Why Perfectionism Isn’t Always Perfect




TC – 8 out of 10 will do!”

These words will undoubtedly stay with me until my dying day.

A good friend and colleague in my last corporate role would regularly remind me that I didn’t need to be perfect. I didn’t need to be in the office until 10pm re-crossing every t and re-dotting every i – the work was already good enough.

Yet “good enough” is a hard concept to grasp when you’re a perfectionist at heart.

The trouble is that always needing to be perfect is tough. Tough on yourself and quite often tough on the people around you.

The Benefits of Perfectionism

Now don’t get me wrong. Perfectionism has many benefits and a lot of perfectionists are hugely successful people in business and in life.

  • Clients love a perfectionist – a person who gives 120%, who is passionate about what they do and wants to deliver the best work possible.
  • Bosses love a perfectionist – they know the work they produce will be top quality, there’ll be no errors in it and they have little to worry about.
  • Team-mates love a perfectionist (especially if they’re ‘big picture’ types) – perfectionists typically focus on the detail, ground things in reality and ensure nothing slips under the radar.

However, as with all strengths, there’s a shadow side to this. Take perfectionism to extremes (what psychologists call ‘neurotic perfectionism’) and it can ensnare you rather than empower you.

Impact on Motivation

I recently started coaching a client who was evidently very similar to the way I used to be. During our first conversation he told me that he has big lulls in motivation. Now, you might think that’s a bit strange for a perfectionist. Surely someone who gives 120% and is passionate about delivering the best result to the client would be fired up and driven by this desire? Often that is the case. However, equally when your best isn’t ever good enough (because it’s not perfect) then that can become really demotivating.

The same goes for your team. You would think that working for a perfectionist would make you strive even harder to deliver your very best. And it might – for a while. But if no matter how hard they try and no matter how many hours they put in, you always get your metaphorical red pen out, then what’s the point? They might as well save themselves the effort and let you take over earlier in the process, because you’re going to anyway!

Ironic really that having such a positive intention can result in such a negative outcome.

So what else points to the fact that perfectionism might be not always be perfect?

Impact on Mental Wellbeing

Perfectionists are typically black and white thinkers. It’s this or that; good or bad; right or wrong. There’s no middle ground. Words such as always, never, everyone, no-one (what we call universal quantifiers) punctuate their speech. Any extreme will do!

These thinking patterns can make life pretty stressful. Just think about it for a moment:

If your boss always gives you a hard time
If no-one ever delivers on time
If everyone expects you to be a genius (something another client told me very recently!)

There’s no leeway. There’s no give and take. It’s all or nothing.

Dr. Dan Siegel in his brilliant book ‘Mindsight’ talks about the “river of integration” as a metaphor for mental wellbeing when we’re in harmony and flow. On either side are the banks of the river. One bank represents chaos; the other rigidity. Thus when we’re not in flow, we tend towards either chaos or rigidity. Black and white thinking is a great example of being on the bank of rigidity which can have a very negative impact on our mental wellbeing.

Impact on Relationships

Perfectionists also often over-think things.

Another recent coaching client asked me how he could just “let things go” because he was always thinking about work stuff when he got home and it was driving his girlfriend mad! You’re constantly mulling over every little detail of that conversation, that meeting, that document and wondering how you could have got a better outcome.

For this client’s girlfriend it meant that in her eyes he was never really present in the room (because he spent so much time in his head). He wasn’t really listening to her or paying her proper attention – not the best way to foster a great relationship!

Perfectionists can be hyper-critical too. They’re pretty much always their own harshest critic but can also be harsh on people around them. They will tend to judge others by their own impossibly high standards and be as disappointed in others failing to meet them as they are in themselves.

They might also struggle to recognise and celebrate success offering limited praise because their focus is on how things could have been even better, thus at times making them quite hard to work with/for and quite hard to live with. We all want praise and recognition for a job well done.

Impact on Decision-Making

Last but not least perfectionists are prone to procrastinate. After all they have to make the right decision, the best decision, they have to analyse every detail and ensure nothing is wrong. This can take up a lot of time and energy.

Thus making a quick decision can be a challenge. They will rarely go with their gut instinct or take a flyer on something. Deadlines can be missed as quality is valued over speed, but more often than not in a work context, work/life balance will suffer as the perfectionist would rather burn the midnight oil to get the work done on time and to the highest of standards.

There goes that relationship again!


So, if you notice lots of these traits in yourself and you sense that perfectionism may actually be working against you rather than for you, then here are some coaching tips that might help redress the balance:

1.   Reappraise the situation.
Where in your life do you think your perfectionist tendencies are working for you and where are they working against you? How are they impacting on you and people close to you?

2.   Re-frame perfectionism
One of the best pieces of advice my aforementioned colleague ever gave me was to recognise that my 8 out of 10 was probably going to be most other peoples’ 11 or 12 out of 10. It only took a few times of a client giving me high praise for work which I believed to be far from perfect to accept that this was probably the case!

3.   Notice and challenge your language
Notice when you’re using black and white language and gently challenge yourself. Is it really always!? Is it really no-one ever? Is it really everyone!? Do it lightly, with humour, and see how differently you feel.

4.   Learn to let things go
If you’re mulling something over or involved in circular thinking, ask yourself these two simple questions:

Am I in control of the situation?
Can I influence the situation?

  • If you are in control decide what action to take
  • If you can influence the situation, determine when and how would be most effective
  • If it’s neither, there’s only one sensible solution: LET IT GO!

5.   Ramp up the praise!

Finally ramp up the praise. Give 10/10 for effort. Give 10/10 for improvement. Give 10/10 for great feedback. Give it to yourself and to others. You’ll be amazed at the positive impact.


Thus perfectionism isn’t always perfect. Having perfectionist traits can be highly beneficial, but taken to extremes they can have a surprisingly negative impact on your motivation, mental wellbeing, personal and professional relationships and decision-making ability. Learn to temper these traits, keeping the best elements and discarding the rest…

…and remember – 8 out of 10 will do!

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