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The Problem with Perfection

In recent years, I’ve treated increasing numbers of individuals who are driven to distraction through their pursuit of perfection.  The desire to be perfect traps and burdens many people and imprisons them with unrelenting stress, often creating havoc in their lives. This is a very curious thing, given that these same people believe that seeking perfection is desirable. Like many operating beliefs and assumptions, when we take a deeper look, they may appear nonsensical.

Perfection suggests a state of flawlessness, without any defects. To be perfect implies a condition whereby your action or performance attains a level of excellence that cannot be exceeded. Seeking perfection at a particular task might be achievable, and certainly a student can strive to attain a perfect grade or you can try to accomplish a perfect execution of something. You can hope to bowl 300 or produce a perfect report at work. You certainly hope your surgeon does a perfect job on your operation.

Yet, the goal of being perfect in life is altogether a different story. A machine or electronic device may operate perfectly — at least for a while. Yet, over time it will begin to wear down and require repair. The very notion of perfection is rooted in the paradigm of Newton’s mechanistic universe. Humans, however, were never intended to be perfect. That’s part of the definition of being human. Consider the expression, “I’m just human.”

In our culture we move relentlessly toward greater emphasis on achievement, productivity and goal attainment. We ask our children what their grade is, not what they learned. We tend to measure our lives in terms of success and achievement and lose perspective on what it may mean to live well. This tendency ruptures any sense of meaning or balance in our lives.  We seem to lose the capacity for wonder and awe. Could you imagine looking at a magnificent rainbow and complaining that the width of one color was narrower than another?  Not only would that be ridiculous, we’d also be ruining the splendor of the moment. And yet that is exactly what we do when we judge ourselves for our imperfections. We forget that as humans we’re part of nature, as well. As such, we would benefit if we came into acceptance of the natural flow of life, which by the way happens to be imperfect.

In truth, the notions of perfect or imperfect are simply constructs of mind and have no actual basis other than thought has created them. The notion of perfection has existed since ancient Greece, but in its more modern incarnation, it is a construct of Newton’s machine. It has no place, however, in a participatory worldview. We internalize this model of perfection and imbue upon it some intrinsic truth, and then may spend our lives wastefully pursuing that “truth.”

Ironically, if someone ever could achieve this implausible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their own shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy, being with someone who was inhumanely perfect?

When I speak on this subject –the problem with perfectionism — I find that people often protest that they are simply striving for excellence and may ask what is wrong with trying to improve. My response is – there’s no problem with that at all, if it’s done with balance. But must you always be striving to improve? If so, you are forever climbing the ladder reaching to the rung above you. You never reach your goal, there are always more rungs. So you’ll be happy when?

The paradox here is that to perpetually strive suggests that you may not be at peace and that actually impedes your forward progress. In other words, the balance that is derived from pausing from the inexorable improvement permits intuitive growth. When we experience being present in the moment, our personal evolution may vault forward. However, if we are ceaselessly pushing ourselves forward, we may actually impinge the very progress we seek. To be the “best you can be,” requires that you free yourself from being the subject of your onerous demands. The over emphasis on a highly productive life is reminiscent of Newton’s machine-like ideology. Machines are intended to be productive. Humans are designed in much more complex ways, in which productivity is an important part, but not the entirety of our purpose.

American culture is driven toward excellence and the mantra of doing the best you can requires a deeper examination.  If we always value performance over tranquility or being present, we are sacrificing balance and a core value of what it means to be human. Emotional intelligence and relatedness may be sacrificed in the pursuit of excellence.  A life well lived would necessitate a harmony of excellence, joyfulness, relatedness and peace of mind. When one element obscures another, a lack of equilibrium sets in.

A Mask for Insecurity

I have often counseled people who were beleaguered by their need to be perfect. I have come to learn that their pursuit of perfection is really a disguise for their insecurity.  It becomes a statement that I’m not good enough just as I am. When we do that, we judge ourselves.

Usually we strive toward being perfect to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. People who want to be perfect usually have an exaggerated sense of their own shortcomings. They typically received messages earlier in life that they weren’t good enough.  So they decided that only by being perfect would they be beyond reproach. With such an affliction we might look at perfectionism as a compensation for earlier life experiences –wave collapses — that corrupted someone’s well-being and self-esteem. As a compensatory response, the drive toward perfection is erroneously sought as a solution.  Perfectionists tend to think that other people are somehow better or superior to them, so they need to be without flaw just to catch up. This is a terribly damaging myth.

Individuals who seek perfection are more sensitive to the judgments of others. In fact, these judgments are most often imagined. Everyone has an opinion, but elevating someone else’s opinion to the status of being a judge is really silly. After all, someone else can’t really judge you unless you confer upon him or her, the power of being a judge.

The only perfection is in being present, yet the perfectionist is never present

The closest thing to perfection is in the ability to be fully present. Without any distracting thoughts measuring or grading ourselves, we’re free to really be in the moment. It’s in that moment that we’re truly alive. Yet, the perfectionist isn’t typically present as they’re either busy critiquing the past and replaying their every decision or worrying about their future decisions. So you see the perfectionist is never really present. Isn’t that ironic?

The pursuit of perfection limits our ability to be present and literally robs us of the vitality of life. It is unachievable, unimaginable and frankly undesirable, so why pursue it? Your time would be far better spent in delving into how to transcend the insecurity that catalyzed the desire for perfection in the first place.

Analyzing, measuring and judging are the tools of the perfectionist. We might recall that these are the central tenets of Newton’s paradigm and as such we can see that perfectionism is symptomatic of that tired worldview.

Do not measure thyself!

In my work as a psychotherapist I often see individuals who are plagued by a relentless measuring of themselves. These people carry on an internal dialogue whereby their critical voice is enslaving, as they feel compelled to judge and measure most aspects of their lives. In such circumstances, these individuals rarely get to be present. Even when in conversation with others, they are only partly there, for a more private aspect is carrying on a self-critique at the same time. Their self-critical voice is embedded in a very deep and predictable groove.

Sometimes I learn that the inner dialogue actually speaks in the second person. Rather than speaking in the first person –“I” — the voice speaks even more critically by saying “You.” Rather than the thought, “I shouldn’t have done that,” you may say, “How could you have done that?” When this occurs I inquire as to who is actually speaking. There is literally a measuring voice in many people that becomes the critical second party. Sometimes this simply replicates the childhood experience of the critical parent. The greater problem is that the victim of the childhood abuse integrates the measuring voice as his or her own! I have never encountered the third person voice speaking approvingly to one’s self — only critically.

You can’t be in two places at the same time (except in cases of quantum entanglement) and you can’t engage two thoughts simultaneously. Every moment in which you measure or judge yourself is a moment you didn’t choose a better and healthier option. The state of potential is never reached. Peacefulness and mindfulness are never reached for the analyzing, measuring voice never relents. These are missed moments of valuable life experiences. If a significant percentage of your thoughts are self-critical, then indeed you have scripted that life experience for yourself. You are missing the rich experience of joyful life.

Just think about how this impacts your relationships. If you’re not present for yourself, how can you be for another?  This is ruinous for relating to others. If you feel perturbed by your own discontent, it has untold consequences for your relations with others.

Learning how to liberate yourself from this groove of negativity is altogether achievable once you set the intention. The techniques described in my posts, “Stuck in the Groove,” and “Breaking Free from the Comfort Zone,”  illuminate the method for coming out of the groove of old thoughts and feelings.

As a baseball fan, I’ve often been curious about those who sit in the stands with pencil and scorecard in hand. They make note of most every transaction of the game — a measuring if you will. Yet they miss the poetic elegance and flow of the game. If you measure yourself, you’ll miss out on the flow of life.

I’m not, however, proposing an anything goes attitude. There is a vast difference between the measuring analysis of our thoughts or a reflective self-evaluation. Evaluating is a gentler, and a subtler checking in, whereas the measuring makes a much deeper and incisive cut into the fabric of our being. Such measuring ruptures the integrity of our life experience and severs our greater participation in and with life. You cannot engage in the flow of life if you are mired in analytical self-measurement.

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Permanent link to this article: http://blog.melschwartz.com/2011/05/02/the-problem-with-perfection/


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  1. Dr. Susan Biali

    Thank you for this, Mel, such an important conversation we need to have with ourselves! When I was a child my academic achievements were the main focus of approval from my parents. I remember my father, who was recognized by the President of his country as the top student in the entire country (how’s that for pressure?), telling me I had to study or do something equally constructive during school vacations. Thankfully, I ignored him and played anyway. When I go over my life and look at the number of times perfection has been encouraged or forced on me, I quickly lose count. Even just a few years ago, I remember walking along a beach in my bikini feeling great about myself and enjoying the sun on my skin, only to have my boyfriend at the time (a personal trainer) say “Honey, you have such a nice figure…if you would just work out at the gym by lifting weights for an hour or so every day, you could really look PERFECT”. I believe I kicked sand on him.
    Keep up the great work – there is a much happier place indeed to be found between the extremes of not caring and fruitless perfectionism.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Wonderfully said Susan! Thanks so much for that.

    2. Brian Pearson

      I thought my penmanship (for example) was very nearly perfect, and i never thought I was better than anybody else..Two psychologists told me that I was a perfectionist, But nonetheless, I carried on as I normally did. I never felt pressure due to being a perfectionist. And, after all, I had never seen other people’s work, so I never felt pressure.
      BTW, I’ve really seen so many so many questions. I just wonder if the number of questions can be cut down. Thanks

      1. Brian Pearson

        Though I have erred, I’ve picked myself up, and and dusted my pants off, I continued my will towards perfection. After two psychologists have told me I was a perfectionist I’ve continued to pursue that perfectionism. Some have said there were negative things have happened to some, I believe that you have to look for balance wherever I can find it and I seldom have negatives.Those negatives can help with a positive balance.

  2. Morne Buchner

    Excellent as always, thank you Mel. I would like to add or build from an idea of imperfection. I believe it’s through my imperfection that I create a very deep need to participate, connect, resonate, and/or harmonize with my world. And only by participation or an “us” do we experience the bliss of perfection. Even if only momentarily as a privilege during times of reflection or as you mention by just being in the now. We share perfection (or take part in it) just like we do with love. The capability of this state is not to be encapsulated in any individual or being.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Yes Morne..a wonderful addition to my post.. We should include the experience of oneness as a complimentary taste of perfection. By embracing imperfection we actually shift into a worldview that accommodates the bliss of oneness.

  3. Johanna Sartori

    I absolutely agree with you, my daughter’s pride in coming third in a race was eradicated by her grandmother’s suggestion that if she trained hard, she could come first next year.. how’s that for rejecting the experience of now? Whilst I too have many clients who strive to be perfect to the point of unhappiness, they are on reflection all female. I wonder if this is symptomatic of the cultural expectations that women can be career successful, good mothers, beautiful and thin, all at the same time?

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Johanna,
      Yes indeed women have so many expectations to attend to, but men of course have their own litany. What both genders suffer with is self-acceptance. I don’t believe this is human nature, but it certainly is human habit.

  4. Lakshmi G

    Hello Mel,

    Thank you for your Blog. As a perfectionist myself, I can relate to every word you have mentioned under this blog. I’m currently a student and undergoing an intense stress, as I refuse to do anything less than perfection. I’m new to your blog,and am planning to browse your blog hoping to find some answers.


    1. Mel Schwartz

      Think of it this way: the more I seek perfection, the more I block myself from it.

    2. Susan Barbera

      What a great article! Me to a ‘T’. Lakshmi, I feel your pain. I too am a student who continually strives for perfection placing undo stress upon myself.

  5. Linda Appleman Shapiro

    Just read your article on Perfectionsism and would like your permission to quote from it in my Sunday blog, A PSYCHOTHERAPIST’S JOURNEY (named Top Blogger in the field of Mental Health by Wellsphere).

    I’m between patients at the moment and don’t have time to look you up and read about you … so, forgive me for not knowing this, but, if you haven’t authored a book, you should.

    Your writing is clear and flows beautifully … and your points (though I disagree with only a few) are very well presented.

    Again, please let me know if I have your permission to quote you (probably this Sunday or the one following).

    Linda Appleman Shapiro
    Psychotherapist, Addictions Counselor, Oral Historian, Lecturer, Author
    Website: http://www.applemanshapiro.com
    Author: FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness
    and soon-to-be released second book.
    e-mail: beyondatrauma@gmail.com

  6. Linda Appleman Shapiro

    Just read your article on Perfectionsism and would like your permission to quote from it in my Sunday blog, A PSYCHOTHERAPIST’S JOURNEY (named Top Blogger in the field of Mental Health by Wellsphere).

    I’m between patients at the moment and don’t have time to look you up and read about you … so, forgive me for not knowing this, but, if you haven’t authored a book, you should.

    Your writing is clear and flows beautifully … and your points (though I disagree with only a few) are very well presented.

    Again, please let me know if I have your permission to quote you (probably this Sunday or the one following).

    Linda Appleman Shapiro
    Psychotherapist, Addictions Counselor, Oral Historian, Lecturer, Author
    Website: http://www.applemanshapiro.com
    Author: FOUR ROOMS, UPSTAIRS: A Psychotherapist’s Journey Into and
    Beyond Her Mother’s Mental Illness (and soon to be released
    second book)
    blog: A Psychotherapist’s Journey @beyondatrauma.blogspot.com
    e-mail: beyondatrauma@gmail.com

    1. Mel Schwartz

      My pleasure Linda.
      I have authored The Art of Intimacy, The Pleasure of Passion and am currently writing A Shift of Mind.

  7. eric borecki

    An insightful article linking perfectionism to being present in the moment. I will pass it on.

    I have read that there is no real cure for “perfectionism”. We can work on it and be aware of it and instead aim to being an “optimalist” rather than a “perfectionist”. What do you think – do you have any practical tips or applications to eliminate or reduce perfectionism?

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Eric,
      I’ve had some good success helping people with this affliction by teaching them a mastery of thought. It’s part of my Emergent Thinking process. I utilize techniques from the field of quantum physics and enable people to see the analyzing, judging thought as habitual and assist them in breaking free of its hold. If you’d like to know more please send me an email and I’ll describe in more detail or read my article on Emergent Thinking..thanks

  8. Gary Lennon

    Hi Mel

    It’s enriching to read your article as I spend considerable amount of time with aspiring and nascent entrepreneurs, guiding their early movement within new business start-ups. We use an entrepreneur profiling tool, Entrepreneur Scan (or E-Scan) to establish motivations, characteristics and thinking styles.

    One of the key motivators and characteristics is Need for Achievement, which quite often reveals ‘perfectionist’ traits for the entrepreneur. When holding conversations with the ‘perfectionist’ entrepreneur it usually reveals startling information which is a lesson to all those people starting of growing businesses.

    They procrastinate ‘waiting until…’ which means lots of unnecessary delays to getting things done. They spend so much time polishing their activity it becomes an obsession and usually means further delay or refusal to accept that the customer might be willing to buy products or services that are ‘flawed’. At times they feel very unfulfilled because as you say they ‘are more sensitive to the judgements of others’ and feel very disappointed if the feedback they get is not superb.

    So we offer something simple to assist in removing the stress. We suggest replacing ‘perfection’ with ‘excellence’. Never getting to an infinite goal becomes something that is achievable, every day. The empty feeling of under achievement goes, with new constant replenishment of continual achievement becoming a source of putting in good feelings of self worth and reward. Excellence is based upon the premise of achieving the best possible action, considering the timescales and current knowledge with the caveat that you can improve upon it and move the bar up, the more experience you gain. Over time ‘excellence’ speeds up, increases confidence and becomes the new ‘perfect’.

    It really has helped people to move forward, as business owners and more importantly as people and the summarising factor is that frowns get replaced by smiles!

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Thanks for sharing Gary! Very helpful.

  9. Sarah

    I agree that perfectionism is a cover for some kind of insecurity. Mostly because that’s why I do it. Sometimes it’s a veil to cover up your flaws because you want to be seen as better than the people you know. Sometimes you assume that because someone presents a perfect ‘front’ that it’s true and you will not be seen as less successful, pretty, organized, caring, etc. than that person. If you were considered sub-par by parents/loved ones, you have a constant need to earn their approval (which will never happen), if you were considered perfect as a child or in school, you have unnatural expectations for yourself. That is why as students who were the best in younger grades move up and out in to bigger communities such as high school or college they find that there are many other just like them and some that are even better. This need to prove ones self can cause considerable stress and if taken too seriously or into too many aspects of ones life makes that person very unlikable.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Sarah,
      I believe that what you describe is tantamount to what I call other-esteem. Rather than building our authentic self, we fake it so to speak and try to present an image of our selves that we think others will approve of. In so doing, we betray our own self and denigrate genuine self-esteem.

    2. Mel Schwartz

      Yes Sarah, I very much agree. We might look at perfectionism as a coping mechanism created to buffer our younger self from criticism if not scorn. But decades later this coping mechanism becomes a terrible burden. You might want to read my post, Coming into Balance, which speaks to this process.

  10. Ithia Farah

    Hello Mel,
    Congratulations and thank you for sharing this interesting text and very full of thoughts. I understand that everything could be connected as you said …. since the Mithos perfection ( literally means “a finishing”, and “Completeness”) of Greek gods even today with unreal women in magazines, with princes and princesses and happily ever after like a fairy tale… Sometimes trying to be perfect just shows our arrogance and our humanity… “Martin Luther King, Jr. said that Gandhi criticized himself and whenever he made a mistake, he would confess it publicly. Here was a man who would say to his people, I’m not perfect, I’m not infallible. Gandhi was considered a great man for this quality of humility. When we confess our weaknesses or imperfections we make ourselves more vulnerable. We open ourselves and are thus able to grow through the confrontation with that which is most weak or negative in us. Arrogance is the opposite of vulnerability; it represents a closeness of mind and usually, a selfishness of purpose (…) ” The Insanity of Arrogance – Mark A. Sircus
    Have a great day!
    Many Thanks 😉

    1. Mel Schwartz

      The paradox is that being comfortable with our vulnerability is indeed strong.

  11. Suzanna Matla

    I wish to thank you Mel for sharing this article and point of view with us all – I could not agree with you more and I personally believe that this perception needs to be challenged to assist people in all walks of life to grow and see the opportunities of being present in our beautiful wide world in all its imperfect glory.
    Once again thank you :)

    1. Mel Schwartz

      My pleasure Suzanna

  12. Mary A. Travis, PhD

    Blessed are the meek? It occurs to me that meekness, the quality of being open and teachable, is a way of being that foils the inner perfectionist. I see perfectionism beginning as an individual’s defense against unrelenting criticism. Eventually, the critic doesn’t have to say a word (they can even be dead), but the words live on. It’s like someone hits us with a hammer over and over – eventually they leave the scene – then WE pick up the hammer and start banging away at our own head!!
    I like your points – I can see a perfectionist backing away from perfetcion to strive for excellence. A little bit of a shift at a time will make a huge difference.
    Great topic – I deal with trichotillomania, skin picking, and other forms of deliberate self-harm. If the behavior is driven by perfectionism – the recovery process is often confounded by the need to “recover perfectly” the first try.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Mary,
      I try to approach the “critical voice” as a reflection of what our own voice is indeed saying to us. If we carry on our monologue in a judgmental and critical way, life becomes unbearable as there’s no relief. When another person is the critic we can shut them out,for a time at least. When we are the critic, there’s no escape.

      What I have found very effective is working with people to help them see — and detach–from their thoughts.

  13. Andre Burki

    Wonderful input and discussion – thank you all.
    Comment for Business World/Leadership:
    Human Synergistics promotes a Leadership Stile Indicator assessing 4 constructive, 4 passive and 4 aggressive stiles. I was first amazed then happy to learn that the Perfectionistic is defined as one of the aggressive stiles (team or organisational culture). The short definition reflects exactly this discussion (from http://www.human-synergistics.com.au/content/products/circumplex/aggressive.asp)

    Based on the need to attain flawless results, avoid failure and the tendency to equate self-worth with the attainment of unreasonably high standards. People high in this style are preoccupied with details, place excessive demands on themselves and others and tend to show impatience, frustration and indifference toward others’ needs and feelings.

  14. Sara

    Dear Mel,
    The web was created for your super-insightful blogs! There’s another side of perfectionism that I have discerned in myself that inhibits my own efforts at excellence in pursuits that would enhance my life. I now believe that perfectionism is behind my procrastination in doing the things I would love to do, but since I may not get perfection, I fear putting in my all (or even anything at all, I just dream about completing creative and worthwhile projects). I believe, like many, I need to enjoy the journey and not be that concerned/worried about reaching the destination. When you enjoy the ride, the destination comes all too soon.

    My question for the blog is as a parent or educator, how can you help a child or student in which perfectionist behaviors are apparent to feel unafraid to achieve excellence in more of a chilled fashion? How can I help them feel positive and self-accepting for just being themselves and to feel proud of their efforts to meet their challenges?

  15. Richard Lawton

    In my very first session with my very first training client I made a mistake with the pacing and intensity of the session – something I didn’t realise until she told me at the start of the next session that the first had been slightly overwhelming. The prefectionist in me was mortified… I apologised and told her I would slow things down. Imagine my surprise on reading her feedback at the end of our 10 sessions that my apology had been one of the most healing moments of her life. That was a huge learning for me.

    I now see one of my roles with perfectionist clients as modelling “anti-perfectionism” – deliberately seeking their input on the process (to break any illusion that I am omniscient); careful self-revelation about my ‘imperfections’ and helping them understand that perfection excludes relationship (perfection is aloof and self-contained – you may stand in awe of it, but you can’t have a relationship with it).

  16. Eileen

    Hi Mel,
    I found you comments fascinating. I have struggled with perfectionism all my life. At a very young age, I was involved in a sport at a very high international level. One of my parent’s pushed very hard and best performances, excellent technique was all that was acceptable. The mood in the household was dictated by my daily performance at the sport. This parent was a good parent overall, but a perfectionist themselves. Unfortunately, this parent died when I was a young teenager, however, I have never been able to shake this need for perfectionism away, it is like a security blanket. Like you say, I have this inner voice criticising myself all the time. Other people opinions of me matter too much. Sometimes I fear or withdraw from doing things as I consider that every single detail may not be in place or perfect. I totally aware of it, and do work on it, but it is good to hear that there are more people out there like me. Keep up the good work

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Eileen,
      Thanks so much for sharing. Please believe that you can overcome this measuring, critical inner voice. I have had significant success with people in transcending this challenge. You might want to read my section on Emergent Thinking as well. My DVD The Power of Mind also shares some approaches to overcoming this issue. Where do you live?

      1. Eileen

        Hi Mel,
        Thanks for the feedback. I live in Dublin Ireland

  17. Srivatsaa R

    Hi Mel,
    By Chance I landed on your article on Perfectionism. What to say – A great presentation of the concepts & are thought provoking. This reading of your blog has come at a time where in I am going through a very bad mid career crisis where in I have lost very good jobs Twice in a span of 10 months – mainly due to Interpersonal skills where in one of the key root of the problem being my Perfectionist attitude leading to criticism of my team members & myself stressing up to Prove infront of my bosses. I am working on this and as a first step – I am consciously reminding myself to stop criticising myself or my past deeds / attitudes. Can you help with some more inputs for me to work on & to succeed in my effort and transform myself to a better person. I live in India .

    1. Mel Schwartz

      I’d recommend your learning how to stop the torrent of critical self thought. You might be thinking, Well how do I do that? It’s not difficult but requires some new skills. You could purchase my DVD The Power of Mind or better still I could work you through the process if you prefer. I do offer telephone and skype sessions. My forthcoming book — A Shift of Mind — will illuminate this process, but regrettably won’t be out for a while.

  18. Suparna Biswas

    Excellent article Mel especially those two examples of rainbow and base ball fan. I have spent my childhood and adolescence with a perfectionist. That person was very confident – had a good academic record and a successful career. Apparently these qualities should motivate others but my self esteem was going down in the process of becoming perfect. I had to go away from her to make my confidence level upward moving.

    I feel if ‘perfection’ can be replaced by ‘passion’, the quality of work will automatically remain good, which is apparently the concern of a perfectionist. Afterall, it is a positive energy like ‘inspiration’ which is expected to give positive result than a negative energy like ‘criticism’ – even it is made with a good intention to rectify others.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Suparna,
      Yes the key is to engage the process and seeking excellence if not personal mastery is admirable. This is far different from the neurosis of trying to attain perfection. Your self-esteem is derived from the former not the latter.

  19. Myna German

    The difference between loving achievement and perfectionism. In achievement, time management and output are important. SOmeone once told me you can spend 80 percent more time achieving that last 20 percent of perfection. Given that time is often money, you have to ask yourself is it worth it to spend 80 percent more time and money on a project to make it 20 percent better, or is your time–in the cause of bettering humanity too–better spebnt picking up more projects –of a do-gooder nature or otherwise and leveraing your time spent to produce even greater results and cure the world a little more. Or, another solution is to have other people work on that last 20 percent and as an entrepreneur go own and do another start-up based on your good ideas and leave that last 20percent that is going to be so time-consuming, realizing that it may not give you 80 percent better sales or results.

    The part about perfectionism being caused by fear of inadequacy though, I am not sure of. Some people are just more detail-oriented and have that type of eye and seeing a little detail out of space ruins the gestalt for them. Often perfectionism comes from hyper-criticism though from a parent figure and non-acceptance of oneself–that part I will agree with.

  20. Franks

    Hi Mel
    That song killing me softly with his song is a metaphor for how I felt reading your text. I am slowly (and sometimes painfully) travelling on my journey of growth. I came from a family who were (and still are) opinionated and critisising. I was badly bullied at school and humiliated by teachers who told me I wouldn’t pass a gate let alone an exam. I have however gone on to have several successful careers and have just qualified as an NLP Practitioner and am currently studying for my Master Prac. Even with all this perceived success I am still haunted by the demons of my past. I constantly seek out positive affirmations and don’t allow people to get to close lest they realise what ‘sort of person’ I really am. It seems to me that we live in a world that constantly cautions us to be our best because we’re worth it and the watchword of the day is positivity. This in itself can be very dis-heartening as it is yet another thing to achieve. Generally I’m very positive but there is always that annoying monkey sitting on my shoulder whispering vile nothings into my ear. I do have plans for that little bugger though.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      It sounds like you’re really serious about your growth and liberating yourself from other people’s voices informing your own. When you hear that vile voice you refer to ask yourself, “Who is doing the speaking?” Stake your territory to find your own voice. My next post will speak more directly toward turning this in your direction.

    2. Mel Schwartz

      The next step might be in gaining some mastery over your thoughts, which your experiences have so impacted. I do address this in my Emergent Thinking approach, which you can read about on my website or from watching my DVD The Power of Mind.

  21. C

    Thank you for sharing this. I think my fear-of-failure/perfectionism is one of big reasons why I haven’t worked for more than a year. I had created so much stress for myself on my last job to be perfect that I was afraid to go back. Your insight has helped to get me back on track.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      That’s great, delighted to hear it!

  22. Glen Cooper

    “Think of it this way: the more I seek perfection, the more I block myself from it.”

    Hi Mel, I quoted you above in the hope that I could get you to help me understand it. Are we saying that perfection is still what we need to seek? Simply trying hard to be perfect makes it more impossible to gain it’s status….? Or is this quote aimed at deterring a person from ever considering the pursuit of perfection?


    1. Mel Schwartz

      Good question Glen, I can appreciate your confusion. I’m trying to point out the irony. That said, I think we might seek excellence or mastery in a way, but pursuing perfection is unachievable and thereby nonsensical. You may be perfect at a particular task, but in life perfectionism is simply wrong minded.

  23. Vishal V Kale

    Dear Mel,
    Nice article… perfectionism and insecurity… one does not usually associate the 2 together. Thanks for that tidbit – and the bit about such people being sensitive to others opinions.

    One thing occurs to me though – the perfectionist is always critical as you so very rightly pointed out. The problem is such a person also expects the others to fall in line. While it is true that this does impact relationships and create stress, it also ensures that this persons’ effectivity gets limited. It is not just that such people miss out on the vitality of life – they are also not very effective in all situations. They may excel in some- but as a general rule, the perfectionist is not a very effective team builder, at least in my observation of life. Further, such a person also can be unapproachable on reaching higher levels of auhority, and consequently gets out of touch with the ground realities…


    Vishal V. Kale

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Great insights Vishal…thanks for sharing.

  24. Philip Martin

    Hi Mel,
    I have just joined this EQ network.
    This is an excellent article, I’ll just add my 2 cents worth. Seeking perfection contains the seeds of failure and this is the true or rather unconscious aim of the perfectionist – to fail. For each event that they do, (and to bystanders it is usually an excellent result) it is not good enough, they could have done better. Their conscious mind perceives that the striving is a solution and is kept happy thinking it is doing the right thing but it is just a never ending negative feed back loop. The solution proves the point, which is the belief held of “I am not good enough” etc.
    The beliefs because they are assume to be true will always dictate behavior. If you achieved perfection then the belief wouldn’t be true so it can’t be allowed to happen.
    As you say ‘perfection is only a construct’, and the so ego is fooled into thinking that it is an ideal and achievable.
    In truth, in this moment – nothing is missing, all is perfect as it is now, and of course immediately changeable.
    Schools often espouse the students to always do the best that they can, this robs, flexibility, choice and the ability to discern what is valuable or worth the effort.
    If a perfectionist asks themself, ‘who am I not good enough for?’ and then look/imagine the behavior of that person back then at that time, and think ‘what is the benefit for this person (commonly the father) to want me to believe that I am not good enough’. Now realize that you are still paying the price/cost for that person to achieve the benefit for themself way back then.
    Would you rather achieve effectiveness?

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Philip,
      Thank you so much for your acutely insightful commentary. It gives us much to reflect on.

  25. Sam

    Hi Mel,

    A very thought provoking post.

    I call that voice in my head The Director. Like you said, she always speaks in the second person. What I’d like to know, do you work with people who don’t have this voice/thinking-pattern? What do they do differently from those of us that do?


    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Sam,
      Yes I do work with many people whose thoughts speak in the first person. In fact, probably most people. Not sure why, but I suspect there was greater damage done to those that speak in second person. Only a guess of course. For you and those like you, ask yourself, “Who is doing the talking here?” It’s really essential to take ownership of your thoughts and begin them with I. Having done so, we can then mover toward participatory thought. That sounds like this, “I’m having a thought and my thought is telling me……………” The difference is significant. We can then see the thought and choose not to become the thought..Liberation!!!

      1. Sam

        Hi Mel,

        Yes, the difference between thinking, “You’re so [favourite put-down]” & “I am so [favourite put-down]” is pretty big. And then adding in the “I am thinking I am so….” makes it possible to stop being the thought. Nice.

        Do you ever work with people who have no or very little critical voice? What’s the inside of their minds like?


        1. Mel Schwartz

          Hi Sam,
          Yes there are times when I work with people who don’t seem encumbered by a critical voice. The other end of this continuum is the person who can do no wrong. They may appear in therapy to complain about others, but struggle on their part to be self-reflective. We need to seek the balance in the middle. A gentle self-evaluation or a subtle checking in so to speak.

  26. Karen Braunstein

    Hi Mel,
    Your article is right on! I am currently on medical leave and seeing a therapist who is helping me a great deal. I relate very much to “A Mask for Insecurity”. I am really learning about myself and why I feel the way I do. Yes, it does go back to early childhood being Roman Catholic and feeling that mostly everything one does or thinks is a sin. My dad, may in rest in peace, would have us all (6 children) sit in our family room and tell us what we did wrong. I didn’t realize how much this affected me until now. I am reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach & “The Buddha’s Way of Happiness”, “putting aside your anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, and constant longing to change your life for the better, and awakening to the joy of living. Happiness is being mindful. being happy in the present moment” . I find these books really help even if difficult to read at times because I can see myself and remember my own situations. However, I know I need to understand and accept them in order for me to move forward. I am learning to be happy in the moment and stop living in the past worrying so much about the future.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      That’s great Karen. You might want to read my article “Who am I?” as a follow up to the piece on perfection.

      1. Karen Braunstein

        Great! Thanks alot Mel. Great article and it is helpful reading everyone’s comments and to know I am not alone in my feelings.

      2. kbvinred@gmail.com

        Where do I find your article “Who am I”?

  27. Consolate

    Hi Mel,

    Thanks alot for this article. I am quite new in the group and this is the first topic I stopped on, to express my great interest in it. Actually I am also labelled as perfectionist, but I do not agree, that is why I would like to know at what stage it is considered abnormal to seek for the “best” you can accomplish. I also think that perfectionism could also express a great sense of caring of others, the need to offer the best to others without expecting any kind of recognition (like for the INFJ personality types). The subsquent stress could come not from the perfectionism itself, but rather from the number of things that are being perfected at the same time. The issue became then lack of prioritization in doing things. Perfectionism could also come from the sense of duty, not necessarely for self satisfaction. Don’t you think so?

    1. Mel Schwartz

      You’ve asked many interesting questions here. Should one always have to do the best that they can? If the answer is yes, wouldn’t that set up a compulsion? Sometimes a peson needs to be at peace and at rest, not always churning toward greater and greater productivity. After all, we are humans not machines.

    2. Mel Schwartz

      You ask, “at what stage it is considered abnormal to seek for the “best” you can accomplish?” I’d say if it’s always. Selectively seeking to be the best you can, at certain times, is balanced. If it always has to be that way, it sounds like a compulsion. You might want to read my latest post, Should we always do the best we can?” It’s on my blog, blog.melschwartz.com
      Happy new year and sorry for the tardy response.

  28. Gerardo Salinas

    This should be an important topic of analysis in our current society, i believe it may be the key to find the sense of life and to live in a wellness state, though, we know that wellness is not a constant asset, the very nature of life drag us into the ambivalent reality of good and bad, so, we may know that seeking a constant state of wellness is a form of perfectionism too, as you said, the crisis tend to be opportunities of change, and with change we become closer to truly joy, because life is a vast spectrum.

    1. Mel Schwartz

      well said!

  29. Patty

    I’m a perfectionist, and I like to be that way. To counter your point “But must you always be striving to improve? If so, you are forever climbing the ladder reaching to the rung above you. You never reach your goal, there are always more rungs. So you’ll be happy when?” with a quote, I can’t remember where it’s from — “If you shoot for the moon and miss, you’ll still land among the stars.” In my mind, if you’re not growing, you’re shrinking. I love to learn something new, or achieve another goal, but I don’t beat myself up over missing accomplishments, I just keep trying.

    There’s also the idea that perfection is in the eye of the beholder, if you strive to be perfect, and you’re view of perfection includes being happy, then you will activly seek out happiness (in my experiance, it’s much easier to find something when you’re looking for it).

    Just my two cents

    1. Mel Schwartz

      Hi Patty,
      I agree with most of what you wrote and actually wouldn’t refer to you as a perfectionist, because a perfectionist is never at peace. Given that happiness is an integral part of your ideal, you sound free of the burden of perfectionism.

  30. Chirag Patel

    Sir your blog is really good..i m patient of perfectionism since last three years.and it comes at each and every step in my life in reading,writing and also sometimes speaking.life seems like hell…please if u can help me.and my father does not believe in this psychological problems.i just tried to make him understand.at last he took me to doctor unwillingly,but the doctor just give me 5 minutes.and gave me some crazy pils,i dont believe him..so i just left the treatment and told my parents i m ok..but still m having problem..nd m totally alone..please if u can help me??


    Mel excellently scripted the issue of perfection. We only need to try to do our best within the limitations of the given context. We should not be obsessed with perfection or try to thrust it upon others. You have rightly brought out that perfections comes from a inner fear or inferiority complex.

  32. Brian Pearson

    A Mask for Insecurity? I disagree, at least when it comes to myself.

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