The dangerous downsides of perfectionism

by | Jul 2, 2022 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Many of us believe perfectionism is a positive. But researchers are finding that it is nothing short of dangerous, leading to a long list of health problems – and that it’s on the rise.

In one of my earliest memories, I’m drawing. I don’t remember what the picture is supposed to be, but I remember the mistake. My marker slips, an unintentional line appears and my lip trembles. The picture has long since disappeared. But that feeling of deep frustration, even shame, stays with me.

The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.

“At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success.

Perfectionism is Self-Abuse of the highest order.

There are studies that suggest that the higher the perfectionism is, the more psychological disorders you’re going to

Simply having high personal standards has been linked to suicide ideation, for example. And even if there sometimes may be upsides to perfectionist thinking, they are minor – and, researchers argue, misunderstood.

Perfectionism isn’t about high standards. It’s about unrealistic standards.

“Perfectionism isn’t a behaviour. It’s a way of thinking about yourself.”

From the outside, it can be difficult to tell who is motivated and conscientious and who is a perfectionist

In fact, many researchers say that factors often dubbed ‘healthy’ perfectionism, like striving for excellence, aren’t actually perfectionism at all. They’re just conscientiousness – which explains why people with those tendencies often have different outcomes in studies. Perfectionism, they argue, isn’t defined by working hard or setting high goals. It’s that critical inner voice.

Take the student who works hard and gets a poor mark. If she tells herself: “I’m disappointed, but it’s okay; I’m still a good person overall,” that’s healthy. If the message is: “I’m a failure. I’m not good enough,” that’s perfectionism.

That inner voice criticises different things for different people – work, relationships, tidiness, fitness.

Perfectionists feel every bump in the road. They’re quite stress-sensitive – Hill

As a result, perfectionists and non-perfectionists “might look the same for a short period of time from a distance. But when you get up close and observe them over time, conscientious people have more adaptive ways of coping with things when things go wrong,” Hill says. “Perfectionists feel every bump in the road. They’re quite stress-sensitive.”

Perfectionists can make smooth sailing into a storm, a brief ill wind into a category-five hurricane. At the very least, they perceive it that way. And, because the ironies never end, the behaviours perfectionists adapt ultimately, actually, do make them more likely to fail.

Tennis star Serena Williams is a self-described perfectionist who destroys racquets and casts blame when things go wrong – outbursts which have cost her the game

In one lab experiment, perfectionists and non-perfectionists specific goals but they did not know was  the test was rigged: none of them would succeed. Interestingly, both groups kept putting in the same amount of effort. But one group felt much unhappier about the whole thing – and gave up earlier. Guess which.

Faced with failure, “perfectionists tend to respond more harshly in terms of emotions. They experience more guilt, more shame. They also experience more anger.

“They give up more easily. They have quite avoidant coping tendencies when things can’t be perfect.”

That, of course, hinders them from the very success that they want to achieve. In his 60-plus studies focusing on athletes, for example, Hill has found that the single biggest predictor of success in sports is simply practice. But if practice isn’t going well, perfectionists might stop.

It makes me think of my own childhood peppered with avoiding (or starting and quitting) almost every sport there was. If I wasn’t adept at something almost from the get-go, I didn’t want to continue – especially if there was an audience watching. In fact, multiple studies have found a correlation between perfectionism and performance anxiety even in children as young as 10.

Perfectionism and performance anxiety often are intertwined in adolescents and children, research has found (Credit: Getty Images)

The trouble is that, for perfectionists, performance is intertwined with their sense of self. When they don’t succeed, they don’t just feel disappointment about how they did. They feel shame about who they are. Ironically, perfectionism then becomes a defence tactic to keep shame at bay: if you’re perfect, you never fail, and if you never fail, there’s no shame.

Perfectionism is also dangerous. Record numbers of young people are experiencing mental illness, according to the World Health Organisation. Depression, anxiety and suicide ideation are more common in the US, Canada and the UK now than a decade ago. Research shows that perfectionistic tendencies predict issues like depressionanxiety and stress – even when researchers controlled for traits like neuroticism. Worsening matters, being self-critical might lead to depressive symptoms but those symptoms then can make self-criticism worse, closing a distressing loop.

Mental health problems aren’t just caused by perfectionism; some of these problems can lead to perfectionism, too. One recent study, for example, found that over a one-year period, college students who had social anxiety were more likely to become perfectionists – but not vice versa.

It’s also been shown that one of the most robust protections against anxiety and depression is self-compassion – the very thing that perfectionists lack. And self-criticism, which perfectionists are so good at, predicts depression.

Nearly every perfectionistic tendency – including simply having high personal standards – was correlated with thinking about suicide more frequently

When it comes to the most dramatic example, suicide, numerous studies also have found that perfectionism is a lethal contributor all on its own. One found that perfectionism made depressed patients more likely to think about suicide even above and beyond feelings of hopelessness. A recent meta-analysis, the most complete on the suicide-perfectionism link to date, found that nearly every perfectionistic tendency – including being concerned over mistakes, feeling like you are never good enough, having critical parents, or simply having high personal standards – was correlated with thinking about suicide more frequently. (The two exceptions: being organised or demanding of others).

Some of those criteria, particularly pressure from parents and perfectionistic concerns, also were correlated with more suicide attempts.

“Black-and-white thinking can lead perfectionists to interpret failures as catastrophes that, in extreme circumstances, are seen as warranting death,” the researchers wrote. “Our findings also join a wider literature suggesting that when people experience their social world as pressure-filled, judgmental, and hypercritical, they think about and/or engage in various potential means of escape (eg, alcohol misuse and binge eating), including suicide.”

Perhaps because a perfectionist’s body is often awash with stress, perfectionism is correlated with earlier death (Credit: Getty)

And while conscientious people tend to live longer, perfectionists die earlier.

In many ways, poorer health outcomes for perfectionists aren’t that surprising. “Perfectionists are pretty much awash with stress. Even when it’s not stressful, they’ll typically find a way to make it stressful,” says Gordon Flett, who has studied perfectionism for more than 30 years and whose assessment scale developed with Paul Hewitt is considered a gold standard

Plus, he says, if your perfectionism finds an outlet in, say, workaholism, it’s unlikely you’ll take many breaks to relax – which we now know both our bodies and brains require for healthy functioning.

No matter how self-defeating perfectionism may seem, it’s a tendency being shared by more and more people.

Eating disorders, which often are driven by perfectionism, are on the rise across the globe.

Where is this increase coming from? When you keep in mind the idea that perfectionism stems from marrying your identity with your achievements, the question might become: where isn’t it coming from?

After all, many of us live in societies where the first question when you meet someone is what you do for a living. Where we are so literally valued for the quality and extent of our accomplishments that those achievements often correlate, directly, to our ability to pay rent or put food on the table. Where complete strangers weigh these on-paper values to determine everything from whether we can rent that flat or buy that car or receive that loan. Where we then signal our access to those resources with our appearance – these shoes, that physique – and other people weigh that, in turn, to see if we’re the right person for a job interview or dinner invitation.

Curran and Hill have a similar hunch. “Failure is so severe in a market-based society,” points out Curran, adding that that has been intensified as governments have chipped away at social safety nets. Competition even has been embedded in schools: take standardised testing and high-pressure university entrances. As a result, Curran says, it’s no wonder that parents are putting more pressure on themselves – and on their children – to achieve more and more.

Rather than perfectionism leading to academic success, researchers have found high-achieving adolescents are more likely to become perfectionists.

“If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes,” Curran says. “If children come to internalise that – the idea that we only can define ourselves in strict, narrow terms of achievement – then you see perfectionistic tendencies start to come in.” One longitudinal study, for example, found that a focus on academic achievement predicts a later increase in perfectionism.

Similarly, the gold-star method of parenting and schooling may have had an effect. If you get praised whenever you do something well and not praised when you don’t, you can learn that you’re only really worth something when you’ve had others’ approval.

If the focus is on achievement, then kids become very averse to mistakes – Thomas Curran

If other strategies, like making children feel guilty for making a mistake, come in, it can get even more problematic. Research has found that these types of parental tactics make children more likely to be perfectionists – and, later, to develop depression.

Fear of failure is getting magnified in other ways, too. Take social media: make a mistake today and your fear that it might be broadcast, even globally, is hardly irrational. At the same time, all of those glossy feeds reinforce unrealistic standards.

As well as reinforcing unrealistic standards, social media gives us more reason to fear making mistakes (Credit: Getty Images)

Some perfectionism is inheritable. But it also arises because of environment (after all, if it were just genetic, it seems unlikely it would be increasing so much). So how can parents counteract it? Model good behaviour by watching their own perfectionistic tendencies, researchers say. And exhibit unconditional love and affection.

It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but is celebrated, because it means we’re human – Rasmussen

“It’s saying things like ‘You really tried hard at that. I’m proud of the effort you put in.’ It’s about creating an environment where imperfection isn’t just accepted but is celebrated – because it means we’re human,” says Rasmussen, who co-authored an analysis on how family systems can breed perfectionism. “Or communicating to the child that love and care aren’t conditional on performance.

“It’s the idea that you don’t have to be perfect to be lovable or to be loved.”

Perfectionism can be a particular challenge to treat. You can train someone to be more self-compassionate in a therapeutic setting. But if they go back to the office, say, with the same demanding boss and same deep-seated behaviours, a lot of that can go out the door.

Then, of course, there is that widespread (if erroneous) belief that being a perfectionist makes us better workers (or parents, or athletes, or whatever the task is at hand).

What makes it different than depression or anxiety is that the person often values it – Egan

“The difficult part of it, and what makes it different than depression or anxiety, is that the person often values it,” says Egan. “If we have anxiety or depression, we don’t value those symptoms. We want to get rid of them. When we see a person with perfectionism, they can often be ambivalent towards change. People say it brings them benefits.”

She’s helped her patients by helping them prove to themselves that’s not the case. If someone says, for example, they need to do three extra hours of work at home each night to be good at their job, they might experiment with not doing that for a week. Usually the patient not only finds that it makes no difference – but that the extra rest might even improve their performance.

I’ve experimented with some of that letting go myself. It’s gone hand-in-hand with becoming aware when I’m taking on too much and exhausting myself in my attempt to do ‘enough’ (an amount, I’ve realised, that for me doesn’t actually exist).

The bigger piece, though, is replacing that critical ticker-tape with kinder messages – toward both myself and others. I’ve started (with varying success) consciously stopping myself from overreacting to other people’s mistakes. More difficult, but also important, has been stopping myself from overreacting to my own. Ironically, that includes trying not to criticise myself when I fall short of that goal in itself.

It’s a work in progress. But what I’ve noticed is that, each time I’m able to replace criticising and perfecting with compassion, I feel not only less stressed, but freer. Apparently, that’s not unusual.

“It can be liberating, allowing imperfection to happen and accepting it and celebrating it,” Rasmussen says. “Because it’s exhausting, maintaining all of that.”

Perfectionism is an illusion — we believe it makes us better but actually harm us.

That’s the problem with perfectionism — we focus on what’s missing or broken and can’t make progress.

It’s one thing striving to be your best and another it’s trying to be perfect.

Perfectionism rarely generates personal satisfaction — we don’t achieve perfection, but disappointment.

Perfectionism Is Anything but Flawless

“Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” 
― Anne Wilson Schaef

I’m a recovered perfectionist — I still hold my bar high, but I’ve learned to give myself a break.

Perfectionism is one of the top organizational neuroses as I explain in my Book Stretch for Change — it affects both leaders and teams alike. Based on my research and consulting, most organizations fail to innovate not for lack of ideas but because they don’t launch — overthinking paralyzes decision-making.

Clinical psychologist Linda Blair describes a perfectionist as a person: “who strives for flawlessness, for a perfect creation, outcome or performance. They find it difficult to delegate, even if that means neglecting their health, relationships, and wellbeing in pursuit of a ‘perfect’ outcome.”

Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston, explains the distinction, “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth.” Perfectionism is used by people as a shield to protect themselves against the pain of being vulnerable — they don’t want to be blamed or judged by others.

Setting the bar high can cloud our judgment — everything feels wrong according to our standards. That’s why therapists and coaches know that asking people to lower their bar is pointless — they will ignore their advice. If you want to defeat perfectionism, you must understand and address the issues behind this increasing obsession.

Perfectionism Is Increasing (And That’s Not Good)

“Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel perfect; it makes you feel inadequate.” — Maria Shriver

A study called “Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time” found that young people are more burdened than ever.

Unhealthy perfectionism has surged, leading to eating disordersdepression, high blood pressure and thoughts of suicide. This is caused by a mix of excessively high personal standards (“I have to excel at everything I do”) and intense self-criticism (“I’m a complete failure if I fall short”).

The pressure to appear flawless is driven by the fear of failure, but also our desire to be loved and admired.

Our need to please others has reached a new high too. We hold up perfectionists as models more than ever before. Social media has become a space to pursue and achieve perfection — the more likes you get, the closer you are to feeling perfect.

Increasingly, young people hold irrational standards for themselves — they create unrealistic expectations for their academic and professional achievements, looks, and possessions. They have bought into the modern myth that their lives, including themselves, should be perfect.

Perfectionism is a growing epidemic. Studies among Noth American teens show that 3 in 10 exhibit some sort of unhealthy perfectionism. It is also life endangering — those with higher scores on perfectionism are more likely to die younger.

Perfection is an impossible goal — you only set yourself up for failure and suffering. That’s the paradox of perfectionism. The more you try to win someone else’s validation, the worse you become.

Perfectionism Is Not a Standard, but a Lifestyle

article continues after advertisement

Experts have found that perfectionism is more than an attitude or excess attention to detail — it has become a way of life that creates and amplifies mental issues. It’s a clear signal that we have a problematic relationship with our sense of self.

As Paul L. Hewitt, from the University of British Columbia, explains, “It’s not a way of thinking, but a way of being in the world.”

His research shows that perfectionism isn’t about perfecting things — a project, job, or relationship — it’s about perfecting our identity. The obsession with being (perceived as) perfect is an attempt to perfect our imperfect self.

All perfectionists are not created equal.

Self-oriented perfectionists adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to achieve perfection and avoid failure — they engage in harsh self-assessment.

Other-oriented perfectionists set unrealistic standards for others like partners, friends, or co-workers — they are very rigid when it comes to evaluating how others perform.

Socially-prescribed perfectionists believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for them — they can’t live up to external pressure and (perceived) harsh criticism.

article continues after advertisement

The latter is growing at twice the rate of the other two, according to the study by Thomas Curran and Andrew P. Hill. Even worse, it’s the one most associated with anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts — they let others define their lifestyle.

As Brené Brown wrote in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, “Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”

We must rethink our relationship with ourselves (especially accepting we are not flawless). It’s harder to get things done when we have zero tolerance for mistakes — people are more likely to procrastinate since they can’t screw up what they haven’t yet started.

Find Meaning, Not Perfection

“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” — Aristotle

Overcoming perfectionism requires reframing our relationship with life, others, and ourselves. Rather than seeking for perfection, we must find meaning.

But, what is “meaning”?

Most people misunderstand what a meaningful life truly is. That’s the argument Iddo Landau presents in his book Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. He argues that the meaning of our lives is a matter of value or worth, not of understanding.

article continues after advertisement

Landau wrote, “A meaningful life is one in which there is a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value, and a meaningless life is one in which there is not a sufficient number of aspects of sufficient value.”

By focusing on what’s missing, we can’t appreciate what we already have.

Of all the thoughts that make our lives seem meaningless, the most common and harmful is the Perfectionist Pressuposition — the belief that a meaningful life must include perfection. It tricks us into wanting to pursue high-standards and transcend the common and mundane.

Most of us fail to attain perfection — disappointment steals our sense of meaning.

Landau recommends two strategies to increase the meaning in one’s life: “identifying” and “recognizing.”

Identifying is the process of discovering what is meaningful for us. As Landau observes, “Many dedicate more thought in one evening to deliberating which restaurant or film they should go to than they do in their entire lifetime to deliberating what would make their lives more meaningful.”

Recognizing, in turn, is emotionally appreciating the meaning in one’s life. Landau tells how a relative, whose son tragically passed away at the age of thirty-six, expressed gratitude for the time they had together. She not only acknowledged — at an intellectual level — that their time together was meaningful but also recognized it at an emotional level.

The mistake most people make is believing that a meaningful life needs to be perfect — perfectionism doesn’t allow them to see the value in ordinary things.

We must change the lens. We tend to have aesthetic experiences in museums because we adopt an aesthetic view when we enter them. Landau notes that we can take that same attitude into the world — let’s develop our sensitivity to appreciate everyday things.

Get Perfectionism Out of Your Way

“Do your hardest to be at the top of your game, improve every joke you can until the last possible second, then let it go. Don’t overthink it. It will never be perfect. Perfection is overrated.” — Tina Fey

The energy behind perfectionism comes mainly from a desire to avoid failure. We must shift our focus away from the disastrous possibilities to what we might learn from it instead.

Play First, Edit Later

The beginning or a project is as a warm-up, not the real thing. Author Daniel Pink recommends writing the opening of a piece without caring much about it. He suggests deleting the first and second paragraph afterward. The beginning is like clearing your throat — it helps prepare for your act, but it’s not the final outcome.

No business idea, design or article will be good enough in your head — just launch it.

Don’t Judge, Go with the Flow

Once you’ve launched, don’t get stuck with details — avoid distractions and analysis/ paralysis. Daniel Pink suggests that when you feel not writing well or specific details are slowing you down, write a note and move on.

Keeping the momentum going is key to avoid overthinking. Once you are finished, you can always come back to those notes and perfect those parts. Focus on making progress. Enjoy the journey but also realize when you reach your destination.

Launch Now — You are Never Ready

Creating fictional deadlines has become very helpful to me. When you must ship a project at a specific date or time, there’s no room for another revision.

Lorne Michaels, the long-time producer of SNL, famously said, “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” That helped Tina Fey overcome her fears and perfectionism — the artist realized that perfection is overrated and unattainable. Deadlines also keep us authentic and real — perfect is boring on live television (and life).

Done is better than perfect

Perfectionists tend to postpone difficult tasks — they avoid failing by never launching a project. Procrastination is the result of ineffective emotion-managementas I wrote here. We must learn to manage our fears. Taking small, manageable steps reduces anxiety and overthinking.

Find healthier goals

In adopting excessively high standards, you set yourself up for failure. Recognize what is realistically achievable — focus on doing the best possible. Recalibrating your goals when needed doesn’t mean to lower your bar.

Shift from trying to be perfect to do the best with what you’ve got. Focus on making progress, not on achieving perfection. Be pragmatic — aim high but seek for meaning in what you do.

And if you do fail? A little bit of self-compassion will help you along the way. Eventually, you’ll get used to launch something that’s not perfect. Life goes on because it’s 11:30, not because you are ready.

related issues. Here’s an excerpt I hope you find helpful; embedded in the text are links to articles that expand upon each theme.

1. What mental blocks do vocal performers experience?

There is a wide range of issues that singers, public speakers, and other performers deal with. That said, there are certain prevalent blocks that I see in my practice. Fears of success and failure, issues involving one’s self-worth being tethered to singing and performing, general insecurity becoming exacerbated in the spotlight, harsh self-criticism, and perfectionism are all (and all too) common. 

2. What techniques are used to overcome these blocks?

In my work, I’ve found that reward theory is a good place to start. Encouraging clients to see the balancing act between their competing desires — to sing with comfort, perform with ease, and have a successful career as an artist, against protecting themselves from failure, vulnerability, and anxiety — throws into focus the core issue that a conscious choice must be made toward the former in order for the latter to dissipate. As well as helping clients realize that, while perhaps unconsciously, the choice to prioritize fear is already being made when we find ourselves stopped and stuck.

Ultimately, the greatest technique for overcoming performance issues, including anxiety, is… to perform. We must all first do the work out in the world rather than inside of our heads. By performing constantly, at every opportunity large and small, we normalize performance in concept and in practice. And as a result, we alter the way that it occurs for us.

3. Do you think that using cognitive techniques can improve performance, and if so, why?

That depends. I believe that context is decisive. Meaning, that positive thinking and cognitive work will only go so far so long as an attachment to fear– coupled with the “reward” of not risking failure, judgment, or what have you — remain firmly in place. In my experience, issues only and ultimately resolve when the occurrence of the circumstance shifts, as I suggested a moment ago. That is to say, when a different reward, or vision of the issue, is experienced as greater than the mental blocks and concerns. With practice, we externalize and lock into place these new experiences and by extension, new and healthier thoughts and feelings about those experiences.

Brandi Carlile and Creative Authenticity

Flip the Script on Performance Anxiety

Suppression of Expression

What is the difference between perfectionism and OCD?

The terms “perfectionist” and “OCD” are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same. Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by high expectations and standards, while obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is a psychiatric condition where a person experiences intrusive thoughts and/or repetitive behaviors they are unable to control. Perfectionistic tendencies may or may not be a symptom of OCD.

Job candidates are sometimes asked what their biggest flaw is. According to popular advice, one should never, in response to this question, say “perfectionism,” since that is not a flaw, and implying that you are flawless won’t endear you to the interviewer.

In truth, perfectionism has maladaptive versions, and it can border on pathology. It is this darker side of perfectionism that interests me here. But let us start with the adaptive variant.  

In its healthy manifestations, perfectionism motivates people to strive for excellence. This motive is key to the greatest human endeavors. It is difficult to imagine anyone becoming a violin virtuoso, a world-class ballet dancer, or a notable artist without a measure of that particular intolerance for mediocrity in oneself – at least, in a given domain – that is at the core of striving for excellence.

At other times, perfectionism takes a different – and self-destructive – form. Unhealthy perfectionism leads us to spend more time brooding than actually attempting to do anything. Why?

There are, I think, two main bases of unhealthy  – some would say “neurotic” – perfectionism. One is a tendency to shift the focus of attention from the task at hand to how success or failure would reflect on us. Of course, in doing anything, we are more or less aware of the fact that both success and failure would show something about us – and we are not indifferent to what that something would be – but when we are focused on a task, this thought is in the periphery of our attention,  not its focal point. Not so for the perfectionist. Perfectionists are preoccupied with what success or failure would show about them.

article continues after advertisement

Zeno was wrong about the possibility of motion, but the image captures the perfectionist’s mental framework – or should we say trap – well. It is as though the perfectionist is reaching for the horizon, which always seems within our grasp but never is.  

What makes success even less likely is the perfectionist’s romanticized vision of it, the hope for effortlessness. In Tallent’s case, that meant expecting that the beauty of well-crafted sentences will somehow come down from the sky and pour directly onto the page, complete:

Another con – perpetrated by myself on myself – this delusion of being able to write something incredibly beautiful of course means appearing in print. Effortlessly. In the very near future. Actual and highly fortunate experiences had taught me how arduous and prolonged is a manuscript’s progression to published volume. But just as dreams collapse the dreary interval between the wish for a thing and its manifestation, so did perfectionism.

The problem for Tallent and other perfectionists is that outdoing oneself on the very next try is statistically improbable even if you put in a good deal of effort. It is impossible without it. On any given occasion, our performance is likely to be close to our own average, though if we persevere, over time, we can shift the average so that what was once the height of achievement becomes our mean or even the least we are capable of.

People like Tallent who begin with a great success – above their own mean – may be at a particular risk here since they want to immediately improve on an achievement that was, ex ante, unlikely. If you outdid yourself on the last try, it will be difficult for you to repeat the success straight away, let alone surpass it. You can improve on it, of course, but after repeated attempts. 

article continues after advertisement

The perfectionist’s predicament is worsened further by the fact that anything short of one’s biggest accomplishment yet is seen as a failure of the current enterprise. This all but guarantees a failure in the perfectionist’s own estimation. Tallent writes:  

To leave that first page alone is to obscure how much time I lost in pursuit of the beautiful beginning of this book – my long confinement in close-circuit viciousness designating every attempt error f*ckup mistake hideous miscarriage.

There are two options only for the mind infected by maladaptive perfectionism: unearthly beauty or a hideous miscarriage.  

The more important question, however, is not how maladaptive perfectionism begins but how it may be parried and perhaps turned into its healthier counterpart, the drive to excel. I believe a realistic appraisal of the situation, of how antithetical to the goal of success it is to accept an all or nothing binary, telling oneself that anything short of one’s biggest success yet would amount to a failure – and perhaps, a failure not only of the particular project but defeat, period – is key.

article continues after advertisement

But it is also important to guard against the hidden seductiveness of the perfectionist’s self-destructive mindset. For this mindset does have its dreadful appeal for us. There is something soothing about this particular type of malaise. One can almost take refuge in it, telling oneself that there is no point in trying to change anything, because the very nature of the psyche’s illness is an inability to do things differently. Tallent writes similarly:

Even when I opened my mouth to inform one therapist after another perfectionism was killing me, its deprivations suited me to a T: ailment as apology. So sorry I never lived up to my brilliant promise. Psychically, perfectionism is home. 

It is precisely this tendency to get cozy with one’s own perfectionism that must be resisted.

Unhealthy perfectionism, then, begins with an intoxicating promise of a big success in the very near future. But we can only maintain a belief of this sort for so long before it becomes clear the promise was a false one. Then the intoxication gradually turns into something different: acceptance of one’s identity as a perfectionist and from here, of the certainty of failure. You tell yourself that unless you are going to cause a sensation, a real stir, there is no point in attempting anything. But to cause a sensation is unlikely, so being a perfectionist, you conclude you need not act. After all, if anything you can possibly achieve is sure to be a failure by your current standards, why bother?

article continues after advertisement

At this stage, perfectionism lulls us into inactivity. Ailment as apology, as Tallent puts it. It kills us, softly. 

Of course, chances are that if Tallent had continued writing during those two decades, she would have surpassed her early accomplishment. Maybe not on the first try, or the second, or the third, but eventually.

Maladaptive perfectionism, then, is not simply a desire for perfection but a desire for success without any intermediate failures, without false starts. It is a yearning for a path to greatness that amounts to a constant progression whereby one’s next achievement improves on all previous ones. That is simply not an option for humans.

William F. Lynch, in Images of Hope, discusses perfectionism, with which he himself struggled. Lynch talks about the perfectionist’s propensity, mentioned earlier, to focus not on the task at hand but on oneself, judging oneself harshly while at the same time diverting the energy one needs in order to succeed away from work and toward unproductive self-criticism and self-flagellation. Lynch goes so far as to say that the ability not to give in to that propensity and to self-destructive perfectionism in general is the best one we’ve got:

The very ability to turn away from this judgment on himself is the best thing in man, transcending in quality and importance all the things he is tempted to judge. It is the victory we need in our time, to turn away from being our own executioners. 

I don’t know whether I would go so far as to say that this ability is the best one we have, but Lynch is certainly right that without it, we turn into our own – scratched, wounded, and bleeding –  executioners.   

Is Sexual Perfectionism Destroying Your Sex Life?

Do you experience anxiety before sex and/or during it which spoils the experience? Do you find yourself stressing out about the possibility of not performing well and, as a result, bring about precisely what you fear? After all, sex needs to be perfect, right? And if it’s anything less, then it’s not what it must be. Right? The answer is a resounding no! In fact, this is the sort of thinking that creates your performance anxiety in the first place. 

More precisely, sexual perfectionism may involve any, or all, of the following perfectionistic demands or “musts”:

  •  I must have an orgasm.
  •  I must have good timing (come to orgasm at the right time, neither prematurely nor too late).
  •  I must satisfy my partner.
  •  I must be able to have and maintain my erection.
  •  My partner must approve of my body.

If you tell yourself any of these musts, then you probably suffer from sexual perfectionism, a self-disturbing, self-defeating form of performance perfectionism. And if you are a sexual perfectionist, you likely exhibit this type of perfectionism in other aspects of your life, such as job performance, school, etc. So, the problem in bed is likely part of a larger problem that stems from a demanding form of perfectionism.

Demanding Perfectionism Versus Aspiration Perfectionism

Now, I’m not telling you to surrender your high sexual standards in order to get rid of your anxiety. For it is not your idealism about how wonderful sex can be that is creating your self-defeating sexual anxiety. Indeed, an orgasm can range from none whatsoever to indescribable ecstasy. There can be the tender throbbing of utter elation where your bodies coalesce and resonate like one well-tuned clock, but there can also just be bad timing. Of course, you prefer the sweet titillations of two hearts beating as one to the dysphoria of the latter. And, of course, you don’t want sex to be “just okay.”  

And here’s the point: Perfect sex is not an unreasonable ideal to shoot for, but there is a fundamental difference between an aspiration and a requirement or demand. It is quite reasonable to aspire to have perfect sex, but it unrealistic to demand that you be perfect, because this is impossible or damn near it. Instead, you can keep working to improve your performance. How liberating! You are not going to turn into a pumpkin if you mess up. You can, in fact, learn something that you can use in successive attempts to do better. The sky’s the limit since you can always improve, and that’s what’s so exciting about giving up sexual perfectionism. You set yourself free to explore, try new things, get excited about your relationship without worrying and ruminating about what can be a wonderful experience—if you let it.

Now, it may be comforting to know that you are not alone. My research suggests that at least half the population are demanding perfectionists, and as you can see, this can show up in how you perform and feel in the most intimate moments. So, what can you do about it?

Work on Your General Tendencies to Demand Perfection

The first step in overcoming sexual perfectionism is realizing you have it. The next step is working cognitively, behaviorally, and emotionally to give up your self-disturbing, self-defeating demands for sexual perfection. As mentioned, these demands are typically associated with broader perfectionistic tendencies. For example, some sexual perfectionists may ruminate and make themselves anxious about presentations at work or school. Thus, you can work on your sexual perfectionism by working on your tendencies to disturb yourself over other nonsexual activities in your life. In fact, in my latest book, Making Peace with Imperfection, I identify 10 different types of demanding perfectionism that may also lead to sexual perfectionism, and I provide systematic exercises you can do to make such positive change. These 10 types of perfectionism are:

1. Achievement perfectionism

2. Approval perfectionism

3. Moral perfectionism

4. Control perfectionism

5. Expectation perfectionism

6. Ego-centered perfectionism

7. Treatment perfectionism

8. Existential perfectionism

9. Neatness perfectionism

10. Certainty perfectionism

For example, if you are also a certainty perfectionist, you will worry about the possibility of messing up sexually, as well as otherwise. If you are a control perfectionist, you will demand control over your sexual activities, as well as other aspects of your life, and will experience anxiety when you think you can’t control them, including what happens in the bedroom. If you are an approval perfectionist, you will stress out over whether you will get the approval of others, including your sex partner. The basic idea is to work on giving up these various types of demand for perfection, but not your aspiration to be excellent at what you do, including how well you perform in bed. Again, it isn’t your perfectionist goal that creates the problem, it’s your demand that you reach it. 

article continues after advertisement

Take Some Advice From the Sages

With the understanding that your sexual perfectionism may be rooted in more general tendencies to demand perfection, let me offer some particular tips for working toward overcoming your sexual perfectionism, gleaned from the wisdom of sages such as the Buddha, Socrates, Epictetus, Nietzsche, and Kant, among others:

  • According to Buddhism, reality is impermanent, and suffering occurs when you demand that reality be other than it is. Now, the plain truth is that there is no certainty that you will perform the way you want or prefer. So, let go of your demand for certainty. Once you do, you are free to resonate with reality, instead of experiencing anxiety over it. 
  • Your body is never going to be perfect, and it is ever-changing like all material things in this universe. As Socrates would admonish, stop demanding bodily perfection, looking for flaws, and ruminating about them. Once you give up this unrealistic perfectionistic demand about physical reality, you are free to enjoy your body rather than getting bogged down with berating it.
  • As the wise Stoic philosopher Epictetus would remind you, you cannot control how others view you or your body, but you can control how you view yourself and the world. So, stop demanding what is not yours to demand, namely whether your partner will approve of you or your body. Instead, direct your attention to enjoying your sexual experience. 
  • You are not your orgasm. If you don’t have an orgasm or an erection, that doesn’t mean that you are a failure. Separate your self-worth from your sexual performance. As the renowned philosopher Immanuel Kant would tell you, your worthiness as a person remains intact and is not diminished by how well you do in bed.         
  • Meditation is a good way to let your perfectionistic demands go. As the Buddhists prescribe, this involves directing your consciousness to your breathing or to a pleasant object and gently pushing all intruding thoughts away. This is good practice for learning how to focus on the pleasant sexual experience instead of clogging your mind with intrusive thoughts. So, try some mediation before having sex!
  • Some sexual perfectionists retreat from having sex rather than risk not measuring up in bed. They may be inclined to substitute masturbation for fearless, unabashed sex. Now, masturbation is good, but don’t substitute it for sex with your partner! Strengthen your willpower muscle by pushing yourself to have sex rather than shying away from it. As Aristotle would tell you, this is the only way to develop strong sexual habits.
  • Fantasizing is good too. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would instruct, you don’t have to be angelic. (Some moral perfectionists demand that they not think inappropriate thoughts and, as a result, stifle their sexual imagination.) And, again, don’t substitute masturbatory fantasizing for fantasizing while having sex with your partner.
  • If you don’t perform as you prefer in bed, Epictetus would remind you that it is the way you perceive this event that upsets you, not the event itself. So, you can reframe it as an opportunity to learn what not to do next time.
  • Don’t analyze your sexual performance as you are having it. (“Is my partner really enjoying this or just pretending?”) Again, remember that you have the power to focus on the experience itself. Push any intruding thoughts away, and let yourself be in the moment of your experience.

The above tips can help you to move away from the self-defeating demands of sexual perfectionism toward an aspirational form of perfectionism. But this will take practice and perseverance. As discussed, sexual perfectionism is typically part of larger perfectionistic tendencies that can also create stress in other aspects of your life. Working on these wider tendencies can help you overcome your sexual perfectionism.

The ideal of magnificent sex awaits you. Go for it. And remember, no demands!