Perfectionism – Gift or Curse?


Does a desire to “be perfect” result in your delaying the start of a project or completing one?  Do you find yourself revising, editing, ruminating, or proclaiming – “It’s just not good enough!” – leading to frustration, tension, and stress? Do you ever say to yourself, “if I were only smarter, more creative, or more disciplined, my work would be perfect?”  Do you compare yourself to friends/colleagues who really are perfect and your efforts pale in comparison?

If you answered “yes” to one or more of these questions, you are not alone.  Striving to do our very best is a worthwhile trait and can lead to brilliant outcomes.  However, when physical signs of being stressed – e.g., headaches, nausea, sleeplessness, an over-reliance on “comfort” foods and/or neck/shoulder pain, or mental anguish, irritability, or emotional upheaval result — it’s time to ask ourselves if our perfectionistic tendencies are worth it.  When we can recognize these physical stress signals, congratulations are in order because awareness is the first step to address the perfectionism that can be detrimental not only to ourselves, but to our colleagues, family and friends who must endure our litany of self-deprecating comments.   

GLowing skull to illustrate stress caused by perfectionism.

Perfectionisn can personify itself physically with headaches or other stress-related symptoms.

Some of us may have an inner critic who constantly reminds us that no matter what we do it’s never good enough.  Writer Julia Cameron named her inner critic Nigel, a British interior designer, who reminds her that nothing she does is good enough!  Cameron went on to become a best-selling author, an accomplished speaker and teacher of creativity.  Again, with awareness, comes action and we can silence the incessant cacophony of our own inner critic by imagining our critic with a gag in his/her mouth or by giving him/her a swift boot out of our thoughts. 

What’s the worst that could happen?

Next, ask yourself – What’s the worst that can happen if the result of my efforts is not perfect?  Likely, no one will die so push on and ask yourself:

  • Whose opinion do I value that I can ask for constructive feedback?
  • Once I agree to solicit feedback, when will I ask and how will I explain my perfectionistic concern?
  • What is a reasonable deadline for me to submit my work and my colleague to review it?

Follow up with yourself

Once the project wraps up and you are considering how to measure the worth of your work, ask yourself:

  • How has my work affected my intended audience?
  • What am I most proud of? eg., completed the project on-time without physical, mental or emotional angst or stress, received useful feedback from my colleague etc.
  • What have I learned from the process I used?
  • What will I continue to do as I take on future projects?
  • How will I reward myself now that I stopped stressing?

Amy Steinbinder, PhD, RN, NE-BC, NBC-HWC, is co-founder of Thunderbird Leadership Consulting.  She is dedicated to helping leaders to find wellness and balance in their lives as well as honing their leadership skills.  As a board-certified nurse executive and health and wellness coach and certified executive coach she is available to assist you in living a well life.  You can reach her at or call her at (602) 538-2548.