Perfectionism: is it a good thing?

Is it a good thing to be a perfectionist or is it a burden in life, that makes us put ourselves under excessive pressure constantly? The truth is, it’s not possible – nor advisable - to ever be totally perfect. We often hear sayings like, ‘no one's perfect’ yet for many, perfection is the ultimate goal.

Signs that you are a perfectionist:

  • Relentlessly striving for extremely high standards
  • Judging your self-worth based on your ability to be ‘perfect’
  • Experiencing negative consequences of the high standards set, yet not being able to stop

What’s really debilitating about perfectionism is the inability to accept ‘failure’ and the need to always earn the ‘gold star’, even when you know in your gut that you’re doing too much, you’re trying too hard and that you need to give it a rest.

To protect oneself, a perfectionist might adopt these negative behaviour traits:

  • Struggle to make decisions (for fear of making the wrong one)
  • Seek reassurance (need to be told you’re doing the right thing)
  • Give up easily (if there are signs of imperfection, better to give up than struggle)
  • Procrastinate (not start an assignment because it might be less than perfect)
  • Avoidance behaviour (e.g., not entering a competition because you might fail)

Surely striving for excellence is a good thing, you might be thinking. Yes and no. Perfectionism is distinct from excellence in that the driving force is a deep desire to avoid failure.

For some, the deeply-engrained need to be perfect is because ‘success’ is seen to earn love/approval. This approval-seeking behaviour is likely to have formed in childhood when it became the norm or when it was modelled on someone else’s perceived perfection.

One can be a perfectionist in different areas of life; some go for academic perfection – this might be seen in exam results, in handwriting, in meticulous revision note-making. Others may display perfectionism in sports and fitness, appearance, grooming and weight, or in the home where not a single item is ever out of place. Few people will attempt perfection in every single category.

The key message is that setting yourself high standards and focusing on achievement can be very rewarding. But setting impossible standards with a focus on avoiding failure at all costs is damaging. Start by differentiating between the two and deciding whether you are a perfectionist or a high achiever. Note that there are levels of perfectionism – it's not binary. You could be a bit of a perfectionist, sometimes a perfectionist or a perfectionist in some areas of your life as mentioned.

Be really honest with yourself by thinking about what motivates you. Then you can start by setting yourself more realistic goals, allowing yourself to face some failures and crucially, learning from them (without judging yourself). And lastly, write down the negative consequences of perfectionist tendencies: examples are procrastination, avoidance, negative feelings, anxiety, lack of adventure. It should become clear that the downside is not worth it.

Recommended links:

The dangerous downsides of perfectionism - BBC Future

Perfectionism Information Sheet - 01 - What is Perfectionism (

Perfectionism | Psychology Today

The Toxic Illusion Of Perfectionism (

How to Overcome Perfectionism (