Why Perfectionism Is a Hazard


Let’s face it: No baby thinks, “Oh, no! I didn’t roll over perfectly.” That’s because perfectionism is not part of our DNA. Instead, it’s a way of thinking that some of us adopt—somewhere in our life—where we’ve now convinced our brain . . . this is who we are.

And that’s why people who consider themselves to be perfectionists often wear that description like a badge. For example, they’ll even smile as they explain to others, “Well, I am a perfectionist.”

Do you wish you could turn that can (to match the rest)?

Of course, they wouldn’t do that if perfectionism behavior wasn’t viewed positively by most of the world. In other words, people don’t usually smile and share with others, “I’m quite a jerk.” Or, “I’m such a liar.”

Now, it should come as no surprise that the world of marketing is hugely invested in perpetuating perfectionism. After all, the desire to be “perfect” is a strong motivator to keep buying more and more products.

Society, in general, also supports perfectionism. Family members, friends, teachers, bosses and more all send both conscious and subconscious messages that we could always be doing something a bit better, right? In fact, there’s usually one or more people in a perfectionist’s life who responds in ways that keeps the perfectionism “alive.”

So then, what is the dictionary’s definition of a perfectionist? Well, we find phrases such as “a person with an attitude that demands perfection” and “someone who refuses to accept any standard short of perfection.” Yet, interestingly, we don’t usually view people who are demanding or those who refuse to accept flaws in a very positive light. In fact, we often frame such people as inflexible, rigid, and uncompromising.

A Brain Doesn’t Even “Get” Perfectionism

It turns out that our brain thrives whenever we’re presented with a challenge—so long as that challenge is within reach. Something too simple, and the brain is bored. Something too hard, and the brain shuts down. But when learning happens at what is referred to as the “sweet spot,” our brain does a happy dance. The problem is . . . perfectionism doesn’t co-exist with hanging out in our sweet spot.

For example, suppose a soccer coach has the team shooting goals from a set distance during practice. Now, Player 1 may give the illusion of doing this challenge perfectly when she makes 10 out of 10 shots—especially if others perceive that as a “perfect” score. But, in truth, Player 1’s brain is bored. There’s no learning here, no change in her brain. That distance was too easy for her present skill level, and so she does not improve during that practice.

However, suppose Player 2 misses 9 out of 10 shots. Well, since that distance was too challenging for her present skill level, there’s also no learning or improvement in her brain. But something else has happened with Player 2. By repeatedly engaging in a challenge that was not within reach, her brain switched to survival mode— which, ironically, then additionally decreased the probability of her making a shot.

Yet, what if Player 3 makes 8 out of 10 shots? Bingo! For that player, the coach’s distance WAS her sweet spot.

Unless . . . Player 3 believes she’s a perfectionist. If so, she now likely engages in negative self-talk as she fixates on the two shots that she didn’t make. And she won’t agree that she’s ready to practice shooting from a distance a bit further back. No way. That might make her look even worse! Instead, she convinces herself that she needs to keep repeating this drill, again and again, until she can do it perfectly.

But, in her quest for perfectionism, Player 3 doesn’t improve her overall athletic ability. For example, suppose she eventually makes 10 out of 10 shots during practice. So what? Those exact conditions won’t be replicated in a game. Even if Player 3 shoots from the same distance, game performance has a much higher level of intensity than practice. And in a game, Player 3 is hardly going to risk shooting from distances further than from whatever she “mastered” during practice. She’ll be too afraid that she’ll miss the goal—and then look stupid for even trying.

Why Perfectionism Keeps Us in Survival Mode

Since perfectionists live with continual anxiety, they’re often preoccupied with maintaining whatever image they’ve been trying to project. In response to such anxiety, the perfectionist’s answer is to work harder, accomplish more.

But that answer is not sustainable, especially since perfectionism is an illusion. So, sooner or later, that brain hits its threshold, whereupon it then shifts into survival mode. Once in survival mode, the brain now only has three ways to respond: fight, flight, or freeze.

And so, fight, flight, and freeze reactions become automated responses among those who have crowned themselves perfectionists. Most commonly, long-standing perfectionists resort to flight behavior. That’s because it’s easier to avoid or postpone doing whatever until everything lines up perfectly than to stay on the never-ending treadmill of working harder and harder.

However, that doesn’t mean those same perfectionists don’t articulate, often quite eloquently, convincing arguments as to why they haven’t started or completed something, to the point they may even sound like they’re being quite thoughtful by doing their (disguised) flight behavior. But if there’s any doubt that such reactions are flight behavior, try pushing perfectionists to move forward. Watch how quickly that nice flight behavior turns into fight behavior. That’s because (as far as the brain is concerned) flight and fight reactions are both survival responses.

But the truth is . . . perfectionism is just masked fear — and fear is always a lower brain reaction. So, the perfectionists’ never-ending fear keeps them in perpetual survival mode.

However, that continual stress response then affects our physical and mental health. For example, if we remain in survival mode over time, we end up with increased levels of cortisol. High levels of cortisol are associated with insomnia, inflammation, depression, as well as problems with memory and focus. Sure seems like quite a high price to pay . . . to avoid making a mistake.

How Perfectionism Affects Relationships

Perfectionists are often overly critical of how they acted (or didn’t act). However, such negative thoughts aren’t compatible with feeling and showing compassion to ourselves and others. So, perfectionists may come across to the rest of the world as generally being frustrated, unkind, unhappy people.

Perfectionists also tend to impose their perfection on family members, as well—and that’s when relationships go south. While a perfectionist may believe she’s being helpful when insisting on a higher standard or to do something the “right” way, she can’t control how others hear her judgement, corrections, and criticism.

Consequently, those on the receiving end of a perfectionist have two options. They’ll either resist whatever perfectionism is being “forced” upon them—or they’ll inherit it (and all the fear that comes with it). It’s that latter scenario that ensures perfectionism becomes transgenerational.

But it doesn’t stop there. Maintaining a perfectionism mindset requires copious amounts of time and energy. For example, perfectionists often work overtime to conceal their own imperfections or to project an image of perfection or to work on something until it’s “perfect.”

Perfectionists also have difficulty letting something go—so they’ll keep thinking about what happened or how they “failed” in the past. Yet, all that time and energy takes away time from being present and enjoying family and friends.

Perfectionism can additionally interfere with work relationships. For example, most of us would not choose a boss who assigns a project and then commands, “Now do it RIGHT.”  Or, we may dread a boss who looks at whatever we complete and often says, “That’s all wrong. Do it again.”

Sure, the perfectionist boss may spin such reactions as merely holding employees to high standards. But that boss hasn’t provided any specifics. Instead, she leaves it to her employees to read her mind as to what is “right.”

Of course, employees can also be the ones who are perfectionists. This often shows up when such staff delays starting a project (out of fear someone will discover they don’t know how to do the assignment) or when they keep re-doing whatever they’ve been assigned (out of fear that it still isn’t perfect).

Yet, more times than not, these staff members end up missing a deadline. In such case, their boss may now become irritated when he doesn’t have the report he needs. If the boss expresses his annoyance, such employees may then get defensive or blame someone for the present situation. (Perfectionists commonly look at others for the reason something didn’t go well.) That’s because perfectionists don’t usually realize how often their perfectionism causes friction and a disconnect with others.

Defending Perfectionism

Some people will argue (often quite vehemently) a case for perfectionism. They’ll cite examples of when mastery is critical, and when sloppiness is problematic. They’ll insist there IS a right way and wrong way to do something. They’ll also attest that perfectionism is a healthy motivation for reaching ambitious goals, and that extraordinary high standards are what produces world-class athletes and other renown people, both in the past and present.

But here’s the first problem with such thinking. Mastery, sloppiness, right and wrong are all subjective perceptions.

Second, when we’re attached to perfectionism, we’ve allowed the all-or-nothing brain to now highjack how we view life. Here, we’ve chosen to live in a world of extremes, where there is no middle ground. For example, we now believe that those who don’t set the highest standards must be operating from the lowest expectations, right? Anything less than perfect (whatever that’s perceived to be) is unacceptable. So results—not ever the process—is all that’s important, leaving no room for mistakes.

Of course, that latter thought, alone, causes problems since the brain loves “wrapping myelin,” a neurological process that naturally happens as we learn . . . from mistakes. Of course, avoiding mistakes also negates how many famous inventions (post-its, microwaves, penicillin, Coca-Cola, potato chips—to name just a few among such discoveries) are part of our lives today—but only because someone originally made a mistake, didn’t get something right.

And, perhaps, this is the biggest difference between perfectionists and others who also work towards a goal, who regularly tweak and even redo something to improve their first attempt. The perfectionist is motivated and driven by fear that something “bad” will happen if the goal isn’t attained or if something isn’t done perfectly. With that persisting belief, the perfectionist has now eliminated all joy from the process. The perfectionist has conflated a desire to improve with a demand to be perfect.

The perfectionist additionally gives up the option of just being “okay” with something, if (whatever) is not exactly as originally imagined or preferred. For example, there’s nothing wrong with choosing to place toilet paper rolls, all in a straight line, inside the bathroom cabinet. That action, alone, does not infer perfectionism.

It’s what happens if one of those rolls is now not lined up “perfectly.” Does seeing that wayward roll create angst? (The perfectionist will want to immediately put it back in its place.) Or, does seeing that out-of-place roll generate an angry reaction? (The perfectionist might shout, “WHO messed this up!”)

Disabling Perfectionism

Here’s the good news. If we were the ones who created our perfectionism highways, then we’re also the ones who can disable such circuitry. However, we can’t just tell someone (or ourselves), “Stop being a perfectionist.” That’s not how the brain works.

First, our brain needs to believe that perfectionism is no longer serving us well. Then—especially since we’ve already likely automated our perfectionist highways—we need to DO lots of actions that give our brain a chance to experience that life without perfectionism is more enjoyable than one that chases that illusion.

Here are some simple ideas to get started in that direction.

1. Post these signs as helpful reminders:

  • Done is better than perfect.
  • Showing up is better than perfect.

2. Engage in zany activities where it’s impossible for anyone (including ourselves) to say we did it perfectly.

3. Decide that failure doesn’t exists (read Why Failure is a Hoax).

4. Toss the word “perfect” from daily vocabulary. For example, no longer frame someone as the “perfect little girl” or that whatever someone said or did was “just perfect.”

5. Do something and celebrate only the process—not the result.

Last Thoughts

What if some perfectionists now think: “Okay, perhaps, that mindset hasn’t been serving me well.” But suppose those same perfectionists try the disabling perfectionism ideas and then conclude, “Well, none of those worked. I’m still a perfectionist.”

If so, here’s the irony. Those people were trying to disable their perfectionism circuity . . . perfectly, with that same prior all-or-nothing mindset.

So, beware of that gotcha trap. And recall that merely deciding to focus on the process—without any attachment to the outcome—is already going to make huge changes in a perfectionist’s brain. That’s because being a perfectionist was never about making a perfect world; it was about thinking we needed to live in a perfect world and then vigilantly pursuing that illusion.


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