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Perfectionism and Procrastination

Are you someone who:

  • Feels like what you accomplish is never quite good enough? 
  • Feels you must give more than 100 percent on everything you do or else you will be mediocre or even a failure?
  • Often puts off turning in papers or projects, waiting to get them just right?

If so, rather than simply working toward success, you may be trying to be perfect, and there exists quite a difference between aiming for a successful life and trying to achieve perfection.

What's the difference between a perfectionist and a "healthy striver"?

Perfectionist Healthy striver

Sets standards beyond reach and reason

Sets high standards, but just beyond reach

Is never satisfied by anything less than perfection

Enjoys process as well as outcome

Becomes dysfunctionally depressed when experiences failure and disappointment

Bounces back from failure and disappointment quickly and with energy

Is preoccupied with fear of failure and disapproval — this can deplete energy levels

Keeps normal anxiety and fear of failure and disapproval within bounds — uses them to create energy

Sees mistakes as evidence of unworthiness

Sees mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning

Becomes overly defensive when criticized

Reacts positively to helpful criticism

Perfectionism: How does it feel?perfectionism_grouptx.jpg

Of course we all want to be successful and produce good work in our everyday lives. Setting high expectations can be motivating and quite healthy. However, when taken to the extreme, our productivity can actually decrease. Perfectionists frequently experience many of the symptoms listed below:

  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes, perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • All-or-none thinking. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective. For example, a "straight A" student who receives a "B" might believe, "I am a total failure."
  • Overemphasis on "shoulds." Perfectionists' lives are often structured by an endless list of "shoulds" that serve as rigid rules for how their lives must be led. With such an overemphasis on shoulds, perfectionists rarely take into account their own wants and desires.
  • Believing that others are easily successful. Perfectionists tend to perceive others as achieving success with a minimum of effort, few errors, emotional stress, and maximum self-confidence. At the same time, perfectionists view their own efforts as unending and forever inadequate.

The vicious cycle of perfectionism and self-esteem

If you are a perfectionist, it is likely that you learned early in life that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved, meaning you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people's approval. Thus your self-esteem may have come to be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you vulnerable and excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense. Below is a cycle that perfectionists often find themselves experiencing and some other consequences of perfectionism.

  1. First, perfectionists set unreachable goals, failure is inevitable.
  2. They fail to meet these goals because the goals were impossible to begin with.
  3. The constant pressure to achieve perfection and the inevitable chronic failure reduce productivity and effectiveness.
  4. This cycle leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming which results in lower self-esteem. It may also lead to anxiety and depression.
  5. Perfectionists may give up completely on their goals and set different goals thinking, "This time if only I try harder I will succeed." Such thinking sets the entire cycle in motion again.

Consequences of perfectionism

  • Depression
  • Performance anxiety
  • Test anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Writer's block
  • Obsessiveness
  • Compulsiveness
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loneliness
  • Impatience
  • Frustration
  • Anger

What to do about perfectionism

The first step in changing from perfectionistic attitudes to healthy striving is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism. Some of the following strategies may help:

  • Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own wants and needs and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteem.
  • Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal one level beyond your present level of accomplishment.
  • Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on the process of doing an activity not just on the end result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also in terms of how much you enjoyed the task. Recognize that there can be value in the process of pursuing a goal.
  • Use feelings of anxiety and depression as opportunities to ask yourself, "Have I set up impossible expectations for myself in this situation?"
  • Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, "What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?"
  • Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. When you make a mistake ask, "What can I learn from this experience?" More specifically, think of a recent mistake you have made and list all the things you can learn from it.
  • Avoid all-or-none thinking in relation to your goals. Learn to discriminate the tasks you want to give high priority to from those tasks that are less important to you. On less important tasks, choose to put forth less effort.

Once you have tried these suggestions, you are likely to realize that perfectionism is not a helpful or necessary influence in your life. There are alternative ways to think that are more beneficial. Not only are you likely to achieve more without your perfectionism, but you will feel better about yourself in the process.

Additional resources

Source: Some content used with permission from University of Michigan Counseling Center.