How to Let Go of Perfectionism

By Paula Durlofsky, PhD.

Perfectionists strive for flawlessness in all parts of life. They have unattainably high standards for themselves. They are exceedingly concerned about others’ evaluation of them, hardly ever satisfied with their performance, and blame themselves when things go wrong — even when they are not directly involved or responsible.

Perfectionists consider mistakes to be personal failures or deficits. Mistakes are not seen as a normal part of learning and growing that we all experience.

Chronic procrastination is a surprising consequence of perfectionism. Many people interpret their procrastination as not caring or as simply being “lazy.” Actually, procrastination is a symptom of perfectionism. Putting tasks off is the perfectionist’s way of protecting him- or herself from the underlying fear that the task will not be completed perfectly. They thus put it off as long as possible.

When perfectionists perform at what they perceive to be below their standard, they become overly critical of themselves, damaging their self-esteem. This happens because the perfectionists’ self-worth is dependent upon productivity and accomplishment. Pressuring oneself to achieve lofty and unrealistic goals inevitably sets the person up for disappointment and feelings of frustration. As a result, perfectionists often berate themselves with an abusive internal dialogue. They tell themselves they are stupid, inadequate, lazy, and may believe something is fundamentally wrong with them.

Not all perfectionists are concerned with only productivity and accomplishments. A small subset of perfectionists are focused on achieving perfect physical appearance. Today’s society undeniably overvalues the importance of people’s physical appearance. We are surrounded by glossy magazine images, celebrities, and billboard pictures of flawless men and women who look “perfect” mainly due to digital enhancements.

Perfect looks have become highly valued since they symbolize success, happiness, and admiration by others. Consequently, this subset of perfectionists is at greater risk for developing body dysmorphic disorder (BDD) and eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. Perfectionists whose self-esteem is more reliant on productivity and accomplishing goals are also susceptible to developing BDD and eating disorders in addition to depression, anxiety disorders, and problems in their personal relationships and careers.

When perfectionists are able to understand the underlying feelings feeding their behaviors, they become aware of the vicious cycle their perfectionism creates and the negative impact it has on their overall happiness. Perfectionists tend to live narrow lives and often do not reach their full potential. They refuse to try new things for fear that they will make a mistake.

Fortunately, perfectionism can be treated with the help of a mental health professional. Treatment focuses on helping the perfectionist to develop a realistic appraisal of him- or herself, develop the ability to enjoy the process of attaining goals, help the perfectionist to accept mistakes as a normal part of learning and life, and develop a positive sense of self independent of one’s performance on a specific task or accomplishment.

Treatment modalities for perfectionism include cognitive-behavioral therapy (challenging the irrational thoughts and formation of alternative ways of coping and thinking), psychoanalytic therapy (analyzing the underlying motives and issues), and group therapy (where two or more individuals work with one or more therapists).

Below are some tips to help you cope with perfectionism:

  • Become aware of your negative self-dialogue.
    Harsh and critical self-assessments reinforce perfectionism and procrastination.
  • Practice self-compassion.
    When we are compassionate with ourselves, our fear of failure is not exaggerated. Mistakes are understood as being a natural and normal part of learning and life.
  • Take the time to examine whether your goals and expectations are attainable.
    If they are not, give yourself permission to change them.
  • Break goals down into smaller steps.
  • Examine your irrational fears of failure with a professional. 
    A professional can help with putting your irrational fears into prospective and help you to reach your full potential.

Perfect woman photo available from Shutterstock

Dr. Paula Durlofsky is a psychologist in private practice in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. She specializes in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and treats a variety of disorders.

APA Reference 
Durlofsky, P. (2015). How to Let Go of Perfectionism. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 3, 2015, from

copyright @1995-2015 Psych Central Psych Central does not provide medical, mental illness, or psychological advice, diagosis or treatment.

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