Sydney Learning

Learn to manage perfectionism

Manage perfectionism. Value excellence and learn how to step back from unhelpful perfectionism.

The intention to “do as well as you are able” is an important value that is held by many students. It just isn’t possible (or practical) to be perfect – or perform at your absolute best all the time. Setting the bar too high is as impractical as setting the bar too low. These pages will help you find the most useful strategies for valuing excellence in your work and performance while also recognising and stepping back from the unhelpful aspects of perfectionism.

What is perfectionism?
The paradox of perfectionism
Where does perfectionism come from?
The perfectionism trap
How to change perfectionism
Other useful links and resources

What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism involves setting standards for yourself that are inflexible and unrelenting. Nothing short of perfect or “doing the absolutely best possible” at all times is acceptable. At the heart of perfectionism is an excessive fear of making mistakes and the concern that making mistakes might make you less successful, likeable or even less worthy.

The paradox of perfectionism

Paradoxically, the demand for perfection can actually impede performance. There is a point at which the more stress you put on yourself – the LESS effective and productive you are.

Perfectionists are often LESS successful than non-perfectionists because the fear of mistakes means it is really hard to be creative, innovative or even to be genuinely open to new ideas. Non-perfectionists often achieve more because even when they fail at something they recover from the mistake more quickly and are able absorb the feedback offered them.

Even for athletes whose sport requires perfect performance outcomes – the perfectionism paradox stands. Research shows that the more an athlete is mentally pre-occupied by the need to attain perfection the less well he/she will perform. The fear of making public mistakes can also lead to talented perfectionistic athletes to quit their sport.

For study, perfectionism very often leads to procrastination because of the fear that work won’t be good enough. This fear can make it really difficult to start assessments. Perfectionists will often hand work in late – or not at all – rather than hand in something they think is “less than perfect”.

Perfectionism also impacts on emotional well-being. Believing that others will value you only if you are “perfect” is associated with depression. Demanding perfection from yourself also makes you vulnerable to psychological problems or disorders when stressed.

Where does perfectionism come from?

Success rules such as competitiveness and perfectionism are often socially and culturally encouraged – we are bombarded by media images insisting that we must have the perfect body, perfect job, perfect car and so on.

Perfectionism is often also nurtured by a variety of earlier childhood experiences. For example, perfectionism can arise when parents' praise for achievements is coupled with criticism or punishment for mistakes. Alternatively, a child may not be directly punished but simply ignored if they only attain B grades. Sometimes parents may also unintentionally model perfectionism through their own behaviour and attitudes.

The temperament (the personality you are born with) can also play a role. People who are nervous of novelty, dependent on others for reward and who persist with goals in the face of exhaustion or frustration, may be more likely to develop perfectionism. Regardless of how it arises, the impacts of perfectionism are similar and the paths to change the same.

The perfectionism trap

Perfectionism can get you trapped in an unhelpful cycle of thoughts, physical sensations, emotions and behavioural impulses. For example, thoughts about “not being good enough” might be linked to a racing heart, queasiness, anxiety, distress and a desire to escape or avoid the task at hand. Other common behavioural impulses driven by perfectionistic fears include overworking and excessive checking.

This cycle can spiral in one of two ways. One possible outcome of procrastinating (and so doing things at the last minute) or overworking (and so handing things in late) is that you can end up getting poorer marks. When your marks are lower than they “should be”, the harder you are on yourself, the worse you feel and the more difficult the next task becomes. This spiral can mean you end up performing far less well than you are capable of and you can end up dispirited and further away from your original aspirations or goals.

Alternatively, if your struggles produce high marks then the stronger the expectation becomes for continuing to obtain those results (or even better) and so the tighter and tighter the cycle grabs you! Perfectionists therefore savour little pleasure from very real achievements – instead they immediately focus on the need to maintain the standard for the next task. The costs of this spiral can include burn-out and exhaustion and a loss of vitality and joy in living.

Both of these cycles of perfectionism involve avoidance – the well-intended efforts to push away unwanted thoughts, feelings and fears about being less than perfect.

How to change perfectionism

If the consequences of perfectionism are hurting you it may be time to consider change. Change is not about giving up valuing excellence and is not necessarily about “lowering your standards” but it is about
being willing to increase your acceptance and tolerance of imperfection. You can’t always perform perfectly! The demands of many situations and university workloads dictate the necessity to be more flexible about what is possible and what is “good enough”. It is also important to allow yourself permission to make mistakes and to have the courage to learn from them.

Pushing back at perfectionism starts with thinking about what you want your life to stand for. Of course, doing well can be part of that but do you want “Got High Marks” to be the only thing that you are remembered for? If not, then it is time to start paying attention to what else is important to you and what else can make your life vital and meaningful. It is equally important to think about the qualities in you that your friends or family care about. Do your friends only like you because of your marks?

Changing perfectionism involves changing both the way you act and the way you think and feel about yourself.

Changing your behaviour

Vitality producing activities

Loosening the grip on perfectionism involves increasing the meaningful and vital activities in your world. If you want your life to stand for more than high marks it is time to take action. Start to balance your world by actively pursuing and gradually including other life activities outside of study. Start small (don’t aim for perfection!)

Exercise: Take this opportunity to think about what else is important to you.

Good time management

Another useful counter to getting caught up in perfectionist behaviours such as procrastinating or over-working is to ensure that you approach your academic work with good time management skills. These include:

  • Setting clear timelines and firm behavioural limits on how much time you spend on tasks. After all, spending the same amount of time and effort on a 10% assignment as on a 40% one isn’t really practical.
  • Breaking tasks down to into smaller, more manageable parts also helps stay focused on the task rathe than the outcome. Set practical time limits on these subtasks, too.
  • Ensuring that you include vital and fun activities in your week by timetabling them into a schedule or routine.

Set realistic and kinder goals

Perfectionists often set standards that are not realistic for them.

For example: a capable mature age student who has responsibility and demands of work and family may simply not have the time to achieve the same results as fellow students. How kind and/or realistic are your goals?

Behavioural experiments

Perhaps you might also be ready to try some behavioural experiments. At the heart of perfectionism is a fear of the possible consequences of being imperfect. Behavioural experiments involve testing our your fears and beliefs.

For example: Do you look for everything ever written on a topic before you start to write? (Do you ever use it at all?) In this instance, the perfectionist fear of “missing something and so getting it wrong” s driving over-working. Try an experiment with a fair but strict deadline on the amount of time on research and reading you do for an essay and see what difference it really makes.

You might also intentionally try making small mistakes like wearing mismatching socks just to allow yourself to be “less than perfect” and see what happens.

Good exercise

Exercise has been shown to be terrific for both good mood and brain function. Exercise or other stress management skills like relaxation or meditation help to bring out the best in your brain. Paradoxically, you can healthily optimise your academic performance by managing your stress levels.

Changing the way you think and feel

All of us continually experience an unending cascade of thoughts, memories, images, physical sensations and behavioural urges. The perfectionism cascade includes “frequent flyer” thoughts like:

  • "Doing well isn’t good enough, I have to do better!"
  • "If I don’t get an HD I don’t deserve to be here."
  • "If I get it wrong – they will think badly of me."
  • "If I don’t do the best I will let them (parents, teachers, others) down and they wont approve of me."
  • "I have to do an excellent essay or else they’ll know I’m a fraud."

There are a number of ways that you can work with these thoughts and feelings. One way is to develop skills in re-examining and challenging unhelpful thoughts with a view to finding more accurate and constructive alternatives. (e.g. see the section on Challenging Unhelpful Thinking in Learn To Deal With Procrastination.

Another way is to develop defusion and mindfulness skills. Mindfulness involves learning to notice what is happening moment by moment with a non-judging attitude. Practicing mindfulness helps us to “step back” from unhelpful or anxiety producing thoughts and feelings. If we can step back from strong thoughts, feelings and urges we can avoid being caught up by them and swept away into unhelpful actions.

Other useful links and resources

Check out the Centre for Clinical Interventions workbook on perfectionism. You can also explore our Learn To Deal With Procrastination and Learn To Manage Stress and Anxiety pages.