The Hidden Cost Of Perfectionism

Posted on January 6th, 2015

Lisa DiMarino, LMFTFounderPacific Wellness Center

Go Big, Or Go Home

We live in a culture that glorifies wealth, beauty, physical and material accomplishments above all else. Perfectionism is often seen as something to strive for. Our young girls visit pro-anorexia websites to learn how to best starve themselves into perfection. Our young boys are exposed to media that sends the message that their worth lies in the kind of car they drive, or how good their abs look when they are shirtless. As parents, we are often torn between wanting our children to be happy, well-balanced individuals, and trying to give them all the mental, emotional and material resources they need to succeed in life.

All parents want their children to be successful. We generally believe that success breeds confidence, self-esteem, and a willingness to try new things, all of which feed back into more success. While this is true in theory, the unfortunate reality is that many people confuse success and achievement with being perfect.

Success is defined by as “the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishments of one’s goals.” Perfectionism, on the other hand, is defined as “A personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.”

Striving for achievement entails encountering pitfalls, setbacks, mistakes and wrong turns. Inherent in being able to overcome these difficulties is a capacity for resiliency and problem solving. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is rigid and does not allow for any deviation from the ultimate goal. Success and achievement take into account the process of the journey towards the goal, while perfectionism is concerned only with the accomplishment of the goal at a perfect standard. As result, instead of engendering confidence, perfectionists are often plagued with much higher instances of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.

Signs Of Perfectionism

Perfectionists are focused on pleasing others and look to external sources of validation rather than an innate sense of accomplishment over a job well done.

Perfectionists often believe that pain, stress and suffering are an integral part of success. They must drive themselves towards their goal rather than being pulled towards it organically by enthusiasm or interest.

Perfectionists have rigid, black and white thinking that center around success or failure, rather than growth and learning. They see themselves as either good or bad based on how closely their performance measured up to their end goal.

Perfectionists often exhibit catastrophic thinking – “If I get a bad grade on this test, I will never get into college.” They have the feeling that any mistake or setback will result in failure, which is unbearable.

Perfectionists struggle with personal relationships, as they are unable to be vulnerable with others. They fear that their only worth is in their achievements, and if anyone finds out that they have failed to be perfect in all areas, they will be judged worthless by others. They use their perfectionism as a shield to keep people from knowing who they really are.

Perfectionists obsess over small mistakes, beating themselves up over even the smallest proof that they have failed. As a result, they tend to be less resilient and have poor problem solving skills.

Perfectionists are generally unable to enjoy even their most spectacular successes. Accomplishments are just one more check mark on a to do list, with the focus always moving towards the next goal on the list.

Perfectionists are intensely critical of themselves and others. They constantly compare themselves, often using another’s success as a reason to beat themselves up. Conversely, they may also take petty pleasure on other’s struggles, as they look for validation of their own self-worth in a perceived sense of superiority over others.

Perfectionists have great difficulty with procrastination. They can become paralyzed by anxiety when faced with a difficult task because they are afraid to fail, and because they anticipate disapproval from others.

Moving From Perfectionism To Healthy Achievement

The antidote for perfectionism is to change from a perspective that is locked only on the end result, to that of focusing on the value of the journey. Below are a few ways that you can help support this change for your teen:

Encourage resiliency and problem solving, rather than criticizing mistakes. Instead of focusing on a bad grade, help your teen get a better understanding of where their strengths and weaknesses lie, and work together to determine what resources are necessary to achieve the grade they would like.

Foster a sense of teamwork between parents and teens. This can reduce the perfectionist’s sense of isolation and pressure. Most tasks are less overwhelming with support.

Help your teen to recognize black/white and catastrophic thought patterns. Help them learn to counter those thoughts with more realistic ones. “Everyone has a bad day sometimes. No one can perform at 100%, 100% of the time.”

Celebrate mistakes as opportunities to grow and learn.

Help your teen to face their fears. Brainstorm the worst that can happen, and then problem solve a solution. This can reduce rigid thought patterns and help open their eyes to the idea that there are often many roads to the same goal.

Encourage your teen to ask for help. Many perfectionists believe asking for help is weak. They hold the irrational belief that success means they must do it all themselves. Help them to see that the most successful individuals have a strong support team surrounding them. World-class athletes have coaches, trainers, nutritionists, etc.

Combat procrastination by helping your teen break down daunting tasks into smaller steps. Prioritize these smaller tasks and determine what, if any, support is needed.

Encourage your teen to broaden their experiences. Perfectionists tend to have lives which narrow over time. They are unlikely to be perfect at something they have never tried, so they stick to those areas in which they will not be challenged. Meeting new people or trying a new sport or activity can help them realize that they don’t have to hold a standard of excellence to every activity in their lives. Life doesn’t always have to be a competition.

Challenge your teen’s belief that their perfectionism is beneficial. Help them to see the areas in which it may actually be holding them back from greater, more global achievement and success.

Parenting a teen is a difficult and often thankless task. Developing a better understanding of the difference between success and perfectionism, and being able to model this for your children can give parents a unique opportunity to reconnect with their teens. Parents who model healthy achievement and success-based expectations are often able to increase positive communication with their teens, and to create a stronger bond forged from a sense of working towards a common goal.


How do you measure your own feelings of success and accomplishment?

What beliefs or values does your family hold in regards to success?

Is it really ok to make mistakes? When? Are there times, places, or situations in which mistakes are not acceptable?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Would you like additional guidance in this area? Los Gatos Teen Therapy provides individual teen therapy, family therapy, group therapy, parent support counseling, and in-home teen and family coaching 7 days a week, including afternoons, evenings, and weekends. For more information, contact us at 408.389.3538.

4 thoughts on “The Hidden Cost Of Perfectionism

  1. Lindsay Smith

    I love how you differentiated between success and perfectionism. I know I have confused these times. I also really like all the examples of perfectionism that you provided to help us try and identify perfectionism in our teens (and ourselves!) The point that really caught my attention was the reminder to focus on the journey rather than the end result. This makes such a big difference in how the whole process is experienced. Thank you for giving us such specific strategies in how we can help our teens move from perfectionism to healthy achievement.

  2. Lisa

    I read this and see myself. How to guide a teen when we haven’t even figured out how to deal with ourselves? Mistakes, I say in theory, are okay to make. But do I really practice that with myself and others? No way.

  3. Mandy Krusee

    This post really resonated with me. A few months ago, I actually stumbled upon a letter I had written in 8th grade to my “future self” for a time capsule project, in which I wrote, “my biggest fear is becoming fat or mediocre”. Such a sad statement from a 13-year-old (or from anyone!)! My own struggle with perfection took me to some really dark places in my teens and early 20s, until I finally gained an understanding of what Lisa is saying: that “life doesn’t always have to be a competition”. For me, learning to celebrate my own small accomplishments – instead of judging my success by the relative success of those around me – was key. Now I see my 13-year-old stepson striving to compete in school and elsewhere (though fortunately, he does not have the kind of competitive, ‘go-big-or-go-home’ personality that I did), and I’m making a conscious effort to celebrate how he has challenged himself and reached a personal best, vs. applauding his standing in relation to others’. I wish I’d been more forgiving with myself when I was a teen, but at least my knowledge of that is making me a pretty forgiving parent!

  4. Lisa DiMarino

    Lisa, I think we are always the best role models for our kids – they pay way more attention to what we do that to what we say! Being transparent with them about how this is a struggle for you can be a wonderful way to validate your teen’s experience and in and of itself gives the message that it is OK not to be perfect. Powerful way to connect with your kid!

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