Perfectionism: Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking

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Have you ever been labeled a “perfectionist”? Or do you consider yourself to be one?

It’s tempting to see perfectionism as a desirable or positive quality – it shows that we pay close attention to detail and get things right! In fact, obsessive perfectionism can do more harm than good. It can damage self-esteem, put a strain on our relationships, and, in extreme cases, it may even lead to serious health problems.

Research suggests that perfectionism is growing, with a rising number of people striving to perfect their lifestyles and themselves.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a set of self-defeating thought patterns that push you to achieve unrealistic goals.

In his book, “The Pursuit of Perfect,” Dr Tal Ben-Shahar explains that there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive.

Adaptive perfectionists want to develop their skills continually. Their standards are always rising, and they approach work with optimism, pleasure and a desire to improve. This is the healthier type of perfectionism – but, as we’ll see later, it’s not without its problems.

Maladaptive perfectionists, however, are never satisfied with what they achieve and, if something isn’t perfect, they dismiss it. They may experience fear of failure, anxiety

, unhappiness, and other painful emotions. In general, maladaptive perfectionists tend to exhibit the following actions and behaviors:

  • They have high, unrealistic goals.
  • They give up on tasks if they feel that they can’t be the best or “win.”
  • They view mistakes as failures and conceal them from others.
  • They spend an excessive amount of time planning or redoing work to make it “perfect.”
  • They don’t like taking risks unless a successful outcome is guaranteed.
  • They are overly concerned with what other people think about them and believe that, if their flaws are exposed, they will be rejected.
  • They don’t handle criticism or feedback well.
  • They apply unrealistic standards to colleagues and are over-critical of their work.
  • If things don’t go to plan, they can feel stressed and anxious.
  • They find it difficult to delegate tasks to others.


A 2018 Harvard Business Review article described adaptive perfectionism as “excellence seeking” and maladaptive perfectionism as “failure avoiding.”

It also suggested that the latter has many more negative effects than excellence-seeking perfectionism, though research showed that neither forms improved performance. It concluded that perfectionism isn’t a useful approach, period!

Is Perfectionism a Weakness or a Strength?

Perfectionism is often viewed as a strength that helps people to produce high-quality work. But, while conscientiousness and attention to detail

are valuable attributes, they can also influence the way that you’re seen by others. You may, for instance, be viewed as over-critical, or as a procrastinator who spends too long on the detail rather than on the end result.

Of course, there are times when getting everything right is essential. If lives are at risk or if failure has grave implications, it’s vital that you test and check your work thoroughly. In these high-stakes situations, ensure that your organization’s business processes

are fit for purpose and that it is committed to creating systems that work flawlessly.

When the consequences of imperfection are small, however, it can be wasteful or counterproductive to seek or expect perfection. Learning to recognize when “good enough” really is good enough can save time and energy for when they’re really needed.

Why Is Perfectionism a Problem?

When perfectionism gets out of control or becomes obsessive, it can harm you both professionally and personally. Let’s look at some of the most common problem areas you might experience if you are a maladaptive perfectionist:

General Health

According to 2011 research from the Journal of Counseling and Development, perfectionism is linked to health issues such as eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, burnout

, and personality disorders. The quest for perfection can also result in decreased energy, increased stress, and relationship problems.


Perfectionism can seriously impact your self-esteem

. This is because self-worth is often tied to achievement. You believe that other people judge you on your achievements. But, because you’re rarely satisfied with what you do achieve due to your unrealistic high standards, you tend to believe that others think little of you and your ability.

This can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism, blame and self-sabotage. It can also trigger Impostor Syndrome, as you often find “evidence” that you’re not up to the job. You also risk harming other people’s self-esteem by trying to control colleagues’ behavior and being over-critical of their performance.


Contrary to popular opinion, perfectionism can damage your productivity, as it often makes you more liable to procrastinate


If you’re a perfectionist, you may find that you avoid starting a new project until you’ve found the absolute best way to approach it. You might also get caught up in minor details or make others repeat tasks that have already been completed because they aren’t exactly right.

Ultimately, however, this wastes time that could have been spent on other, more important tasks. It can also damage your relationships with others because of the knock-on effect that it has on team workflow. As writer and leadership expert Simon Sinek puts it, in almost every situation, “progress is more important than perfection.”


Perfectionism can prevent you from leaving your comfort zone

and taking risks. If you’re afraid to make mistakes, it’s difficult to generate new ideas and seize opportunities, and your creativity can suffer as a result.


Seek advice from suitably qualified health professionals if you have any concerns over your health, or if you’re experiencing significant or persistent unhappiness.

Strategies for Dealing With Perfectionism

The following seven strategies can help you to mitigate the negative effects of perfectionism:

1. Challenge Your Behavior

If you think that you have a problem with perfectionism, start by challenging your behavior and beliefs. List some of the things that you do that must be “perfect.” Perhaps you feel that you need to check your work multiple times before turning it in, or you like to create overly detailed plans before you start a new project.

Next to each behavior that you’ve listed, write down why you believe that this activity must be perfect. Perhaps you resist delegating tasks to a co-worker because you don’t trust their ability. Or you stay late at the office to check their work when you could be relaxing at home or spending time on other projects.

Finally, think about how you might overcome these behaviors or beliefs. For example, could you delegate one task a day, then review it just once to make sure that it’s been done correctly?


Only challenge one perfectionist behavior at a time. Otherwise, you may feel overwhelmed. Evaluate the impact of every change that you make to assess the positive or negative effects that it has on your life and work.

2. Set Realistic Goals

Perfectionists often set their objectives so high that there’s little hope of ever achieving them. Instead, learn how to set realistic goals

Think about your most important life and career goals. Then, break them down into smaller monthly or yearly steps. Not only will this make it easier to reach your objectives, but you’ll also experience the thrill of achieving these smaller goals.

3. Listen to Your Emotions

If you’re feeling anxious or unhappy about a task, your instincts may be telling you that you’re trying to achieve the impossible. Listen to them and adjust your targets accordingly!

Perfectionists are often prone to negative self-talk. If you catch yourself doing this, stop! Otherwise your thoughts may become self-fulfilling prophecies. Remember, positive thinking is often associated with positive action and outcomes. Try using affirmations or thought awareness

to question your negative thoughts and inject some positivity!

4. Don’t Fear Mistakes

Mistakes are part of life. They show that you’re not afraid to push yourself and try new things.

In fact, novelist James Joyce called mistakes “the portals of discovery.” That’s because they can provide rich learning experiences that teach you far more than a flawless performance. So, next time you make one, accept it, learn from it, and move on!

5. Readjust Your Personal Rules

Perfectionists often live by a rigid set of rules. Your rules might be to check every email at least three times before you send it, or to never leave a crumb on the kitchen counter. But, while it’s great to have high personal standards, they must be flexible and helpful, rather than unrelenting and unrealistic.

Identify one rule that you live by that’s too rigid, and reword it to be more forgiving. For example, maybe you could reread only the most important emails before you send them.

6. Focus on the Bigger Picture

Perfectionism can cause “tunnel vision” – when you focus on one small part of something but ignore the rest. You might, for instance, obsess about getting a minor part of a presentation right, like the fonts or special effects, instead of concentrating on the substance and meaning that you are trying to convey.

Remember to keep your focus on the bigger picture. Your failings will seem much less significant and you’ll reduce the urge to be perfect.

7. Relax – and Go With the Flow

The pursuit of perfection can make it extremely difficult to relax and be spontaneous. Instead, perfectionists prefer to maintain focus and to stick rigidly to their carefully laid plans.

But relaxation and spontaneity aren’t just necessary for a healthy life. They can also improve your productivity and well-being. And you’ll be better at keeping perfectionism under control if you’re feeling rested, clear-headed and happy. So, take regular breaks at work. Get outside, be open to new experiences and new people, make use of relaxation techniques, and recognize when you need to switch off

Most of all, don’t allow perfectionism or fear of failure to stop you from experiencing new things. Be open to new ways of thinking, new people, and new experiences. You might just find that letting go actually boosts your well-being, your relationships, and your performance.

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