Stress and Perfectionism

Not only being inspired by the quote but also by the author Alfred Adler (1870 – 1937) himself, a fellow Austrian (yes paying tribute to my country of birth), who was a psychotherapist and pioneer in the field of Humanist Psychology.

Adler (1951) suggested that perfectionism is a defense mechanism to compensate for inferiority feelings stemming from childhood.

Many of us do battle with varying degrees of perfectionism. If as children we were unfavourably compared to others, criticised and or emotionally abandoned we are likely to compensate with perfectionism as a coping mechanism. Perfectionism offers a sense of control for the powerless child, who believes that “If I am perfect or being perceived as perfect, I can avoid or minimise the painful feelings of shame, judgement, and abandonment.”

Of course there is no such thing as being perfect. Basco (1999) has defined perfectionism as “an endless striving in which each task is seen as a challenge and no effort is ever good enough, yet the person continues in desperation to avoid mistakes, achieve perfection, and gain approval” (p. 5). Hence a viscous cycle is set in place. Because when we do experience shame, judgement, and abandonment we often believe it is because we did not perform perfectly and just have to try harder. The problem is it will never be good or perfect enough and therefore everything ultimately leads to disappointment. Perfectionists are likely to become chronically irritated, frustrated, discontent and angry as things are never as they should be.

When we persist with perfectionist behaviour despite these negative consequences (e.g. sacrificing relationships and opportunities) it can take on the form of an addiction. As there is a biochemical response (e.g. happy, sad) every time the thought or impulse resurfaces, the body becomes habituated to the behaviour, contributing to the addictive quality of perfectionism.

Perfectionism goes hand in hand with a harsh inner critic that finds fault with everything and fuels negative beliefs such as ”I must never make mistakes, and if I do I am a failure”. This is accompanied by worrying about failure and what others think. Because of the distress caused by perceived failure perfectionism can have a pretty stifling effect on our lives. Not only has it been linked to obsessive compulsive behaviour, anxiety, depression (Nadich et al., 1975), and eating disorders (Bardone-Cone et al., 2007) its also leads to procrastination. When we are too occupied with avoiding mistakes and fending off failure we often won’t even risk trying.

Seeking perfection also stands in the way of our authentic self: We try to adhere to impossible standards, striving for a version of who we think we should be, instead of exploring and accepting who we are as well as listening to our needs and dreams.

What are symptoms of perfectionism?
-All-or-Nothing/Black and white thinking
-Obsessive worrying
-Devaluing Comparisons To others
-Harsh Judgements of Self & Others
-When things are not perfect, you feel tense, anxious
-Feelings of worthlessness when you don’t perform perfectly
-Lack of flexibility in the standards imposed upon oneself and others

So how can we disarm the inner critic and let go of perfectionism?

According to Greenspan (2000) “the healing of perfectionism involves not only the discovery and counteracting of perfectionistic internal messages, but also the development of feelings of unconditional acceptability as a person” (p. 209).

Awareness is always the first step. Noticing thought and behaviour patterns in a kind, compassionate way without being judgemental about it, as that would just feed our inner critic.

Another important step is to get to know the negative inner voice:
-What does it say, when does it show up?
-Does it remind us of someone familiar?
-Is there any bodily sensation that goes with it?
-Start Dialogues with the Inner critic – Thank it for its protective function in childhood but stand up to it by saying that you have better ways of coping now.
-Focus on something you like within yourself.

Having the courage of being open to who we are and what we’re feeling, be it good or bad. To overcome perfectionism we need to be able to acknowledge our vulnerabilities (see Brene Brown’s talk on vulnerability) to the universal experiences of shame, disappointment and failure.

So in a nutshell “the courage to be imperfect”, gives us the opportunity to get in touch with our authentic, core SELF.

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Adler, A. (1951), The Practice and Theory of Individual Psychology, trans. P. Radin. New York: Humanities Press.

Bardone-Cone AM, Wonderlich SA, Frost RO, Bulik CM, Mitchell JE, Uppala S, Simonich H: Perfectionism and eating disorders: current status and future directions. Clin Psychology Rev 2007, 27:384–405

Basco, M. R. (1999). Never good enough: Freeing yourself from the chains of perfectionism.New York,NY: Free Press.

Greenspan, T. (2000). ’Healthy Perfectionism’ is an Oxymoron! Journal of Secondary Gifted Education 11, 197-209.

Nadich, M., Gargan, M. and Michael, L. (1975). Denial, anxiety, locus of control and the discrepancy between aspiration and achievement as components of depression. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 84, 1-9.


About Mensch - Connecting Mind Body Breath

I am committed to provide empowering information, to help you cope with painful emotions and support you towards personal growth and development. I combine my PhD in Psychology with 15 years of practical experience in counselling across clinical, corporate and community settings. Contact me on 0426 558 562 for a FREE 10-minute phone consultation to talk about your needs or write me a quick email at
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3 Responses to Stress and Perfectionism

  1. Pingback: Confessions of a Recovering Perfectionist | Living Thoreauly

  2. Pingback: Stress and Perfectionism | connectingmindbodybreath

  3. Pingback: 3 Ps: Priorities, Perfection, Procrastination in Sobriety | Catholic Alcoholic

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