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The painful peril of perfectionism.

Having unrealistic standards that are impossible to achieve can wreck your mind. Something seemingly inconsequential can cause a feeling of deep frustration. There’s a dangerous downside to perfectionism Today we will explore how being a perfectionist messes up our work and life.

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In interviews the most common answer to the question ‘What’s your biggest weakness?’ is

I’m a perfectionist.

Many go with this response because they assume they can spin a negative into a positive. That’s because we believe perfectionism to be positive. It’s a huge misconception. Researchers are finding that being a perfectionist can lead to a long list of health problems.

What is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism refers to a tendency to stubbornly strive for perfection and hold quixotically high standards.

Perfectionism isn’t just about setting grand goals and doing your best. On the contrary, it’s where we feel that other people, like our partner, parents, peers demand perfection. Perfectionists are prone to believe that good enough is never enough.

A healthy form of perfectionism can be self-motivating and drive us to achieve our dreams. But most often perfectionists do not see the line where it crosses to being unhealthy. On the path of perfection, receiving recognition, affection or belonging is dependent on our flawless performance.

Are you a perfectionist?

Let’s start with the cause of perfectionism. It’s basically driven by internal pressures. Pressures of avoiding failure or harsh judgment.

Studies show that perfectionistic tendencies have increased substantially among young people over the past 30 years. This doesn’t mean we are evolving to be more skilled or successful. It means we’re getting unhealthy, unhappy and sabotaging our future.

It’s a result of immense competition (education /career) + social comparison (social media).

Want to spot signs of perfectionism?

If you answer yes to the questions below the chances are that you are a perfectionist.

1. Do you set unrealistically high expectations for yourself?

2. Are you quick to find fault and be overly critical of mistakes?

3. Do you get uncomfortable when people compliment you?

4. Are you more likely to procrastinate a project out of fear of failure?

5. Do you tend to forget to celebrate your success?

6. Do you look to specific people in your life for approval and validation?

You basically are spending more time perfecting your ideas than presenting your ideas to the world.

Perfectionism takes three forms.

1. Self-oriented perfectionism: where we impose unrealistic expectations to be perfect on ourselves.

2. Other-oriented perfectionism: where we set unrealistic standards of perfection on others.

3. Socially prescribed perfectionism: Where we perceive unrealistic expectations of perfection from others.

On how to overcome perfectionism.

Your question might be ‘why do we need to overcome perfectionism? It’s just a personality trait, not a mental illness.’

Yes, you are right. While it is not considered a mental illness itself, it is a common factor of many mental and behavioural disorders.

You might again think, ‘Well, that’s only in extreme cases.’

But the concern here is NOT JUST extreme cases. It’s also about how it can debilitate our daily life. Katerina pointed out in her piece on work-life balance that some human tendencies make it harder to have a sustainable work style and lifestyle. One being perfectionism.

To overcome this we first need to unlearn the common misconception that perfectionism is about high standards.

”What makes it different than depression or anxiety is that person often values it” – Egan

Amanda Ruggeri a senior journalist at BBC struggles with perfectionism. She consciously stops herself from overreacting to other people’s mistakes and her own (which she admits is harder). There are some science-backed suggestions by Harvard Business Review on how to manage perfectionism.

I’ve been researching perfectionism since my doctor diagnosed a relation between my postpartum blues and my perfectionist personality trait. I’ve put together a mechanism that’s helping me break free from perfectionism. I call it IMPERFECT.

I: Inner monologue gets friendly

How – When I feel my inner critic is feeding me negativity, I begin to observe my thoughts and befriend them. As a friend, I can be objective and supportive of myself.

M: Mindset restructuring

How – I’ve identified the need for a mental shift. I persuade myself to move from the desire of having a perfect life to the desire of having a meaningful life. My husband says he’s mentally moved from perfection to pragmatism.

P: Pick the pleasure part

How- It takes time to overcome perfectionism. Don’t obsess over it. Instead, celebrate small wins. Take pleasure in the process. Like I started this #NoPhoneSunrise30 challenge and started adding my #MorningThoughts. They are not perfect. I just took pleasure in putting it out for 30 days.

E: Envision life at 100

How- It’s a therapy exercise that gives perspective. What do I want to feel physically and mentally on my 100th birthday? I list how perfectionism hinders me from achieving this feeling. Then I note what small changes can I start making to create the quality of life I envision.

R: Reflective Journaling

How- Reflective journaling is a powerful mindfulness technique that helps you regulate emotions. The right prompts can help cultivate acceptance. You recognise your thoughts, investigate your thoughts and feelings, become self-aware and slowly learn to let go of harsh beliefs like perfectionism.

F: Fight the fear of failure

How- Perfectionism is more about avoiding failure than gaining success. So experiment. It’s the best way to fight this fear. I always wanted to write and share my learnings. Perfectionism stopped me. Now I view everything I write as an experiment. I celebrate and build further on what’s worked and learn from what hasn’t.

E: Embrace imperfections

How- If something is bothering me that does not harm others I try to embrace it. Easier said than done. The most recent being the changes in my body after pregnancy. That doesn’t mean I do not participate in self-care. But I’m learning to love the imperfections.

C: Comparison transforms to compassion

How- I’ve noticed what fuels perfectionism is constant social comparison. When others are getting ahead focus on self-compassion instead of self-criticism. When someone’s work is superior try to view it as inspiration than as competition. Again it’s super hard and I fail continuously. But I don’t beat myself up. I catch it and work on it.

T: Therapy

How- Perfectionism is correlated with anxiety, depression, shame. It can be hard to overcome this on your own. If you still find it difficult to let go of some of your beliefs that underly your sense of perfectionism, work with a mental health professional. It helped me with my postpartum blues.

All this takes practice. But each time you replace criticising and perfecting with compassion and experimentation, you’ll feel less anxious, stressed and begin to enjoy the sweet taste of freedom.


Tiny tips

Adopt IMPERFECT framework to overcome perfectionism


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