Do you….

-Feel motivated to succeed due to a fear of failure?

-Feel driven to always be “number one”, yet even when you are, your accomplishments never seem to be enough?

-Do you feel you must earn your self-esteem (i.e., through accomplishments and success)?

-Do you feel that the only way to be loved and approved by others is to be extraordinary or special in some way?

-Are you terrified of failure?

-Do you feel you must always be in control, especially of your emotions?

-Are you an “all or nothing” thinker?  (e.g., if you don’t do perfect or almost perfect at something, you are a failure)?

-Is it very difficult for you to give yourself credit where credit is due?


If these questions appear familiar to you, you may be a perfectionist.  Our society is obsessed with perfection.  We are very success and achievement oriented, especially here in the Bay Area where young, Ivy League educated entrepreneurs are billionaires.  Our society is obsessed with looking perfect (if you disagree, all you need to do is turn on the TV or browse the magazines in your supermarket’s check out line).  But most of all, I believe our society is obsessed with control.  We like things that are black or white, and things that can be fixed.  We are uncomfortable with the gray area, with things that can’t be helped with just a quick fix.  Our society also seems obsessed with emotional control—if someone expresses anything beyond contentment and equanimity in the public eye, then the person is deemed to be falling apart (rather than the possibility that they may just be a human being who is having a bad day).  I find that perfectionists are uncomfortable with emotions for this very reason—feelings are not black or white.  There is no way to have a perfect feeling, or to achieve through feeling.  And yet all human beings are hard wired to experience the messy, confusing, colorful, scary and rich inner realm of feelings.

The problem with this, of course, is that human beings are not perfect.  We are not wired to be perfect—all of us are inherently flawed in different ways.  Our flaws are who we are. So perfection is an impossible standard, and yet many of us still put ourselves through enormous pain and suffering to achieve that which is impossible.  We may spend enormous amounts of time at the office to get that next promotion, that next thing that we believe can validate us and make us “OK” with who we are.  Yet this is at the expense of our work/life balance, our families, our bodies, our sleep, our well being—the list goes on and on.  And once a perfectionist obtains that promotion, then what?  The satisfaction is temporary, but then quickly fades in lieu of the next great accomplishment.  It’s an insatiable appetite.

David Burns, one of the great fathers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, proposes an interesting alternative to perfectionism, and this is one idea I incorporate when working with people suffering from the burden of perfectionism.  To steer away from the “all or nothing” of “perfect or failure,” Dr. Burns discusses the idea of “a healthy pursuit of excellence.”  How is this different from perfectionism?  With a healthy pursuit of excellence, the person is:

-Motivated by enthusiasm and the exhilaration of the creative process

-Can still get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, even when the result isn’t always “number one.”

-Have self-esteem that is unconditional: the person does not feel that they need to be successful or impressive to be loved.

-Are not afraid to fail because they realize that no one can be successful all the time, and failure may ultimately lead to more creative solutions.

-Are not afraid of being vulnerable

-Can tolerate the “gray areas”

-Can give themselves credit where credit is due


The creative process of therapy, plus learning various coping skills, can help address and alleviate the burden of perfectionism.


You can find more information on this topic in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by David Burns.