Perfectionism: How does it work and how does it develop?

Perfectionism; how does it develop and how does it sustain itself?

Perfectionism often starts with low self-esteem. The paradox is that perfectionists are hardworking and do achieve a lot. But the starting point is that the person feels really low. Perfectionism is there to cover up the gaps. Very high standards are imposed on oneself like ‘You should always be friendly’.

When you have a task to complete three things can happen:

  1. You achieve the goal → perfectionism answers: Everybody can do that, it’s not good/fast enough.
  2. You don’t achieve the goal → perfectionism answers: See, you aren’t good enough.
  3. You avoid the goal → perfectionism answers:  You are a total loser, you didn’t even try!


The end result is always the same: we feel bad about ourselves because what we’ve done is not good enough. Our self-esteem is attacked by rigid standards on one hand and by self-criticism on the other.



How does perfectionism develop_


Perfectionism has this ground rule: ‘The harder you work, the worse you feel about yourself’. The mood we feel, the thoughts we think and the things that happened are not positive. And then it is very easy to become depressed.

Imagine you want to be ‘the perfect mom’ and you say to yourself: ‘I want/need/must be the perfect mom’. You bring your toddler to the supermarket. The toddler is just a toddler. And what do toddlers do? They yell or they run around. They take all things of the shelves that they ‘want’ in that moment. And when they don’t get it, they make a scene. (sometimes but imagine) The perfect mom is now exposed and isn’t perfect anymore. She can comfort the child but immediately she thinks: ‘I’m a shitty mom because I’m giving in’ Or she can not comfort the child and feels shitty about herself because ‘What mother can’t comfort their child?’ ‘A bad one!’ Or she thinks: ‘We won’t go to the supermarket anymore! And we will eat baked beans for a week.



What small things can we change to make the self-criticism become softer and our mood more protected?


  1. Let’s have a look at the rules that undermine our achievements: Rigid standards and expectations.

We need goals in our life but sometimes goals are competing. ‘I want to work hard but I also want to be with my family’. We got pulled into many directions. Sometimes we want to be better at something but we can’t control everything. We can try and put our best foot forward. We need to belief that we don’t need to be thé best or unique in our achievements. With choices come losses and life has ups and downs.


When our goals are rigid we’re unhappy.


‘I always want to be good’ means we are in trouble. We will not be good /friendly /helpful or witty all the time. ‘I should never … be angry, be crossed, stay in bed, …. means that we’re in trouble too. With rigid rules we’re setting ourselves up for failure. We are human beings and things do happen.


What about beliefs?

What about the belief that ‘you can’t fail’. Is failing part of life or do you beat yourself up that you haven’t done enough or even more to achieve it?

‘I can get whatever I put my mind too’. Yes you can, but at what cost?

I need to be perfect to be loved.’ Then we are in real trouble. Because we can be human, we can be good and we can be good enough but we can’t be perfect.

The flexible goal would be to be ‘sort of good, some of the time’. It’s ok to own that good part. ‘I’m pleased with it, thank you’. You don’t need to run down everything you do and you don’t have to be unique in what you do.


  1. Avoidance

In perfectionists the fear of failing can be so present that they avoid doing it at all. If I can’t be perfect at it, I won’t do it. They need to have it all, or they do nothing. Perfectionism freezes you but half of an achievement can be good enough also.

Anxiety associated with failure stops us and this reinforces low mood and low-esteem. ‘Three months have gone by and I haven’t done it still’ or we do something else instead ‘The office is so dirty that I should clean it first’ or ‘I can’t do it, because I’m too overwhelmed’. When we take a new step or learn something new, we will feel anxious. First days of everything are frightening. We should take the first step. How do you eat an elephant? Piece by piece! (Please don’t eat elephants, it is just so to speak)


  1. Self-criticism

People are very aggressive in their heads. They say things to themselves that they never would say to a friend or a neighbor. They do that because they have the belief that perfectionism is a good thing, it is used as a driving force. ‘Come on stupid, do what you ought to do.’ This kind of self-talk chips away from your happy mood. Your confidence goes down with your ability to tackle things.


Speaking about confidence; we can distinguish two sorts of confidence.


Swing confidence : when things are going good, we feel on top of the world. When things are not good, we’re not feeling good, we fall apart. This kind of confidence is easy to learn and to maintain. A bit more difficult but more sustainable is core confidence when you know that you’re good anyway, even on a bad day. Don’t criticize yourself on bad days. ‘I’m doing my best despite this being a bad day’. That kind of self-talk is really important.

Self-criticism is easy to develop and comes from things we’ve heard in our lives. In kindergarten we get smiley faces for achievements, not for effort. In life we need effort to achieve something. Achievements alone will not make you happy. We need to be ok with how we are; we can teach this to our children but also ourselves.


The tips that were discussed in this post to diminish perfectionism and to build a ‘happy’ shield.


  1. When you have a bad day,  try to be ok with how you are.
  2. Set goals but make them adjustable. Sometimes life or the world will prevent your goals, you need your goals to be flexible.
  3. When you meet your goal, you need to praise yourself. This is so very important and it’s not ‘spoiling’ yourself!
  4. Don’t avoid but work in small steps.
  5. Own the positive events and step back from the other ones. ‘Owning the things we do well and not take to heart the things we didn’t do well’.
  6. If we can work like this,  we can build a robust self-esteem, protect our mood from becoming low and overcome the obstacles that life throws. We can be happy with the things we achieve.



Look at that, meaningless arrows, not being perfect at all!




Resources and further reading.


More in-depth talk about perfectionism by Dr Keith Gaynor.

My other posts Why perfectionists become depressed and Too good to be good.


Picture 2 credits click here.

29 thoughts on “Perfectionism: How does it work and how does it develop?

    1. Hahaha, I don’t remember but I guess three? I don’t like editing. I type everything out in Word and copy-paste. But I kept track of time for creating this post and this one took me over 3 hours to make. 3 hours of ‘work’ for 3 reading minutes!


  1. Love this 🙂 Perfectionism makes a negative comment about everything………What a jerk!
    Funny side note: when my kids were toddlers and we would go to the store, I always carried a mini spray bottle of vinegar in my purse. When they would start screaming I’d spray vinegar in their mouths to shut them up……how perfect is that? Thankfully the kids laugh about it now


    1. I know right? When you have some understanding of how some things might work, I find it easier to work on them.
      Thank you for the nice comment 🙂


    1. Self-compassion is in training with me 🙂 When you’re aware of things like perfectionism and you can see both the beneficial side but also the side that is hurting you, you’ve made a good step. And definitely with counselling. It’s nothing that can’t be adjusted to become more helpful instead of harmful.
      Very good for your sons to accept the help when it’s needed.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I definitely think that the support we receive, possibly paying for it too, is a great investment. I always say to anyone who’s hurting, procrastinating or lacking self-compassion, and considering counseling that it’s the best investment you’ll ever make. xx

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m trying to work on being more flexible with goals. It was harder when I was in college and had real-world, non-self-imposed rigid expectations I had to meet. There are still some rigid deadlines I have to meet, but I’m trying to avoid creating extra for myself. That’s one reason that instead of making it a rule I post on specific days, I go with a general aim of 1-3 posts a month. If I happen to be having a bad or just hectic day when I was hoping to post, I can move my target day rather than giving my perfectionism an excuse to berate me. Maybe once I build up more confidence in my blogging abilities, I can make and stick to a pre-defined schedule, but for now I’m leaving it relatively open.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That sounds very good and a wise implemented goal. I don’t have fixed days anymore and I used to post more frequently. I try to post every week now, once or twice.
      With your comment I see that making my blogging schedule more flexible doesn’t mean that I’m failing. Perfectionism is just everywhere! 😆
      When I studied I found it easier to work with real-world deadlines because when I met the target, it was finished. I really had good grades 🤨
      But when life became more flexible (‘just’ working with no ‘real’ targets) I made those crazy goals for myself. I guess that’s the point where it went out of control. I needed to know for myself what is ‘good enough’ and I couldn’t answer that question without being fearful of failing.
      Thank you for your thoughtful comment, I’m going to move targets too. I’m going to experiment with that. ‘Moving targets but not avoiding’. It’s seems a better option than fighting the perfectionism.
      I find your post also very well researched, so I guess you spend a lot of time making them. Your pace is the only right one. (imo)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you so much for your encouraging words! 😊 I was really uncertain about taking a more flexible approach in the beginning. That perfectionism voice still frets that I’m not being consistent enough, but it seems to be working out so far. 😅


  3. Very, very true! ❤

    My case of "perfectionism" started in my childhood, growing up with rigid rules and regulations, and being constantly criticized and "disciplined". It's some kind of an OS planted in your head, that you've got to do things right, or you'll suffer… It stuck with me in adulthood, and ruled over other aspects of my life. I didn't realize that my suffering in life, suffering being the thing I've been avoiding so I struggle to make things "perfect," is also caused by my being a "perfectionist."

    I think being a "perfectionist" is useful to a certain degree (esp. when time is involved), but one has to learn to control the habit of overdoing things to make sure "everything's perfect." This handicapped me when I worked as a proofreader. It slowed down my work because I always had this unconscious thought that the manuscripts ought to be perfectly free from any error–as perfect as the dictionary, despite having a very demanding deadline. 🙂

    I learned to "destabilize" this kind of thinking when I became fond of studying and learning on my own. I learned to see my mistakes as something natural and part of the learning process, so this encouraged me to get better without forcing myself to really "perfect" whatever I'm doing.

    I recovered from burnout (triggered by my "perfectionism" at work and my old childhood trauma) when I realized how I should first be appreciative that I am alive and able to do something, little things in my daily life, like being able to wash dishes or do the laundry. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wonderful that you’ve managed to overcome the habit of overdoing things. I can imagine this being especially tricky when ‘mistakes’ are black on white, in your face. But taking deadlines into account and the fact that you are human, leaves already a smaller place for perfectionism.
      I recognize some things in your comment from my own life, like being or doing perfect to avoid suffering. ‘If only we could…’ And this being ingrained in your brain.
      Mistakes are part of the human nature, lovely that you could incorporate that into your life. I’m still trying to flip the switch in my head on that one (that is also why I write these posts, to give myself some sort of ‘permission’).
      As for the burnout my story is like yours. Childhood trauma + demanding work + perfectionism = burnout + depression. And when you can do laundry, dishes or cook after being so tired and exhausted from burnout, you are grateful for that. I couldn’t read a book for quite a while and now I can, I really really happy about that. Your answer makes in general makes me think that there must me a lot of people going through the same kind of events.
      Thank you for visiting and for your nice comment!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. “I’m still trying to flip the switch in my head on that one (that is also why I write these posts, to give myself some sort of ‘permission’).” –> Me too! ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I seldom go online and update my blog, but I always try to visit yours when not in a hurry as I enjoy reading your posts—I could relate. 🙂 Your work is a blessing to many, esp. that you can cite studies and expert opinion about these things. I only have my own personal experiences and my way of observing and reflecting on things within and without myself.

        Stay safe, and please don’t forget to rest, esp. when you’re so busy. ❤

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Your personal experience is as valuable as everything else. I also use a lot of mine when writing. I just find it easier to be guided by research, to back up my findings or to gain a little more insight.
        In that way we all can learn from each other!
        Thank you for your lovely comment and for the encouragement.
        Take good care ❤

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Me too! It isn’t an easy companion to have with you, perfectionism. But I do believe it is possible to soften it step by step. I’ll give it a go at least. I’m also planning to write more about perfectionism but I’m still waiting for my book to be delivered to do further research.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, working step by step will definitely help. It’s lovely that you’ll write more about perfectionism. So what all topics have you covered in your book?

        Liked by 1 person

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