The perfectible self - a pattern of thinking

As a performance coach, I come across perfectionism all the time. Working predominantly within the finance world - 95% (if not higher) of my clients are perfectionistic.

When I first bring this up with a client, it is often met with ‘no, I’m definitely not a perfectionist’ or ‘no, I don’t think that’s true’. Now, I don’t make this statement on a whim, I have been listening and have observed during our sessions comments such as; ‘I have no free time’ or ‘I don’t trust others to do as good a job as I do so I end up doing it all’ and ‘I don’t do things I know I’m not going to be good at’. 

When clients tell me they have achieved or had some success at something or that they have managed to get that deal that they have been putting so much time and effort into, it is often met with a feeling that it’s not enough. They also appear to not get any validation in the winning anymore, often thinking that they could have done better. After years of doing the job, even the reward or the recognition isn't even enough.

Some of the perfectionistic readers out there will be reading this and saying ‘no, that’s not me’. So let me take a deeper look into perfectionism to see if I can change your mind. 

Firstly, I want to make it clear that I believe that there is nothing wrong with being a perfectionist, in fact, I am a perfectionist myself in many ways (but it's under control - honest!).

You see in today’s world most of us are bombarded with demands to improve our performance.  We are constantly evaluated, corrected and often rated by different people in our lives. As children our parents correct us when we are first learning to talk, we are taught how to dress, eat and how to act and behave. This continues as we grow up and our behaviour continues to be corrected, evaluated, criticised and rewarded. This often leads to us learning to seek the approval of others that we must achieve specific standards. 

We learn that when we do make mistakes, there are often negative consequences. For example, when growing up our parents and teachers may criticise us if our grades fall short or they may remove privileges until our performance improves to what it is expected to be. 

As adults, we also have external and internal pressures to succeed and perform at a particular level. 

So how can we define perfectionism?

Firstly, it’s not necessarily about being ‘perfect’. I mean, is it even possible to be 100% perfect? So what exactly do we mean when we say that someone is a perfectionist? How is it different from a healthy desire to achieve high standards?

Ironically, researchers have not been able to come up with the 'perfect' definition, but most appear to share several features, some of which I have summarised below:

The relentless striving for extremely high standards that are very difficult or impossible to meet.Judging your self-worth based largely on your ability to strive for and achieve such unrelenting high standards.Whilst having high standards are helpful, these unrelenting standards actually interfere with performance.Experiencing negative consequences as a result of setting such demanding standards, yet continuing to strive for them, despite the cost to yourself.Perfectionism is often associated with anxiety and depression.

I think we would all agree that it is generally a good idea to have high standards, and of course, I am a great advocate for setting goals. However, when those standards are simply unobtainable or only achievable at a great cost, it makes it very difficult to feel good about yourself. It's is also hard to talk or tell someone about how you feel just in case people make judgements about our abilities or believe you have failed. This is when perfectionism becomes a problem. 

So where does it come from?

There has been very little research for me to give a definitive answer, however, there are a number of speculative causes. What we do know is that both psychological and biological factors contribute to our personalities and there have been various studies to support this theory around the role genetics and learning play in the development of personality traits. 


So, let’s look at some things that may influence the development and maintenance of perfectionism:

Genetics – there have been numerous studies that tell us that genetics play an important role in the development of personality traits. However, if perfectionism is partly inherited, you may assume that it cannot be changed but this is not the case. In fact, specific types of psychological therapy such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy can help you to overcome such problems and can assist people to change the way they think or behave.

Reward & reinforcement – having high standards is often rewarded in society. Working hard generally leads to higher grades, praise from parents and teachers, a new job, a promotion or a big bonus. Also, when we look and dress our best, society often rewards physical attractiveness. Others find us more attractive and it may lead and improve our chances of finding certain types of work or a romantic relationship. At work, people are often rewarded for their perfectionism behaviours, this often leads to the belief that if they are not perfect, their work will be compromised and results will be seen as inferior. and not good enough.

Punishment – as we grow up we are often punished for making mistakes. This is often to decrease the frequency of the punished behaviour. For example, we are often criticised for doing things as we are growing up for things we do wrong, this may lead to us believing that it is always important to do things correctly. Other forms of punishment may include receiving bad grades, not get the jobs we want, being laughed at by our peers, losing money or a relationship ending. Even more so, if we are punished excessively we are likely to develop very rigid beliefs that it's is very important to not make mistakes. 

Modelling – as we grow up we learn how to behave by observing others. We can develop fears by watching others who are fearful. For example, having an anxious mother or father may lead us to develop our own anxieties. Often people who develop perfectionistic behaviours state that they grew up around others who had the same standards. 

Information & instruction – we can learn certain behaviours from various sources of information including what we are exposed to in the media, or by talking to others. For example, we can develop a fear of flying when we read about various plane crashes in the news. Being told by parents, teachers or partners, or even by society in general that things need to be done in a certain way, or more importantly that it is essential mistakes are not made, can all contribute to perfectionism.

In this article, I have discussed some of the ideas around perfectionism and I have described how our negative experiences may contribute and play a role. 

Being a perfectionist doesn't necessarily mean that you have unrelenting standards in all aspects of your life, although this is the case for some. It is actually possible to be a perfectionist in only one area of your life (for example at work), but not in another area of your life (such as health/fitness).

What is important to remember that there is a big difference between the healthy striving and helpful pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy and unhelpful striving for perfection. 

If you feel after reading this article you would like some help to change your thinking and behaviour please contact me to discuss how I can potentially help you change your life, whilst making you even more successful both professional and personally. 

This article was written by Stacy Thomson, Founder of the Performance Club. She is a coach, speaker, and educator. 

The Performance Club is a mental wealth consultancy utilising psychological expertise to enhance organisation and individual mental health, performance, and wellbeing. For more information:

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