect.
- And finally, giving up on perfectionism does not mean giving up on the pursuit of excellence. In fact, you stand a much better chance at succeeding in the pursuit of excellence if you abandon perfectionism.1
If perfectionism isn’t helpful in striving for excellence, then what is it for? Brené Brown says that “Perfection is a tool to protect ourselves.”3 Perfectionism, she argues, is a defense against vulnerability, and her research shows that being vulnerable is required for both success and happiness.3
Why it’s Harmful
Let’s take a closer look at why perfectionism causes procrastination and unhappiness, and how it hinders growth.
Perfectionism is debilitating.1 It manifests as a fear of criticism, a fear of mistakes, and a deep fear of failures. It makes you unwilling to take risks, unwilling to try new things, unwilling to admit you don’t understand something, and unwilling to ask for help when you need it. Hence, perfectionists miss out on the benefits of asking questions and the learning that comes from examining mistakes and failures.
When constructive criticism is viewed as an attack on your permanent identity, it’s difficult to even listen to the feedback. Plus, it’s difficult to even receive accurate feedback about your work as a perfectionist because you’re so worried about judgment that you don’t allow your true self to be seen. In order to avoid vulnerability, perfectionists maintain a carefully curated presentation of self. Eager to show the world that you’re perfect, you highlight your good traits and hide your mediocre ones, seeking the reassurance of praise and avoiding the sting of criticism.
Can you see how perfectionism would be detrimental to a student’s growth, or anyone’s growth for that matter?
Furthermore, because perfectionists believe that perfect actually exists, they believe that personal improvement has a finite upper limit. The reality is that you can never get to perfect, but you can continuously head in that direction. Thus, if you are not a perfectionist, you are free to believe in unlimited improvement. I, for one, don’t believe there is an upper limit to what our species can do.
For everything from music and athletics to academics and self-development, the belief in unlimited improvement provides motivation to keep working, even if you’re already very good. By contrast, perfectionism is demotivating. Perfectionists who are already very good believe that there isn’t much more room to grow, so why bother?
This helps explain why perfectionists often respond poorly to coaching and are resistant to self-improvement ideas. Usually, this is understood as the result of their unwillingness to admit that they’re not already perfect, which is certainly true much of the time, but now I understand another way to see it: Some perfectionists think that they’re already so close to being perfect that there’s no reason to put any more effort into improving. This explains why many young athletes who are much better than their peers get lazy about practicing and wind up average players when they’re older. And students who do very well at math in 5th grade often fall behind in middle school because they believe they’re too smart to need to practice.
On the other hand, growth-minded individuals accept coaching readily because they know that there’s always room for improvement and they’re eager to keep growing. This is true even for those who are incredibly high-performing and arguably much closer to perfect than their perfectionist counterparts. Despite their incredible level of skill, they don’t believe they’re anywhere near the upper limit, so they keep working to improve. They know that the mastery path is a lifelong journey.
“If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.” –Marva Collins
Because perfectionists see mistakes and failures as terrible, life-shattering events, they try very hard to avoid them. Well, the surest way to avoid doing something wrong is to simply do nothing. So it’s no surprise that perfectionism is one of the most common sources of procrastination.1
“Perfection means paralysis.” –Winston Churchill
When we have a project to do and we’re in perfectionist mindset, we imagine that we have to do it perfectly. But then, when we think about what we’re going to produce, everything we come up with isn’t perfect. So we think that we can’t start. The only way to take action on anything is to accept that whatever we make isn’t going to be perfect and that we’ll surely make mistakes along the way.
“Hesitation” by Pete Hobden
Creativity requires risks. The creative process involves repeated failure. Putting something creative out into the world will always result in criticism from somebody. So perfectionism hinders creativity and leads people with creative ideas to procrastinate on them for so long that they wind up never pursuing their dreams or truly expressing themselves.
“Perfectionism is the enemy of creativity.” –John Updike
Now, it should be noted that while many perfectionists procrastinate or never start at all, some perfectionists actually get a lot done. They are often relentless workaholics who produce excellent work. Their behavior can look identical to that of non-perfectionists who are pursuing excellence.
The key difference is emotional. The high-achieving perfectionist doesn’t enjoy himself while he works.1 He feels enormous pressure to perform. He does a good job, not out of a love for his work, but out of a fear of criticism. When he finally finishes, he criticizes his own work severely, even if it is magnificent. Indeed, he judges himself harshly every step of the way. In short, the high-achieving perfectionist is deeply unhappy, despite the success he appears to have.1
The high-achieving perfectionist doesn’t accept himself because he doesn’t accept his inevitable shortcomings. He sees himself as a failure, even if he has achieved excellence. His mind may be filled with an army of gremlins, all carrying signs that read “NOT GOOD ENOUGH!”
“Not Good Enough” by Saku Takakusaki:
Let’s quickly look at how to overcome perfectionism.
To begin with, it bears repeating that the four elements of the perfectionist mindset are neither empirically valid nor helpful. Acknowledging this is probably an important first step.
Secondly, perfectionism, like nearly all psychological traits, falls on a continuum. Most people have some degree of perfectionism. “Overcoming” perfectionism is really a process of gradually shifting away from it.
And remember, shifting away from perfectionism isn’t about shifting towards mediocrity. Because of the debilitating nature of perfectionism, Tal Ben-Shahar places it on one end of a psychological spectrum, with “the pursuit of excellence” on the other1:
Perfectionism <—————————————————–> The Pursuit of Excellence
Next, please know that it’s difficult to shift away from being a perfectionist if you’ve been in that mindset for years. So be patient about the process, and don’t be a perfectionist about not being a perfectionist.1 All anyone can do is move in the right direction.
Tal Ben-Shahar also teaches that the perfectionist sees his perfect ideal as a distant shore that can actually be reached.1 Of course he never gets there, so he’s never satisfied. He’s likely to become disheartened and give up. The pursuer of excellence, meanwhile, sees his perfect ideal as a guiding star, something to move towards, but not a place he can actually get to.1 This allows him to enjoy the journey and continue to make steady progress.
One simple way to move away from perfectionism is by removing the word “perfect” from your vocabulary, except when telling yourself “There’s no such thing as perfect,” and “Nobody’s perfect.” Actually, you can take care of that last one without quite using the word:
This is related to perhaps the strongest antidote to perfectionism: giving yourself permission to be human.1
“No human has ever been perfect. You’re not going to be the first.” –Brian Johnson
Humans make mistakes. That’s just a fact of life, and no amount of perfectionist willpower will change that fact. If you feel like you need to be perfect, you’re not giving yourself permission to be human.
If you are giving yourself permission to be human, then you’re practicing self-compassion, which essentially means being kind to yourself. Research shows that self-compassion helps people stick to diets and procrastinate less. It turns out that being hard on yourself when you mess up doesn’t work. In fact, beating yourself up over little mistakes makes you more likely to give up completely.4 Perfectionism is a form of being mean to yourself, so do the opposite of that and be kind to yourself.
“Just as you can’t criticize another person to positive transformation, neither can you criticize yourself to positive change.” –Will Bowen5
Self-compassion also helps us listen to feedback and learn from criticism. Since mistakes are viewed as acceptable, we can examine them carefully and learn from them. In this way, giving ourselves permission to be human helps us embrace a growth mindset. In this mindset, mistakes are just data; they’re just information we can use to do better next time.
The opposite of all-or-nothing perfectionist thinking is the spectrum mindset, which views the world, success, health, and happiness in shades of grey rather than as black-and-white entities. Avoid sorting people into binary groups: good writers and bad writers, good athletes and bad athletes, smart people and stupid people, beautiful people and ugly people. Such extreme sorting is, to be sure, absurd and harmful. Instead of categorizing yourself and others in this manner, make an effort to see everyone for the complicated, dynamic people they really are.
Born out of the spectrum mindset is the philosophy of everything counts. Every step we take in the right direction is beneficial and therefore worthwhile. Because of self-perception, the best way to prove to yourself that you’re a work in progress is to work on making progress.
A huge step you can take to overcome perfectionism is to craft a chosen identity that is based entirely on the process of taking action, rather than some end result. If you self-identify as a talented achiever, you may avoid trying because a failure would threaten that identity. But if you self-identify as someone who consistently does the work, you’ll constantly be trying. Swapping out an outcome-based identity or a character-based identity for a process-based identity is the ultimate antidote to perfectionist procrastination.
Here’s another idea: Since mistakes are inevitable, whenever possible, use a pencil rather than a pen.
By choosing to use a pencil, you’re not just making it easy to correct errors that arise, you’re telling yourself that it’s okay to make errors. On the other hand, if you use a pen, you’re subtly telling yourself that it’s not okay to screw up.
Now, an advanced practitioner of imperfection and growth-minded practice might choose to use a pen so he can see his past mistakes. Since he can’t erase them, he must embrace them. His practice contains a record of his errors that serve as a reminder what not to do.
Another way to reduce perfectionism is to reduce our media consumption. We live in a culture where we’re bombarded with photoshopped images of celebrities, carefully curated Facebook profiles, and unrealistic portrayals of life. We can benefit from filtering our environment by limiting the images of “perfect” people displayed on television and magazine covers.1 When we see perfect romance in a movie or hear about it in a song, we need to remember that it’s not real. It is fiction. The movie ends right when the marriage begins and proclaims that they live “happily ever after,” when of course, that’s not how real relationships work.1
Lastly, if you’re a parent, please remember to lead by example and demonstrate to your children how to shift away from perfectionism and how to be okay with being imperfect. Please avoid trying to look perfect because, if you pull it off, you’ll set your children up to have the incorrect belief that perfect is possible. Instead, normalize struggles, mistakes, and asking for help. Of course all parents are imperfect, but what I’m asking is for you to make an effort to be more visibly imperfect.
No one can be perfect, but we can all become better, and shifting away from perfectionism is an important step on that journey.
Chris Loper has been working as a tutor and academic coach since 2014, racking up over 10,000 hours of experience supporting students.
Along with Greg Smith, Chris is the cocreator of Parenting for Academic Success (and Parental Sanity) – a five-part course offered every summer.
Chris’s most recent endeavor combines his academic and habit-formation expertise to help students thrive in college. Visit SmartCollegeHabits.com to learn more.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons, available on Amazon and through most local bookstores.
He lives in Issaquah, WA where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.
1 Ben-Shahar, Tal. Psychology 1504: Positive Psychology. Harvard Open Course, 2009.
2 Dweck, Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Ballantine Books, 2007.
3 Brown, Brené. “The Price of Invulnerability.” TEDx Kansas City, 2014.
4 McGonigal, Kelly. “The Science of Willpower.” TEDx Bay Area, 2012.
5 Bowen, Will. A Complaint Free World: How to Stop Complaining and Start Enjoying the Life You Always Wanted. Harmony, 2007.
Title Image: John D. “Imperfect.” May 12, 2004. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
“Hesitation” by Pete Hobden: pete.hobden. “hesitation.” February 6, 2011. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
“Not Good Enough” by Saku Takakusaki: Takakusaki, Saku. “Not Good Enough.” October 5, 2013. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.
Pobody’s Nerfect: Groening, Matt. “Bart vs. Australia.” The Simpsons. Season 6, Episode 16. February 19, 1995.
Pencil and Paper: becca.peterson26. “46/365.” Feb 15, 2011. https://www.flickr.com. Creative Commons 2.0.