Perfectionism Holds Us Back: Here’s Why

Perfectionism Holds Us Back: Here’s Why

Let’s think about an immensely talented painter who never completes a single artwork, always finding imperfections that others fail to see. Does this painstaking drive for flawlessness guarantee success or represent an obstacle? I assert the latter: perfectionism often hinders rather than propels us forward. This article will delve into perfectionism, its origins, its impact on our lives, and ways to overcome it.

Understanding Perfectionism

Perfectionism is not simply the pursuit of excellence, as often misunderstood, but a relentless striving for excessively high self-imposed and critically self-evaluated standards. Perfectionists judge their self-worth based mainly on their ability to strive for and achieve these unattainable goals.

Three types of perfectionism exist: self-oriented, other-oriented, and socially prescribed. Self-oriented perfectionists demand perfection from themselves, other-oriented ones expect perfection from others, while socially-prescribed perfectionists perceive that others expect them to be perfect.

Society often confuses perfectionism with diligence or high achievement. While high achievers take pride in their accomplishments, perfectionists struggle with shame and fear of failure, even when they succeed.

The Origins of Perfectionism

Perfectionism stems from various sources. From a psychological standpoint, it can root in early childhood experiences or parental expectations. Sigmund Freud believed that perfectionism is related to guilt and the desire to atone for one’s mistakes. Alfred Adler, in contrast, associated it with overcompensation for a feeling of inferiority.

Societal and cultural factors also play a role. The drive for perfection increases in societies and families, emphasizing achievement, competition, and social comparison. Social media can exacerbate these pressures, highlighting curated images of success and perfection that others try to emulate.

The Impacts of Perfectionism

Perfectionism comes at a high price. Research consistently shows a connection between perfectionism and mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. When perfectionists don’t reach their unrealistic goals, they become their harshest critics, which leads to a downward spiral of negative thinking and self-doubt.

Relationships can also suffer. Perfectionists may seem overly critical or demanding to others, leading to conflict or distance in personal and professional relationships.

Physically, the stress and pressure to be perfect can lead to chronic fatigue, insomnia, and other stress-related ailments.

Interestingly, perfectionism doesn’t always mean peak performance. Perfectionists often procrastinate or struggle with decision-making, causing a decrease in productivity and effectiveness.

Case Studies of Perfectionism

Consider the story of a gifted pianist who abandoned a promising career due to crippling stage fright rooted in her fear of not playing perfectly. She epitomizes how perfectionism can lead to self-sabotage.

On a brighter note, consider a renowned scientist who used to struggle with perfectionism, which hampered his research. He learned to set more realistic standards through self-awareness and therapy, resulting in breakthroughs that earned him multiple accolades.

Overcoming Perfectionism

Managing perfectionism involves psychological interventions, mindfulness, self-compassion, healthy goal-setting, and embracing failure. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help perfectionists challenge their irrational beliefs and thought patterns.

Mindfulness and self-compassion also prove beneficial. These practices help individuals stay present, acknowledge their feelings without judgment, and treat themselves kindly in the face of failure or perceived inadequacy.

Learning to set healthy, achievable goals is an essential step away from perfectionism. This process involves creating specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound objectives, known as SMART goals.

Finally, embracing failure as a natural part of life and a valuable learning experience is vital in overcoming perfectionism. Understanding that everyone makes mistakes and loss often precedes success can help dismantle perfectionist tendencies.

Case Study: Overcoming Perfectionism in Art

Subject: Anonymous Artist (referred to as A.A.)


A.A. is an immensely talented painter, admired for their artistic prowess by their peers. However, A.A. never completes a single artwork due to their intense fear of imperfection. Each piece is left unfinished, deemed inadequate under the scrutiny of A.A.’s self-imposed high standards, a classic case of self-oriented perfectionism.

Origins of Perfectionism

A.A.’s perfectionism is believed to have originated from their upbringing. Raised in a highly competitive family environment, where success was encouraged and expected, A.A. was trained to strive for excellence in all areas of life. Coupled with societal pressures from social media showcasing other artists’ perfect works, A.A. felt an immense burden to produce flawless art.

Impacts of Perfectionism

The impacts of A.A.’s perfectionism were numerous and detrimental. Despite their obvious talent, A.A. suffered from chronic anxiety and depression due to their constant self-judgment and fear of not meeting their unrealistic goals. This mental strain also manifests in physical symptoms like chronic fatigue and insomnia. Furthermore, A.A. found it increasingly challenging to form meaningful relationships with other artists due to their overly critical nature and fear of judgment.

Overcoming Perfectionism

After years of struggling, A.A. decided to seek professional help. They began attending cognitive-behavioral therapy sessions where they learned to challenge and change their irrational beliefs about their art and self-worth. The therapist worked with A.A. on setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound objectives for their artwork.

For instance, A.A. set a goal to complete one painting per week rather than aiming for the “perfect” piece. This allowed A.A. to focus on the process and progress rather than perfection.

A.A. also started practicing mindfulness and self-compassion. They took up yoga and meditation to stay present and reduce self-criticism. They learned to acknowledge their inadequacy without judgment and treated themselves kindly when they perceived their work as imperfect.

Perhaps the most transformative part of A.A.’s journey was embracing failure. With the therapist’s guidance, A.A. began to see their unfinished works not as failures but as necessary steps towards improvement and eventual success.


With continued therapy and practice, A.A.’s perfectionism gradually lessened. They started completing their paintings and even held their first exhibition, which was well-received by critics and the public. Despite the fear of criticism, they could share their work, take pride in their accomplishments, and accept the imperfections in their art.

A.A. now maintains a healthier approach to its artwork. While they still strive for excellence, they no longer equate their self-worth with the perceived perfection of their creations. They have also found their relationships improving now that they have lowered their excessively high standards for themselves and, in turn, for others.


Often perceived as a virtue, perfectionism can become a prison, holding us captive in its unreachable standards. As we’ve explored, it affects mental and physical health, relationships, and overall performance. However, breaking free from these chains is possible with understanding and targeted strategies. So, let’s strive not for perfection but for good enough and keep moving forward. Share your experiences with perfectionism, and remember, seeking help is not a sign of weakness but strength.