It’s a fine line that distinguishes a healthy pursuit of quality from a neurotic style of perfectionism. We all like there to be good or excellent quality in the work we do, the relationships we have and the activities we do for fun. We also search for high quality in the goods and services we purchase from others. We want there to be quality in what we give, and in what we receive.

What do we mean by ‘perfectionism’?

Let’s assume that most of us engage in perfectionism from time to time, perhaps some more than others, rather than that some of us are perfectionists and others are not.

Perfectionism is not simply the pursuit of quality or even wanting something to be perfect, but it’s going much further and feeling a need for the thing to be perfect, a stubborn insistence upon it being perfect and an inability to feel okay unless it is perfect. Perfectionism does not feel good. It’s ridden with anxiety and frustration and is demoralizing, as we would expect, because the perfect state is rarely, if ever, attained.

Perfectionism is spending more time and energy on a detail or an aspect that, in the end, is not really worth it. Sometimes we’re blinded by the perfectionism and don’t see that the detail is not that important, and sometimes we may even see it as we’re doing it but feel compelled to go on anyway. From this cost-benefit analysis perspective, perfectionism is wasteful. We’ve reached the point of diminishing return but we keep on investing because either we don’t realize we’ve reached that point or we seem unable to stop ourselves even knowing we’ve passed that point.

Where does it come from and what do we do about it?

Some perfectionism may stem from an underlying sense of inadequacy, a feeling of shame and not being good enough. If we feel ashamed of who we are, unacceptable, undesirable, unloveable for some reason, we may try to cope by over-compensating with a perfectionistic style. We may operate with the unconscious belief that if we do things perfectly and have things which are perfect, then we’ll finally feel good about ourselves.

Of course, this never works because feeling not good enough did not come from a lack of perfection in the first place. The remedy here is to explore the source of the low self-image and to build genuine self-confidence based not on the facade of perfection, but on appreciating who we are, as we are.

A slightly different source of perfectionism may be underlying feelings of insecurity and lack of control. If we feel afraid and unsafe, like the world is a dangerous place where events are uncontrollable and unpredictable, we again may tend to over-compensate by trying to orchestrate and manage everything just so, so that we have at least the illusion of safety and control. The solution here is to identify the source of the fears, use our adult brains to put them into proper perspective and to learn and practice coping skills to manage fear and anxiety.

Letting go of perfectionism does not mean letting go of the pursuit of excellent quality. It means pursuing things of quality as passionately as one might like to, but for healthier reasons and with a healthier energy.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles /