Perfectionism doesn’t work. This way of evaluating ourselves makes it almost impossible to feel good about what we do and who we are since we are unlikely to be perfect, and anything less is considered a failure. Also, perfectionism is counterproductive: It doesn’t help us do better, it causes us to do worse by creating anxiety, inefficiency, and misallocation of effort.
Perfectionism is associated with many mental health problems, including depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, eating disorders, and suicide (Rice, Ashby, & Gilman, 2011). It is also associated with medical problems, including heart disease and reduced longevity.
Perfectionism is a setup for self-directed disappointment and anger. Human beings aren’t perfect and don’t do things perfectly, so perfectionistic standards define success in a way that is unattainable, and failure experiences are inevitable.
When applied to other people, perfectionism causes big problems in relationships. Imagining that our partners can fulfill all our needs and hopes is a setup for constant disappointment and anger at them.
The Cognitive Basis of Perfectionism: Black-and-White Thinking
To get below the surface of a psychological problem, we need to conceptualize that problem in terms of a relevant spectrum (Shapiro, 2020). The continuum relevant to perfectionism involves personal standards for performance. The question is: What is good enough? Here is the spectrum of possible answers:
People vary a great deal in how they answer this question. Obviously, it is absurd to think that performances at scale-points 1-3 are good enough, but then variability kicks in. Some people are content with performances that are below average but halfway decent, and standards range from there all the way up to perfectionism, with lots of gradations in between.
Despite the fact that performance quality ranges along a continuum, perfectionism is a schema that recognizes just two categories of performance: perfect and unsatisfactory. There is nothing in between.
Black-and-white dichotomies are never helpful because they miss all the nuance of life, but this one is especially harmful because of where the cut-point separating success and failure is located. It is nowhere near the midpoint. Perfectionists divide this continuum with a cut-point so close to its end that almost all of the spectrum is viewed as representing failure.
Even if they do not demand literal perfection, people with this style of self-evaluation dichotomize the continuum between scale-points 9 and 10. They perceive one category, taking up almost the whole spectrum, as representing failure, and they view one thin slice as representing success. This lop-sided dichotomy results in constant failure experiences.
In order to feel good about themselves, perfectionists require a level of performance so high that it is practically impossible to achieve. When they fail by this standard, they criticize and castigate themselves, even when most people would say they did quite well.
This style of self-evaluation is ineffective from an informational standpoint because it ignores important differences between performances that are excellent, good, average, and bad; everything less than perfect is lumped together in the unsatisfactory category. This results in uninformative performance feedback, which makes it hard to improve.
The Goldilocks Zone of Standards
The solution to the problem of perfectionism is to move the cut-point toward the middle of the spectrum. I can sense my perfectionistic readers stiffening with anxiety as they read this suggestion because perfectionists generally fear becoming lax, lazy, and too easy on themselves. This fear is so strong that it propels them to the opposite end of the spectrum.
Here’s the good news: The pendulum does not need to swing from one extreme to the other. Once we move beyond black-and-white thinking and perceive spectrums where before we saw binaries, all kinds of possibilities open up (Shapiro, 2020). Perfectionism itself can be understood as an extreme on a spectrum of self-evaluative standards that range from extremely lax to extremely stringent. Here is the diagram:
This spectrum reveals that perfectionism is not so much a bad thing as too much of a good thing. Perfectionists are not wrong to value high personal standards, but they go too far with them.
It is not necessary to repudiate high standards but only to dial them down. Nor is it necessary to adopt the standards of the average person. The solution is to move into the Goldilocks Zone, which is a range of possibilities around the midpoint of 5.5, say between scale-points 4 and 7.
Previously perfectionistic people generally feel most comfortable around the 7-point of this scale. This preserves their rigorous, hard-working style but moderates it enough to allow some flexibility, ease, and satisfaction. This means striving for excellence (but not perfection) and, when we fall short, giving ourselves credit for the level of quality we did achieve and strengthening our motivation to do better the next time.
Once we understand the spectrum of possibilities on a dimension of functioning (this or any other), we see that it is not necessary to become a different kind of person in order to achieve important improvements in our lives (Shapiro, 2020). Usually, a small to medium-sized adjustment does the trick and transforms a problem into a strength. By moving into the part of the Goldilocks Zone that is closest to our pre-existing style, we lose the disadvantages of the extreme end of the spectrum and make our style work for us.
Effectively Imperfect New Year's Resolutions
There is a big practical problem with perfectionism: People have only limited amounts of time and energy, life has many aspects, and being perfectionistic about some of them necessarily means short-changing the others because there are only so many hours in a day. Being a perfectionist in one part of life necessarily means being the opposite of a perfectionist in other areas, which will inevitably deteriorate. It’s just not possible to strive simultaneously for perfection in work, school, relationships, physical fitness, hobbies, and so forth. The goal of living a well-rounded life requires us to give up perfectionism.
Therapists have a broad conception of “skills,” which can include any adaptive behavior, such as knowing when to quit, asking for help, and being comfortably imperfect. The key to skill development is practice, whether we are learning a language, a musical instrument, or a new psychological capability. So, to provide experiences that loosen the hold of perfectionism, therapists sometimes give homework assignments that require clients to do a messy or incomplete job with some task. Beck (2021) encourages perfectionistic clients to turn in sloppy, half-finished therapy worksheets, so they can see what imperfection is like and how easily it can be survived.
New year’s resolutions can be useful psychological tools, but they are not immune to the lure of perfectionism. Effective goal-setting does not mean reaching for the stars; it's better to set attainable objectives that move us in the right direction. Perfectionistic resolutions crash and burn as soon as we fail to achieve them, which usually does not take long.
One effective approach is to think of the spectrum underlying the life area your resolution concerns, locate yourself on this spectrum, and then set an objective about two scale-points from there. If you're a couch potato, resolve to work out twice a week. It's neither necessary nor useful to go for an Olympic training regimen.
An objective is not a limit—you’re allowed to go past it. The best way to launch is to make a stride and then give yourself credit for the accomplishment. Momentum is key. If you achieve your first objective, you can decide on your next step at that time.
Beck, J. S. (2021). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond (3nd ed.). New York: Guilford.
Rice, K. G., Ashby, J. S., & Gilman, R. (2011). Classifying adolescent perfectionists. Psychological Assessment, 23, 563–577.
Shapiro, J. P. (2015). Child and adolescent therapy: Science and art (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.
Shapiro, J. (2020). Finding Goldilocks: A guide for creating balance in personal change, relationships, and politics. Amazon Digital Services.