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Perfectionism and the pursuit of excellence have helpful and unhelpful sides. On the one hand striving to achieve a worthwhile goal and to do your best can give meaning and value to your life. On the other hand, taking things to the extreme and trying to be perfect can place unrealistic demands on you, leading to stress and anxiety.

The tips here focus on what you can do if the unhelpful side of perfectionism creates a problem for you.

Believing you must aim to achieve things perfectly can lead to the following difficulties:

  • Setting goals which are unrealistic, which can lead you to feel a sense of failure when you do not achieve the goals and do not live up to the expectations you place upon yourself;
  • Adopting an all or nothing approach – i.e. taking the view that if you don’t do something perfectly then you have failed;
  • Being much more conscious of your flaws or errors than of your abilities or successes;
  • Investing a lot of time or energy on doing things just because you feel you ought to do them or seeking to achieve goals irrespective of whether those goals are actually worthwhile ones for you to pursue. This can lead you to feel under pressure and dissatisfied.

If you suffer from some of the above tendencies and would like to try to change or modify them, here are some suggestions for managing perfectionism:
(1) Ask yourself what is most important to you in life. What do you value? Set your priorities to ensure that you have at least some time to do what you think is worthwhile and important, even if others may not always agree.    

(2) Look out for times when your inner voice says to you that you
ought to or must do something. Reflect on why you think that you ought to do the activity. Then consider whether this is a good reason for doing it. Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of the action, before deciding whether you will commit yourself. If you have a tendency to agree to do things when people ask, which you later come to regret, then develop an initial response of saying that you need a bit of time to think about the request before deciding whether to do it. If you have difficulty in saying 'No' to requests, consider coaching sessions to support you in developing assertiveness.
(3)   When you are doing something which is taking a lot of time or energy or is particularly stressful, ask yourself:

  • What are the benefits that I am trying to achieve from this activity? What will the consequences be if I do achieve it and what if I don’t achieve it, or if I only partially achieve it? – Tailor the amount of time and energy you are putting into the activity according to how significant the consequences are one way or another. Remember this is your estimate of significance not someone else's, although you can of course take into account the views of others.
  • How likely am I to achieve the outcome I want or at least to prevent an outcome I don’t want? - Take this into account in estimating how much time to expend on an activity. You only have a limited amount of time available to you, so try not to use up too much time on efforts which seem likely to be fruitless.
  • How productive is the activity? - If you are spending a lot of time and energy but not achieving much and this seems likely to continue, then consider whether there is any different way that you could do the activity to produce a more productive result. For example, you may decide to limit the time you spend on the activity but to make sure that the time you do spend is more focused. If you can’t think of any options yourself then try seeking advice or suggestions from someone you can trust to give you reliable advice in the situation. 

(4) If you have a tendency to see the negative in what you do and discount the positive, then try to do the opposite and notice the positive. For example, if you are inclined to say things like: "I did 90% of what I wanted but I didn't manage to finish everything because I failed to start on it until the afternoon", you might rephrase this as: "Although I didn't start until the afternoon, I am pleased that I still managed to get 90% of what I wanted done."

(5) Make a list of positive things you have achieved in the week - including  things however small they may be - and note positive feedback from others that you have received.

(6)   Finally if you don’t achieve something you set out to achieve, you can try to remind yourself of the following:

  • A person’s worth is not determined by their achievements – most older people when they look back on their lives attach more importance to relationships than to achievements.
  • You do not need to be perfect to be happy. Indeed many ‘high achievers’ are not happy. Conversely, many people of average ability and talents are content and fulfilled. Which would you prefer to be?
  • Sometimes, focusing on doing something you enjoy rather than worrying for ever about the end result can actually help you to achieve more. Give yourself permission to do some things you enjoy (so long as they don’t harm others) and see if there are ways that you can make the things that you don’t enjoy a bit more enjoyable or less daunting.


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