September 27, 2022

What Causes Perfectionism and How to Feel Good Enough

Written by Rachel Eddins

Posted in Emotional & Mental Health and with tags: perfectionism

Young Asian women in a garden on a sunny day what causes perfectionism

What Causes Perfectionism?

1. Dysfunctional Beliefs

Dysfunctional beliefs such as shoulds/musts, black and white thinking, rigid or irrational beliefs, and cognitive distortions can lead to perfectionism.

Black and white thinking assumes that things are all good or all bad. Perfect or imperfect.

Since perfect is unattainable, this sets one up for a perpetual feeling of inadequacy. For example, you might feel that no matter what happens in your life, you need to fire on all cylinders at all times.

You can’t slow down, or else the world will stop turning. If you ever even think about moving at 105 rather than 110, you have failed, and that’s just not true.

2. Lack of Information About the Self

Not knowing who you are or needing validation from others to feel worthwhile can make it impossible to have a healthy relationship with yourself or others.

You might also be unfamiliar with what triggers these feelings or the underlying issues. Perhaps you didn’t do well in school because you had a hard time reading, but the whole experience left you feeling inadequate or even stupid.

And now, when your intelligence is brought into question, you are triggered and feel the need to kick it into the next gear and prove to everyone how capable you are.

3. Fear of Failure and Rejection

An irrational fear that one will be rejected if they aren’t perfect can lead to perfectionistic tendencies or avoidance.

Perhaps your parents demanded perfection, even in moments where it was impossible. They made you feel less than for the most trivial of things.

Now, you have an intense fear of rejection or failure that makes you avoid any tasks that challenge you.

4. Fear of Success.

The idea of success can feel like a heavy burden. If one is successful, it can mean a lot of work to maintain and keep up. Perfectionism can contribute to the belief that success will be held at all costs.

You might hate what you are doing, but at least you have been successful, right? But is that really success?

What causes perfectionism?

Who Decides What is “Good Enough”?

Perfectionism makes you question if anything is ever good enough, especially you. But who actually decides?

In these low moments, it’s not you. Instead, it’s everyone else, like your:

  • Parents and Siblings
  • Teachers and Coaches
  • Friends
  • Romantic Partners
  • Bosses and Co-Workers

Then, of course, there’s the Internet. Is there any more pervasive factor for our collective self-esteem…or lack thereof? The smartphone in our pocket is a 24/7 pull toward validation.

Our quest for likes, shares, and reactions has warped our inner compass. By social media standards, nothing is ever good enough. (Perfectionism + Overthinking) x Social Media = A Very Dangerous Mindset

5 Reasons Perfectionism Prevents Success:

Professionals overwhelmingly agree that perfectionism can lead to anxiety and depression, especially if you are predisposed to those disorders.

Yes, ambition and drive can be excellent characteristics; however, if the most consistent measure of your value is whether or not you succeed at everything you do, perfectionism—not failure—could be the culprit behind your blues.

Despite what you think, perfectionism can prevent success rather than lead to achievement.

Perfectionism can be maladaptive and lead to indecision, avoidance, and procrastination. It can create a cycle of anxiety, avoidance, and self-doubt.

The costs of perfectionism could include being paralyzed with fear and an inability to work towards one’s goals. When you set high standards for yourself, they may become impossible to achieve. This can lead to a lack of motivation and giving up before starting.

The ideal you strive for can never be reached, leading to depression, guilt, and shame.

1. Perfectionism distorts self-worth.

Perfectionism props up the dangerous myth that you need to jump over endless hurdles before you can feel good about yourself. Rather than doing something simply for enjoyment, you might start to seek out activities solely for the validation they provide.

Perfectionism prevents success and leads to indecision. Perfectionism also tells you that you need to hear from others that you have value before you believe it yourself.

2. Perfectionism motivates you with fear.

When you’re wholly invested in outcomes, anticipation, and fear become driving forces. You become nervous and agitated. You might feel consumed by thoughts of what will happen if a presentation doesn’t go well.

Perhaps you take on too much responsibility for yourself to ensure that nothing goes wrong. When fear is a steady hand on your back, pressing you constantly forward, you can become so focused on not making any missteps that you miss out on what’s happening around you.

3. Perfectionism leads to avoidance.

Surprisingly, bringing a perfectionist attitude to every situation can lead you to neglect your work and responsibilities. Chasing achievements entirely for the approval of others can be frightening. Maybe you’ve learned to avoid completing projects to stave off failure and rejection.

Maybe you’re so scared of failing that you can’t commit to a particular approach. A fear of making mistakes often carries over into your relationships, leading you to break off relationships before anything can go wrong.

4. Perfectionism emphasizes the negative.

Perfectionism generally functions by constantly scanning your horizon for gaps and hurdles. Rather than focusing on all the time and work you put into a project, you see what could be better.

Perfectionism’s eternal scanner doesn’t turn off even when you’ve done a good job—you still see how it could have gone differently, weighing the outcomes of each scenario that didn’t happen.

5. Perfectionism burns you out.

It makes sense that if fear, avoidance, and low self-confidence eat at your dinner table, sleep in your bed, and follow you to work every day, you’re probably feeling pretty tired. You might even feel guilty and ashamed.

You can’t seem to turn your bad thoughts off. Rather than focusing on what’s going right, you feel weighed down by what isn’t happening. You’re no longer present.


woman obsessively cutting grass with shears

Perfectionism Also Leads to Low Self-Esteem

It can result in the ability to feel satisfaction for one’s efforts because things may never be perceived as good enough. Perfectionism prevents success vs. leading to excellence.

Due to not feeling good enough, perfectionists can be dependent on the validation of others to boost their self-esteem. The trouble with this is that it is temporary.

You have to work extra hard to get the self-esteem boost, and then feelings of inadequacy return just as quickly. This perpetuates low self-esteem.

People who pursue excellence in a healthy way take genuine pleasure in working to meet high standards. Alternatively, people motivated for perfection may be driven by self-doubt and fears of disapproval, ridicule, and rejection.

The high producer has drive, while the perfectionist is driven.

Over time, this can become a trap. Lack of satisfaction, decision-making struggles, and an endless pursuit of trying harder can lead to low self-esteem and feelings of depression.

So, What’s The Alternative?

Perfectionism feeds on feelings of inadequacy.

This means that if you’re trapped in an emotional cycle that requires regular confidence boosts from successes at work or at home, getting off that hamster wheel can be really difficult.

You can take small steps to a happier you by practicing—practice authenticity, practice self-compassion, and practice enjoying rather than racing through your day.

It is most helpful if you take some time to observe your own perfectionist patterns. Once you have accomplished that, choose a few of the strategies outlined here to feel good enough and let go of the need to be perfect.

Keep working at it until you understand what you need to do to accept your imperfections and humanness.

5 Things to Do if You Never Feel “Good Enough”

No matter who started the pattern of perfectionism, it’s your job to fix it. So, here are a few ways to undo these patterns and move you closer to feeling like the person you actually are.

1. Practice Gratitude

Instead of waiting for fulfillment, we can and must appreciate the present. Practicing gratitude for what’s “good” now is a realistic option for those seeking inner peace.

The desire for future validation (or, at least, avoidance of embarrassment) takes us away from the joys we are living right here and now. Gratitude teaches us new, fluid definitions of success.

It also teaches us to see ourselves for the incredible, resourceful, and accomplished people we are. You have made it to this moment, and that is something to be grateful for.

2. Take Regular Tech Breaks

The research is in. Our tech obsessions are impacting our mental health in an ugly way.

Yes, certainly, there are myriad positives connected to such devices. However, as we all know, there’s far more to life than the perfect selfie.

Turn off your phone—power down your laptop. Bask in the glow of face-to-face interactions.

Recharge in the warmth of some solitary daydreaming.

3. Define What Matters to You

No one can ever be good enough at everything. If there is a secret formula for self-esteem, it’s all about following your bliss. Discover what lights you up and aim your focus there.

Where you focus goes, your energy will flow. Don’t let anyone else define what matters to you.

Make that choice for yourself, stay open to personal evolution, set boundaries with others, and take pride in the victories you experience on your chosen path.


man plugging ears

4. Revel in Diversity

When your sink is clogged, you call a plumbing expert. Life is richer — and far more efficient — when we each pursue our own passions. This results in us becoming “good enough” at what matters to us.

For everything else, we can happily reach out to whoever chose that life path. You don’t have to be great at everything.

5. Learn to Laugh at Yourself

Best of all, enjoy the process. Grasp every opportunity to laugh — especially if you choose to have a chuckle at your own expense.

Pride goes before the fall, right? So, the more elastic this concept becomes, the better you will feel.

Free Yourself From Perfectionism

Removing your mind from the clutches of perfectionism is a process. At the core of this thought pattern is a lack of self-esteem and an abundance of self-doubt.

So, all of our tips will revolve around fortifying your internal valuation system and belief in yourself.

Create a Support Network for Yourself

Develop relationships with people who aren’t perfectionists, and who specialize in the beauty of failure. Encourage your support network to not be rigid or moralistic in their attempts to keep you on an honest course.

Look for people who forgive and forget when mistakes, failures, offenses, or backsliding occur. Ask them to tell you when they think you are being rigid, unrealistic, or idealistic in your behavior.

Ask them to give you positive reinforcement for any positive change, no matter how small. Seek out people who have a sincere interest in your personal growth.

Spend time with people who will gently let you know that you are being a bit obsessive or overthinking something more than it’s worth.


Create a Support Network friends sitting around table


Do Some Self-Exploration

It’s a lot harder to question everything all the time when you feel good about who you are and what decisions you made. Knowing that you are a palm tree, bending and adjusting as the storm rages around you, will get you through situations with your mental health and well-being firmly intact.

Perfectionism thrives on doubt. Learn who you are using the following questions in your journal, make some notes here, or discuss them with a trusted friend or professional counselor:

  1. Where do you see perfectionist behavior in your life?
  2. How do these behaviors create problems for you?
  3. What perfectionist beliefs do you have?
  4. How do you think these beliefs will affect your ability to change your behavior?
  5. What do you need to do for your beliefs to become less perfectionistic and more relaxed and compassionate?
  6. How can you use your support system to help yourself manage perfectionistic beliefs?

Identify Alternative Behaviors

Make a list of specific perfectionist behaviors that you want to change. For each one, think of something specific you could do instead. For example:

  • Perfectionist behavior: I expect my teenage daughter to pick up the clothes off her floor and make her bed every day.
  • Alternative behavior: I can expect my daughter to clean her room every Saturday, and I will close her door every other day.

Another example:

  • Perfectionist Behavior: I need to work out seven days a week. Anything less is a failure.
  • Alternative Behavior: I can be gentle with myself if my schedule only allows me to get to the gym 4-5 days a week. I have a lot going on right now.

Lower Your Expectations

It is very important to understand that it is unrealistic to expect to change your behavior (or someone else’s) immediately or completely.

Good habits take time to develop, and Rome was not built in a day. If you can’t flip a magical switch and change your whole life to be more like that thing you saw, it’s okay.

Respect the space between gradual change and unrealistic expectations.

List the Advantages and Disadvantages of Being Perfect

You may find that perfection is too costly. Perhaps you will discover that relationship problems, endless working, and other compulsive behaviors (eating disorders and substance abuse problems) are too great a price for the results you gain from your perfectionist way of being.

You might notice the loss of time, energy, and mental space for things that really matter in your life.

Pay Attention to Your Behavior and Attitudes

Make a note of those feelings when they come.

In the beginning, just observe yourself. Keep a log if it helps you see your behavior more clearly. You don’t have to make any changes until you have a good idea of your specific behaviors and thoughts.

Try Some New Thoughts and Behaviors

Begin to substitute the alternative behaviors. If possible, ask someone from your support network for feedback. Observe your feelings and thoughts as you try new things.

Try something that simply feels better when you fall into those old, costly habits. If you notice you are being too hard on yourself, what do you want to do, and how is it different from what those feelings call you to do?

Review Your Goals and Make Sure They Are Realistic

By having achievable, realistic goals, you will gradually see that less-than-perfect results are not as disastrous as you thought they would be.

Set Strict Time Limits for Your Projects

When the time is up, move on to another task or take a break.

Make Friends with Criticism

Many perfectionists take criticism personally and respond defensively. If someone criticizes you when you make a mistake, the easiest thing to do is to simply admit it.

Remind yourself that you are human, meaning you will sometimes make mistakes. The people who never make mistakes are no longer learning or growing.

Learn to re-frame criticism and see it as information you can learn from.

When you let go of the fantasy that humans must be perfect or know everything to have value in this world, you are less likely to feel angry or embarrassed when you make a mistake. You will see that criticism is information that you can learn from, and you will no longer need to avoid it.

Reach Out for Support

What has perfectionism cost you in your life?

Whether it’s exhaustion, procrastination, indecisiveness or self-worth, get started today with a Houston, Montrose, or Sugar Land therapist if you’re ready for a change.

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