How to Overcome Perfectionism to Improve Well-Being

Person aligning up pencils on a table

Do you ever feel like you have to be perfect at everything? Gain practical tips from Vermont-based speaker Porter Knight on setting realistic goals, embracing mistakes, and more.

Perfectionism has been on the rise during the last several decades, as younger people are increasingly exhibiting perfectionist traits to cope with many demands. Those pressures include competition for college admissions and jobs, expectations on social media, and pleasing controlling parents. To succeed and be accepted, many younger people feel they need to set extremely high standards for themselves. 

Perfectionists of all ages may set unrealistic standards for themselves in several areas, such as:

  • Athletic or artistic performance
  • Academic achievement
  • Career or financial success
  • Physical appearance

As perfectionism has increased, so have the mental health issues that come along with trying to achieve unrealistic expectations — anxiety and stress, depression, eating disorders, and even suicidal thoughts. 

Definition of Perfectionism

What is perfectionism? The American Psychological Association defines it as “the tendency to demand of others or of oneself an extremely high or even flawless level of performance, in excess of what is required by the situation.” In a recent Blue Cross Vermont BeWell@Work webinar, Porter Knight, a Vermont-based consultant and author, talked about perfectionism as a “mistaken belief that only achievement at the highest level will lead to safety and inclusion.” 

Trying to attain perfection is detrimental, Knight says, because aiming for an unattainable goal of perfection can lead to a chronic sense of failure and exclusion. This is even more damaging if an individual is equating their personal worth with performance. Instead, Knight encourages striving for excellence, valuing quality, and working to perform at our best.

People who cannot meet their impossible standards may struggle with self-doubt and beat themselves up about making mistakes, leading to a loss of confidence. Other ways perfectionism undermines productivity, Knight says, include:

  • Slow or reduced output
  • Overthinking
  • Burnout
  • Negative outlook
  • Focus on failure
  • Paralysis

Perfectionism can also result in poor sleep quality, waking up at night, and fatigue the next day. “When we have unrealistic expectations that we inherently cannot meet, it produces exhaustion,” Knight says.

What You Can Do

We can all be involved in helping people overcome their perfectionist tendencies. According to Knight, here are some things to do:

  • Don’t use the perfect label. Knight encourages people to be concise with language. “If you value excellence, say so. But don’t use the word “perfect.” 
  • Separate the person from the expected behavior. “Value quality, strive for excellence, but don’t tie it to inherent human dignity,” she says. “One’s worth as a person is not defined by performance. This is a “yes AND” situation: Yes, you are always valued as a human, AND if the performance wasn’t meeting the mark, we can discuss that and work toward improvement. The person and the performance are separate issues. Even as we value quality and seek an excellent outcome, we still and always value the person.”
  • Focus on goals and action. Look at the outcome you’re trying to achieve and what you can do right now to make progress. “Identifying action steps allows you to get moving and build momentum. Focusing on what you’re trying to achieve and how to get there,” Knight says.
  • Acknowledge mistakes. Mistakes are a form of learning, Knight says. A culture that sets a tone that only perfection is tolerated won’t be a mistake-free environment – it will be an environment where mistakes are hidden. Individuals will experience shame, take fewer risks, and innovate less. Allowing mistakes to be acknowledged lets us to learn, grown, and improve so that we can work together for quality outcomes. 
  • Celebrate progress and effort. Perfectionists tend to focus overly on the end result, but Knight says progress toward goals is important to recognize too. “We’re not saying that the outcome doesn’t matter, we’re saying that it’s not the only thing that matters,” says Knight. And people always matter regardless of the outcome,” she emphasizes.

Journeys to Well-Being

Our new Be Well Vermont wellness platform and mobile app, powered by Virgin Pulse, has a variety of resources to support your well-being. They include a journey called “Maximize Productivity and Balance,” which provides insights and tips to help you improve your time management skills. Please visit our Be Well Vermont page for more information, or email us at if you have any questions.

For more information about Porter Knight, visit her website