How to change perfectionist thinking

My last column examined the perils of perfectionism, which is characterised by three main features: 

  • having extremely demanding standards and being very self-critical if you don’t meet them;
  • striving to meet these standards even though it hurts your life to do so;
  • and basing your self-esteem on how well you think you achieve these high standards. 

Perfectionism can have seriously damaging emotional consequences and is linked with a whole host of mental health problems. How can you tackle perfectionism?


The obvious place to start is by becoming aware of and listing the downsides of your perfectionism, because you’re not going to change your ways if you think the benefits outweigh the cons. Ask yourself:

  • Does it hurt your relationships?
  • Do you find you have little time for your hobbies, interests and friends?
  • Do you procrastinate or avoid doing certain things because you are afraid it will not meet your standards?
  • Do you agonise over how to phrase an email or spend lots of time perfecting relatively unimportant tasks?
  • Do you find your ways to be exhausting, but you’re afraid to change them?
  • Do you constantly fear failure and ruminate for hours about relatively trivial mistakes?
  • Are you afraid of your own brutal, self-attacking voice?

Ask yourself these and other questions and make a list of the various downsides.


Talking of that self-attacking voice, aim to replace self-criticism with self-compassion. Remember, your work – whether that be college work, office work, housework, and so on – is not your worth. Your sense of self-worth should not be conditional or dependent on achievement.


Ask yourself, would you speak to a friend the way you speak to yourself? Indeed, would you even speak to an enemy the way you speak to yourself? If you would not berate others, do not berate yourself. Remind yourself that you are, as Self-Compassion author Dr Kristin puts it, an imperfect human being living an imperfect life – we all are.


Explore your thinking style and look out for certain thinking errors, or cognitive distortions. These include catastrophising (“What if I make a mistake in this report and my boss fires me?”, “Everyone will be judging me if I don’t look as good as I can”), black-and-white, absolutist thinking (“If I don’t excel, then I am a failure”), emotional reasoning (“I feel anxious, so I know I won’t perform”, “I feel like a fraud so I must be a fraud”), labelling (“Idiot!”, “Loser”, “I’m a failure”), and mind-reading (“She didn’t say anything to me, but I know she thinks I should have done better”), amongst others.


Look out too for all those “should” and “must” statements – “shoulding” and musturbation, as the late cognitive therapist Albert Ellis used to call them.



Man studying.
'It wasn’t that hard' – perfectionists often dismiss their achievements.

In particular, look out for a tendency to discount the positive. In her book Overcoming Perfectionism, CBT expert Prof. Roz Shafran refers to a client who was awarded the top mark in her exam, who then dismisses this achievement by saying her teachers had just felt sorry for her because they knew she had an eating disorder.


Another Shafran client won an ice-skating competition but her pleasure was over within minutes. Why? She had not actually skated well, she said, and could have performed a lot better.


“Anyone could have done it”, It wasn’t that hard” – if you discount the positives, you probably say things like this all the time. Worse, it causes you to reset and raise your standards. Often people say, “If I can achieve this, then it’s too easy; I must make it harder next time”. Re-setting standards is, as Prof Shafran puts it, a 'sure-fire way to feel miserable'.


This tendency maintains the vicious cycle underpinning perfectionism. When you meet your standards, you then revise them as insufficiently demanding; when you don’t meet them, you beat yourself up and resolve to do better. It’s a no-win situation.


Tackling perfectionism isn’t just about changing your thinking – you also have to change your behaviours. This can be very tricky for people, as easing your perfectionist standards can bring on acute discomfort and cause that inner critic to go wild.


Just remember, these standards ultimately keep you trapped, unhappy and exhausted. In my next column, I will offer some advice on how to free yourself from unhelpful perfectionist behaviours.


(First published in Southern Star on 19/08/2021).