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Is Perfection Getting in the Way of Progress? 5 Great Tips to Control Perfectionism

A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new - Albert Einstein

So what’s wrong with striving to be perfect? What’s wrong with setting the bar high?

If you’re the kind of person who aims for perfection and is not prepared to settle for anything less than excellence, you may have found it an uncomfortable way to live.

And where did that unforgiving approach come from? Did you have parents with high expectations? Did you feel as a child that, to win their approval, you had to be better, faster, and cleverer than all the rest?

As children, we hope to receive unconditional love, yet for many, it feels as though parental love has to be earned by compliance.

Then there’s ’the tyranny of the shoulds’.

If you find you’re running an internal dialogue based on rules, you might find yourself saying ‘I should do this, I must do that.’

As a result, you probably find you’re always feeling guilty or pressured. Those self-imposed rules might extend to others as well. That can make you very judgmental. Perhaps you’ve turned into someone who expects those around you to meet your ultra-high standards.


Rosie was a high achiever at school. She was naturally bright and soon learned that, to get approval from her parents, nothing less than the best was acceptable.

When she came second in a school test, her father, rather than congratulate her, asked ‘so why didn’t you come first?’ Rosie was distraught and redoubled her efforts.

Soon she was studying nearly all the time. No time for friends or fun, Rosie’s young life became an endless achievements list. Her parents expected her to go to Oxford. She achieved that, and for a short time, basked in the glow of parental pride..

But, when she went to work, her perfectionism started to get in the way of her journey up the career ladder. She had gained a reputation as someone who was excellent in her field but now Rosie found she was unwilling to take on anything new or even go on a training programme.

Now Rosie’s fear of failure began to dominate her life. She avoided doing anything where she might be less than perfect.

Rosie felt sad, angry, frustrated or guilty most of the time. Her relationship failed and her partner left. ‘There are too many rules in your world.’ he said. ‘You’re a control freak!’

The truth is that some people take life way too seriously. That endless and growing ‘to do’ list, the uncompromising, self-imposed tasks, they beat themselves up when they underachieve and beat others up for not meeting their high expectations.

Better to do something imperfectly than nothing flawlessly

There’s an old saying which goes ‘Life is just a game. It is only a game. If it weren’t a game, you would have been given better rules!’

Psychologist Donald Winnicott talked about the notion of the ‘good enough’ mother. He said it would be unreasonable to aim at perfect parenting. As long as mothers were well-intentioned and did their best for their children most of the time, those positive intentions would provide what most children needed.

This ‘good enough’ concept is more comfortable and more forgiving than the relentless aim for being perfect and is more realistic in terms of what it means to be human.

If you want to control perfectionism, here are 5 tips to help you cut yourself some slack:

1. Accept there’s no failure, only feedback

Did you know we are hard wired to learn by failure?

When Edison was conducting endless experiments to develop a filament for the light bulb, he was interviewed by the New York Times.

‘So,how does it feel, Mr Edison, to have one thousand failed experiments, to have failed one thousand time?’ he was asked.

‘I have not failed.’ replied Edison. ‘I have simply found one thousand ways not to do it.’

Many more ‘failures’ later, he succeeded in his invention.

If you regard failures as simple learning curves, you will embrace them as part of the road to your success.

2. Fail your way to success

If a premier league footballer were afraid of failure, he would never take a shot at goal. The reality is that, even the top scorers miss the goal mouth most of the time. People generally forget the misses and remember the goals.

Even Richard Branson has several failed business ventures behind him. But people don’t remember those. If he were afraid of failure, he would never take a risk.

People who never fail are living inside their comfort zone. If you don’t take a risk and try something new, you will miss opportunities to stretch and grow.

3. Avoid a black or white thinking style

Thinking errors are sometimes referred to as ‘cognitive distortions’.

If you find you have an either/or mind set or a kind of I’m right/you’re wrong attitude, you may have fallen into polarised thinking.

Try and step back and see all the shades of grey, all the different possibilities and outcomes.

It’s not a case of ‘everything’s alright or everything’s all wrong. Sometimes, just striving for success or being prepared to try something new is worth giving yourself recognition for.

4. Tap into the ancient wisdom of the eastern carpet weavers

In a distant land, there are weavers of carpets who are experts in their craft. They weave rugs and carpets of the finest quality and most intricate detail.

Yet, just before they complete their task, they deliberately weave a mistake in to the pattern. They believe that, to aspire to be perfect is to aspire to be godlike and who are they to imagine they can be a god?

If you embrace your mere humanity, you will be likely to feel more comfortable with errors and mistakes.

5. Lighten up

Bearing in mind the fact that billions and billions of people live and have lived on this planet and that, even with a fair wind, your time on this planet is likely to be less than one hundred years, could it be that you take yourself and your ‘stuff’ a little bit too seriously?

The grave yard is full of ‘indispensable’ men and women. If you lie awake at night worrying about what people will think of you if you are not perfect, or if you’re fretting about all the should and musts in your life, you’re probably taking yourself way too seriously.

Learn to laugh when things don’t go according to plan or if you have been less than the perfect you. You’ll be easier to live with, a nicer, more compassionate person, and you’ll probably find life a lot more enjoyable.

That’s perfect, isn’t it?

Frances Masters

Frances Masters is a BACP accredited psychotherapist with over 30,000 client hours of experience. Follow her @fusioncoachuk, or visit The Integrated Coaching Academy for details about up coming training.