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Never Good Enough

How to use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting it Ruin Your Life



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About The Book

* Do you feel that no matter how hard you try it is never good enough?
* Do you spend too much time trying to get things exactly right in order to avoid criticism?
* Does it seem that at any minute people will find out that you are not really what you seem to be?
If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may be struggling with perfectionistic tendencies. They can serve a positive purpose in your life. But having extremely high standards for yourself and others can leave you feeling let down -- over and over again -- when these expectations aren't met. As psychologist and researcher Monica Ramirez Basco explains, uncontrolled perfectionism can lead to depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, fear of failure, and broken marriages and friendships.
In Never Good Enough Dr. Basco helps you understand why you feel driven to get things "just right" and shows you how to make the best of your perfectionism. Filled with practical advice, encouragement, and strategies for self-discovery, this invaluable guide includes Dr. Basco's own thirty-question self-test that will help you recognize and manage the negative side of your perfectionism. You will learn how to stop the struggle with yourself and others, how to evaluate your worth and performance in life, and how to replace the pursuit of perfection with peace of mind.



Susan had been working frantically for the last month trying to get her end-of-the-year books in order, keep the business running, and plan a New Year's Eve party for her friends and her clients. A few of her friends who have been supportive of Susan's interior design business were going to bring along some potential clients. Susan's home is a reflection of her talent as a designer, so she wanted to make some changes to the formal dining room before the party that she thought would be particularly impressive. It all came together in time for the party and the evening seemed to be going well, until her assistant, Charles, asked her if Mrs. Beale and Mr. Sandoval, two important clients, had arrived. Mrs. Beale had a small antique shop in town and had referred Susan a lot of business over the past two years. Mr. Sandoval was a member of the local Chamber of Commerce and had shown interest in Susan's business.

Susan felt like her head was about to explode when she realized that she had forgotten to invite them to the party.

"Oh no, I completely forgot. How could I be so stupid? What am I going to do? They'll no doubt hear about it from someone and will assume I omitted them on purpose. I am such an idiot. I may as well kiss the business good-bye. When the word gets out, no one will want to refer to me again."

"Susan, don't you think you may be overreacting a little." Charles tried to be supportive, but deep down inside he was glad he hadn't been the one to make such an awful mistake.

For the rest of the night she held her breath waiting for her other clients to ask about Mrs. Beale and Mr. Sandoval. What would she say? That she was a thoughtless numbskull who neglected to invite a former client who referred a substantial amount of business to her each year? Even worse, what will she say when Mrs. Beale and Mr. Sandoval confront her with her rudeness. Ten different excuses ran through her mind, but she ultimately chose to avoid them and their wrath.

Susan is an inwardly focused perfectionist. Although it can help her in her work, it also hurts her when she is hard on herself and finds error completely unacceptable. Like many people, she worries about what others will think of her and her business. However, in Susan's case her errors lead to humiliation, distress, sleepless nights, and withdrawal from others. She has trouble letting go and forgiving herself because, in her mind, it is OK for others to make mistakes, but it is not OK for her to make mistakes. This book was written to help people like Susan stop beating themselves up and, instead, make the most of their skills as a perfectionist.

Tom is an outwardly focused perfectionist. He feels OK about himself, but he is often disappointed in and frustrated with others who seem to always let him down. Quality control is his line of work, but he cannot always turn it off when he leaves the office. Tom drove into his garage to find that there was still a mess on the workbench and floor that his son, Tommy, had left two days ago.

He walked through the door and said to his wife in an annoyed tone of voice, "I told Tommy to clean up his mess in the garage before I got home."

"He just got home himself a few minutes ago," his wife defended.

"Where is he now? He better not be on the phone." Tom went to his son's room only to find Tommy on the phone with his girlfriend. Tom could feel himself tensing up. "Get off the phone and go clean up that mess in the garage like I told you."

"Yes, sir." Tommy got off the phone, knowing that a lecture was coming.

Tom cannot understand why his son cannot follow simple instructions. It seems like every day there is something new. He doesn't listen, his wife doesn't take care of things on time, and the burden usually falls on him. There is always an excuse. Even when they do their parts it usually isn't good enough and they don't seem to care. It is so frustrating for Tom sometimes that he does the job himself rather than ask for help, just so he doesn't have to deal with their procrastination and excuses.

Tom's type of perfectionism causes him problems in his relationships with others because he is frequently frustrated by their failure to meet his expectations. When he tries to point this out in a gentle way, it still seems to lead to tension, and sometimes to conflict. He has tried to train himself to expect nothing from others, but that strategy doesn't seem to work either. He needs some new ideas for coping with his frustration and for how to deal with the people in his life who seem to continually let him down.

This book will help you to identify, evaluate, and change the underlying beliefs that affect your management of stressful events and your interactions with others, particularly those who leave you thinking that either you or they are not good enough. The first goal will be to gain a better understanding of how thinking that things or that you are not good enough are related to difficulties you may have at home, on the job, or in relationships. By following along in this first chapter and completing the self-assessment at the end you will determine the degree to which you are a perfectionist and in what ways it is most likely to affect your life. You will find out if you are a more inwardly focused perfectionist like Susan or a more outwardly focused perfectionist like Tom. Because perfectionism can be a very positive trait, you will need to identify the situations or circumstances in which it serves you well in addition to those situations in which it seems to hurt you. Accomplishing this second goal will help focus your attention on learning new ways to cope with times when perfectionism seems to be getting in the way or causing you distress.

The third goal of this book is to teach you to identify times when your perfectionistic beliefs about yourself or others may be inaccurate or distorted in some way and how to straighten out the distortions. If you have a more accurate view of yourself and your world you will be less prone to the emotional upset caused by those distortions. One such belief is the notion that you have to be perfect or that others have to be perfect.

One of the common problems faced by both kinds of perfectionists is having expectations that are too high or that are difficult to achieve without considerable wear and tear on you and on others. The fourth goal of this book is to help you to determine if your expectations are too high, how close you are to achieving your goals, and what you will need to do to reach a more satisfying level.

Much of the stress that leaves you thinking that you or others are not good enough results from your interactions with other people. It is often difficult to pinpoint the cause of these tensions and to determine what to do about them. Therefore, the fifth and final goal of this book is to help you deal more effectively with other people. Some guidelines are provided on how to manage situations with others that are often difficult, discouraging, or conflictual. Some helpful hints have also been included for the people in your life who want to learn how to interact with you in a way that does not leave you with the sense that you are not good enough.

These methods are based on cognitive-behavior therapy (CBT), a scientifically proven effective treatment for many of the psychological difficulties associated with perfectionism. Starting first with education about perfectionism, then working through the cognitive-behavioral methods for controlling the distress associated with perfection, you will gain a more accurate view of yourself and of others. You will learn what it means to be good enough, see how close you really are to achieving your goals, and reduce the emotional pain associated with seeing yourself and others as not good enough.


The reach for perfection can be painful because it is often driven by both a desire to do well and a fear of the consequences of not doing well. This is the double-edged sword of perfectionism. On the one hand, it is a good thing to give the best effort, to go the extra mile, and to take pride in one's performance, whether it is keeping a home looking nice, writing a report, repairing a car, or doing brain surgery. It is commendable to attend to details, care about what others will think about your work, and constantly strive to do your best. On the other hand, when despite great efforts you feel as though you keep falling short, never seem to get things just right, never have enough time to do your best, are self-conscious, feel criticized by others, or cannot get others to cooperate in doing the job right the first time, you end up feeling bad.

The difficulty can begin with setting extremely high and sometimes unreasonable goals for yourself or for others. You may not always be aware that you are setting a high goal, you may just have a "gut-level feeling" about how a project or task ought to be done. Unfortunately, in the course of life, perfectionists find that much of the time these standards cannot be met without a great deal of effort and energy, including emotional, psychological, and physical energy. What's wrong with setting high standards and working hard? The problem is not in having high standards or in working hard. Perfectionism becomes a problem when it causes emotional wear and tear or when it keeps you from succeeding or from being happy. Dr. Sidney J. Blatt of Yale University, an expert in this area, has described the destructiveness of perfectionism as an endless striving in which each task is seen as a challenge and no effort is ever good enough, yet the person continues in desperation to avoid mistakes, achieve perfection, and gain approval. The emotional consequences of perfectionism include fear of making mistakes, stress from the pressure to perform, and self-consciousness from feeling both self-confidence and self-doubt. It can also include tension, frustration, disappointment, sadness, anger, or fear of humiliation. These are common experiences for inwardly focused perfectionists. Do any of these sound familiar?

Perfectionism seems to be a psychological vulnerability that stays in the background as you conduct your life. The emotional stress caused by the pursuit of perfection and the failure to achieve this goal can evolve into more severe psychological difficulties. For example, researchers who study perfectionism, including Dr. Paul Hewitt of the University of British Columbia and Dr. Gordon Flett of York University, have found that perfectionists are more vulnerable to depression when stressful events occur, particularly those that leave them feeling as though they are not good enough. In many ways, perfectionistic beliefs set a person up to be disappointed, given that achieving perfection consistently is impossible, or at least hard to come by. Perfectionists who have a family history of depression and may therefore be more biologically vulnerable to developing the psychological and physical symptoms of major depression may be particularly sensitive to events that stimulate their self-doubt and their fear of rejection or humiliation.

The same seems to be true for eating disorders, such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia. Several recent studies have found that even after treatment, where weight was restored in malnourished and underweight women with anorexia, their perfectionistic beliefs persisted and likely contributed to relapse. Their beliefs that they were not good enough were so strong that despite physical evidence that they were too thin or unhealthy, they persisted in pushing themselves to achieve the perfect shape. They say to themselves, "If only I were thin enough I would be OK." Thomas E. Joiner, Jr., and his colleagues at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston found, in their study of nearly a thousand women, that, for women who viewed themselves as overweight, perfectionism was one of the strongest risk factors for developing an eating disorder.

Sometimes the pain of perfectionism is felt in relationships with others. Perfectionists can sometimes put distance between themselves and others unintentionally by demanding perfection, being intolerant of others' mistakes, or by flaunting perfect behavior or accomplishments in front of those who are aware of being merely average. Although they feel justified in their beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, they still suffer the pain of loneliness. Research suggests that people who have more outwardly focused perfectionism are less likely than inwardly focused perfectionists to suffer from depression or anxiety when they are stressed. However, interpersonal difficulties at home or on the job may be more common.

The good news is that CBT has been proven to be effective for the treatment of depression, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and relationship difficulties, in many cases even more effective than treatment with medication. Unfortunately, despite CBT's ability to control the symptoms of these disorders, perfectionism seems to be one factor that keeps people from fully recovering or from staying well. The interventions described in this book pick up where standard treatments with CBT leave off, by specifically targeting the underlying beliefs that fuel perfectionism.

Perfectionism is a problem when:

  • it keeps you from succeeding or from being happy;
  • no effort is ever good enough;
  • you never seem to have enough time to do your best;
  • you are self-conscious or feel criticized by others;
  • you cannot get others to cooperate in doing the job right the first time;
  • your standards cannot be met without a great deal of effort and emotional, psychological, and physical energy;
  • it causes emotional wear and tear;
  • you become fearful of making mistakes or of being humiliated;
  • it leaves you feeling tense, frustrated, disappointed, sad, or angry;
  • it distorts your perception of yourself;
  • it creates tension in your personal relationships.


Was I Born this Way?

There has been some controversy over the years about the nature of personality or temperament. Is it something you are born with or is your personality shaped by the experiences of your life? There is considerable scientific evidence that many personality traits are, in fact, inherited genetically. For example, researchers have found that some characteristics, such as sociability, are more similar in identical twins, those that share the same genes, than in fraternal twins who only share half of their genes. Those personality characteristics that you are born with are often referred to as temperament. Psychoanalytic theories of child development, as well as learning or behavioral theories, suggest that children's personalities are slowly shaped through their interactions with their parents and other significant people in their lives. A more integrated view would suggest that both genetics and experience play a role in personality development. Children may be born with certain personality traits, but there is both clinical and scientific evidence that the behavioral responses and their emotional reactions or vulnerabilities can be altered by their experiences with people and with their world, thus shaping their temperament or personality to some extent.

As a student of more behaviorally oriented psychologists, I was uncertain how this all actually worked until I had my first child. He seemed to have a personality right from the start. Clearly we shaped his behaviors by paying more attention or otherwise positively reinforcing the things we thought were cute or smart. And also, we shaped his behavior through correction, by ignoring things we did not want him to repeat, and sometimes by punishing "bad" behavior. Sure enough, it worked, just as my professors had said it would. Many of his actions and his attitudes are like my own and my husband's. I even hear myself in his sense of humor. I know that we have shaped his views of the world by showing him our view of the world. We have also shaped his view of himself by telling him that he is terrific since he was a newborn. As a teenager he has a positive self-image. Surely he was not a completely blank slate at birth for us to write out his life script or his personality. Yet I see myself in him every day. This boy is not a perfectionist. One look at his bedroom and you would instantly know what I mean.

The most fascinating thing happened when my second son was born. He looked like his brother, but he did not act like his brother. For the most part, we treated him the same way that we treated his older brother, used the same methods to shape his behavior. But this boy was different. My oldest son could sit in his high chair, happily playing with a mound of spaghetti, his face covered with sauce. My second son did not like being covered in goo. Instead, he would wipe his face and hands with a napkin as soon as he was old enough to figure out how to do it. The first time I saw this I was amazed that this kid of mine actually cared about neatness. As he got a little older he kept his room cleaner than his brother. When he learned to write he would erase and rewrite his homework until it was "perfect." This looked a lot like perfectionism to me. Was he born that way? It certainly seemed that he was different from the beginning.

Since I had treated many perfectionists by the time my second child started showing the characteristics of perfectionism, I knew the pros and cons of demanding perfection from yourself. I went out of my way to convince my son that he was "good enough," that his work was "good enough," that he was a terrific person regardless of his performance in school or on the soccer field or in the school band. I think he got the message that he is "good enough" and seems to have very good self-esteem (maybe a little too good at times). At the wise age of twelve he can tell me what projects need a great deal of attention and energy and which do not. I was helping him with his algebra homework a few nights ago. I asked him to rewrite the answer to the problem because I could not read it. I assumed that the teacher would not be able to read it either. The next day my son came home from school and told me that he had talked with his algebra teacher about his homework. He said to me, "Mom, Mrs. Foster said that neatness does not count in her class, so don't worry about it." I guess I had taught my son well. He is no longer overly concerned about neatness in his work. He puts more energy into getting the correct answer than in impressing his teacher with his neatness. So, am I saying that you are born a perfectionist? I think that some people are probably born more perfectionistic than others. However, their environments can influence the direction or shape that their perfectionism takes.

Environmental Influences

It often feels to many of us that we live in a society that demands perfection. Look at the pressure on Olympic athletes to score a perfect 10, for golfers to make the perfect shot, for obstetricians to deliver perfect babies or be sued (my husband's complaint). In raising my three boys I have seen many times where social pressures to be perfect were present. My fourth grader strives to get a perfect score not only on his spelling test, but also on the midweek pretest. That can get him out of taking the final test on Friday and assures that his name will appear on the weekly fourth-grade newsletter announcing him as a "Star Speller." My eleventh grader competes with his peers in band, where the difference between first chair and second or third chairs is a score of 98.5 versus 99 or 100 on a skill test. ("How did you do son?" "I totally messed up. I made one stupid mistake and the other guy did it perfectly. I hate him.") My eighth grader, the most naturally perfectionistic of the three, gets angry when his soccer teammates do not put out the effort to win that he consistently delivers. Coaches want to win. The kids want to win. It is a competitive world out there and my boys are right in the middle of it.

There are other types of societal pressures to be perfect. We hear in the various media that we should have a perfect body, perfect teeth, and perfect breath. There are many cosmetic companies, health programs, and plastic surgeons waiting to make us perfect. The images that we have begun to cherish are the lean, fit, tanned, muscular, shiny-haired beauties. The message we hear is that average is not OK. (I wish we could return to an era when wide hips and rounded tummies were admired. It used to be much easier to be perfect.)

Parental Influences

The evil of conditional praise. Many perfectionists, especially inwardly focused perfectionists, grew up with parents who either directly or indirectly communicated that they were not good enough. These were often confusing messages, where praise and criticism were given simultaneously. For example, "That was nice (praise), but I bet you could do better (you are not good enough now)." "Wow! (praise), six As and one B on your report card! You need to bring that B up to an A next time (near perfect was not enough)." "Your choir performance was lovely (praise), but that sound system is really poor. We could hardly hear you (it was not good enough)." Many prominent psychologists, such as David Burns, Ph.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, have found that the parents of perfectionists have difficulty rewarding their children's behaviors unconditionally and instead urge them to continue to try to do better. When their children make mistakes or perform below their standards, these parents feel bad and respond by showing disapproval and withdrawing their affection. Many of these children grew up still waiting for the day when they would receive unconditional praise from their parents, such as "nice job!" "the house looks great!" "that was a sensational meal!" or "you look so handsome!" Unconditional praise sends the message that "I approve of you or of what you have done without qualification." If only Mom and Dad thought so, maybe the pressure to be perfect would be off. Unfortunately, with the intention of continuing to motivate their children, these parents kept holding out the emotional carrot: "Just get it right this time and I will approve of you." Some psychological theories suggest that over time the child's need to please her parents becomes internalized, so that she no longer needs to please her parents; she now demands perfection from herself.

When June was a little girl, one of her chores was to sweep the front porch. Tidiness inside the house as well as outside was important to June's mother. June was little and maneuvering that big broom was not easy. Her mother would watch her from the living room window and smile with delight. ("She is so precious. Look at her push that big broom. She is trying so hard.") June's mom thought that it was important for June to help out around the house just like her big sisters. When June finished her chore, her mother would pat her on the head, thank her for doing such a good job, and send her off to play. What she did not know was that as June ran off into the yard she would always look back and see her mother sweeping the porch again, just as June had done. At first, June thought it was peculiar, but later came to realize that her mother was redoing her chore because June had not done a good enough job. The unspoken message was "that was good June, but not good enough for me." June tried harder each time not to miss any of the dirt on the front porch, but no matter how great her effort, Mom would always have to redo her work. June's mother was a perfectionist. For her there was a right way to do a job. She knew that June was doing her best, so she did not openly criticize her for missing spots on the porch. She simply fixed it herself, no harm, no foul.

This might seem like a relatively minor event, but for many people it represents a pattern of interaction between themselves and their parents that sends a mixed message that they were good, but not good enough. Enough direct or subtle messages like this over the years and you will come to believe it.

A tough act to follow. Having a parent who is a superstar in some way also leads children to feel that they will never be good enough. I am not just talking about celebrities who have made it big. I am talking about parents who are either outstanding people or who have done outstanding things in their life. A child who watches her parent excel might try to imagine achieving similar things. From a kid's perspective this looks too hard: "There is no way I could ever be like him." This can also occur when the superstar is an older brother or sister.

Some children of superstar parents grow up thinking that their parents are perfect, which is, of course, a very unrealistic view of adults. They do not see their parents exhausted, fall apart, lose their temper, act like jerks, misbehave, or forget things. Many parents hide their mistakes from their children, so that all they see is the final product. This is especially true of perfectionist parents, who believe that their imperfections or mistakes are unacceptable. The result is that on the surface these parents seem to never make a mistake. They always have the answers, do well, make good choices, take good care of themselves, and so on. The child, on the other hand, sees him- or herself make mistakes all the time. Therefore, the child concludes that she could never be as good as Mom or Dad. So why try?

By watching their perfectionist parents some kids learn to behave in ways that could be considered perfectionistic, which psychologists call learning through modeling. As children they learn to attend to details, keep their environments neat, be well groomed, and follow the rules. They learn that there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and they learn that persistence is valued. Even though they think they will never be good enough, they have to keep trying. It would not be right to give up. Mom and Dad never gave up.

"I'm just trying to protect you." Terry's mom, Aurora, was an attractive woman. She had a lovely figure, though she had to work very hard to keep it. She had long brown hair that eventually turned to a silvery gray. When she was a young girl she had been criticized for her skinny legs, her pale skin, her straight hair, and her small eyes. This hurt Aurora's feelings a great deal. Assuring her that she was as beautiful as the other girls, Aurora's mother urged her to ignore the pettiness of her peers. However, Aurora thought that her mother did not really take her concerns seriously. "She just says that because she loves me." So Aurora vowed to pay closer attention to her own daughter's appearance so that people would not criticize her. When Terry was born, Aurora was concerned that Terry was too skinny and had little eyes like her own. She was otherwise a wonderful baby and Aurora loved her very much. When Terry entered elementary school, Aurora helped her choose clothing that complimented her figure and coloring. She chose a hairstyle that made Terry's straight hair look stylish. When Terry was a teenager her mother helped her to apply eye makeup in a way that enlarged her eyes. When Terry would come down for breakfast before school her mother would look her over and suggest alternative clothes that would better compliment her figure. Terry had not yet developed womanly curves as had her girlfriends, and Aurora did not want Terry to wear clothes that drew attention to her "underdevelopment." Aurora would tell Terry in her own way that it was OK to not have a perfect body or face as long as you learned ways to compensate for those weaknesses. Terry appreciated her mother's attention to her appearance on the one hand and resented her on the other. If Terry complained, "I look fine mom," her mother would say, "I'm just trying to protect you." However, the message that consistently came through was "Not only do other people think you are not good enough as you are, I do not think you are good enough either. You are full of imperfections and it is important to hide them from those who would hurt you because of them." Aurora never really explained to Terry why it was important to be accepted by others and why criticism had to be avoided. Over time Terry merged her mother's values and her own doubts about her beauty in adulthood to hide her weaknesses. Although Terry could never meet her mother's expectations of womanly beauty, she had a cute figure and was very pretty. Despite this, Terry continued to look for her own imperfections and hide them from others. During their marriage, her husband, Steve, would make fun of Terry's insistence on looking good before she let anyone see her. He told her that she was beautiful and thought it ridiculous that she had to paint on her face before she would even eat breakfast. She did not believe him. Sadly, Steve's honest admiration could not undo a lifetime of her mother's powerful message that she would never be good enough.

Seeking control over chaos. Some perfectionists tell stories of chaotic childhoods where they never seemed to have control over their lives. Marital breakups, relocations, financial crises, illnesses, and other hardships created an environment of instability. One of the ways in which these people got some sense of order in their otherwise disordered lives was to try to fix things over which they had some control, such as making their immediate home or school environments neat and orderly. This might include keeping their rooms neat and tidy, working exceptionally hard on schoolwork, or attempting to control their younger brothers and sisters. This strategy may have been adaptive in that it helped them to cope with the uncertainty, unpredictability, and chaos in their home lives. As adults, however, when their lives were no longer in flux, they may have continued to work hard to maintain control. This symptom of perfectionism, which was at one point adaptive, later became problematic in various ways.


So if perfectionism can cause so much trouble, what keeps it going? The simplest answer is that there is considerable reinforcement for doing things perfectly. Reinforcement can come from you or it can come from others. There are two kinds of self-reinforcement. If you are fearful that you will be criticized, ridiculed, humiliated, or otherwise punished for performing less than perfectly, doing the job "just right" lowers your anxiety and keeps those bad things from happening. This is called negative reinforcement.

A second type is positive reinforcement, such as self-approval or a sense of pleasure or personal satisfaction for doing a great job. In fact, it is possible to experience both positive and negative reinforcement at the same time. Usually, perfectionists are more aware of their sense of satisfaction for a job well done than their success at avoiding punishment or rejection.

Positive reinforcement can come from other people as well. Praise is a positive reinforcer that is validating, boosts self-esteem, makes you feel accepted, and confirms that you are a worthwhile individual. We learn early in life that other people seem to value and often will reward perfection. Schoolteachers give gold stars, praise, and provide special rewards to the students who get 100 percent correct on a test. There is considerable scientific and clinical evidence to show that behaviors that are positively reinforced or rewarded are more likely to occur again. Perfect behaviors can be shaped by teachers and parents by rewarding actions that are at first close to perfect (As and Bs on a report card) and later only rewarding behaviors that achieve perfection (straight As). A perfect performance in music earns you the first-chair position in the school band. Coming to school each day earns you the "perfect attendance" certificate. This is a reward that is probably accompanied by praise from parents and teachers. The child who behaves perfectly becomes the "teacher's pet." These reward systems teach children to strive for perfection early in life. Depending on their abilities and personalities, some will come to feel pressured, to be frustrated, or ultimately give up the pursuit. Others will keep trying and many will succeed.

Although positive reinforcement from others feels good, what perfectionists really want is to be accepted by others (especially parents or parental figures) without having to perform at all. Carl Rogers, one of the founders of modern psychotherapy, called this type of acceptance "unconditional positive regard." Most people like it when they receive unconditional positive regard, but are not always aware of how much they need it. Although unconditional acceptance is ultimately what perfectionists want, their belief that perfection will please others, be rewarded, and will help them avoid criticism keeps them striving to do their best. Unfortunately, seeking praise and avoiding criticism from loved ones by doing things perfectly defeats the real goal of gaining acceptance without having to perform at all.

Another behavior modification strategy that shapes perfectionism in some people is punishment. Outwardly focused perfectionists, in particular, tell stories of being punished as children for not doing a job right according to parental standards. The punishment was sometimes verbal, emotional, or physical, and was greatly feared. To find a way to cope, some perfectionists learned to accept their parents' values about work. That is, they learned that there was, in fact, a right and a wrong way to do things and that they had better do things the right way or they would be punished.

Some institutions, for example military training, still utilize this method of shaping behavior. There is an absolute standard of performance, a right way and a wrong way. Getting it partly right or almost perfect is unsatisfactory or "unsat." Unsat performance is punished. Perfection is rewarded. It is simple and clear to all. The beauty in this simplicity is that it allows for consistency in training many different people from different walks of life, in different training facilities, and across time, to all do things the same way. Am I suggesting that shaping people into perfectionists is a good thing? Like most things in life, it definitely has a place. The trick is to utilize perfectionism without letting it compromise the quality of your life.

Take time to think about this.

What the perfectionist really wants is to be accepted by others without having to perform at all. Seeking acceptance from others by doing things perfectly defeats this goal.


It is usually easier to understand psychological concepts with examples from real people. Therefore, to help teach the concepts of perfectionism I will illustrate how they might work in the lives of four people who struggle with some of the same issues that may have motivated you to read this book -- that is, the push and pull of perfectionism. These characteristics are composites of people I have treated over the years. In some cases, I have used stereotypes that make the point easier to illustrate. For the various exercises that are covered in the book, I will show how these four very different people approached the tasks. The first character is June Morgan, a mother and housewife. She is socially conscious, bright, and attractive. She provides us with an example of perfectionism in the home, with her kids, and with her spouse. After two decades of marriage and mothering June isn't having fun anymore. She is exhausted, tense, feels unappreciated, and is worried about her "change of attitude." Lately she has been feeling depressed and is angry with herself for feeling this way.

Our second character is Brent Thompson. He is thirty-two years old, single, and a member of middle management. He is striving for promotion through hard work and good performance, but seems to be stuck on a low rung of the corporate ladder. Brent is looking for Ms. Right but cannot seem to find her. Brent gives us an example of perfectionism in the workplace and how it can affect romantic relationships.

Our third perfectionist is Sergeant Joe Martinez, a retired Marine Corps drill sergeant. Sgt. Joe is precise, neat, and organized. He is very good at his new job as an electrician. He has two sons who are normal adolescent slobs, and they get on his nerves. Joe gives us an example of how perfectionism can negatively affect the relationship between a parent and a child.

Terry Goldman, our fourth and final character, is a thirty-four-year-old, divorced, working mother. She has two bright and adorable daughters. Terry is a high achiever. She wants to be executive director some day, but sees many obstacles to making it to the top, including being a single mother. Terry can sometimes get hung up on the details of her work, but does not always see this happening. She provides us with a different example of perfectionism in the workplace and in interpersonal relationships.

You may be able to identify with elements from each of these four people, in how they struggle in a complicated world and in how they come to recognize and learn to control and utilize their perfectionist tendencies.


Perfectionists share some common characteristics. They are usually neat in their appearance and are well organized. They seem to push themselves harder than most other people do. They also seem to push others as hard as they push themselves. On the outside, perfectionists usually appear to be very competent and confident individuals. They are often envied by others because they seem to "have it all together." Sometimes they seem perfect. On the inside they do not feel perfect, nor do they feel like they always have control over their own lives.

The question in your mind may be "Am I really a perfectionist?" Let's look at some of the behaviors of our four characters to help define the signs and symptoms of perfectionism. When you begin to compare these characteristics to yourself you may find that you behave in a perfectionistic manner in some areas of your life, but not in others. In most cases, perfectionism is not an absolute characteristic. For example, if you saw my wardrobe closet in its usual state of disarray you would conclude that I am definitely not a perfectionist. But if you watched me work and rework a manuscript that was going to a professional journal to be critiqued by my peers, you would say that I am most definitely a perfectionist. Some of my friends would say that I obsess over the details of my manuscripts to make sure that I do not make any errors. I probably do, but no one would say that I obsess over the organization of my closet.


Perfectionists are detail-oriented. Sgt. Joe and Terry are both detail-oriented in their work. The biggest difference is that with Joe, his attention to detail makes him an excellent electrician, while in Terry's case it actually interferes with her ability to complete tasks. Some perfectionists cannot help but notice details. They have this special radar that is the envy of nonperfectionists. They can spot crooked pictures, spelling errors, discolorations, and other asymmetries or misalignments. It is not that they are looking for mistakes; they cannot help but notice them. Once a mistake has been identified it cannot be overlooked. That would be unethical as far as Joe is concerned; it would be self-defeating in Terry's way of looking at things.

When Joe rewires someone's home he makes certain that the job is done right. He works quickly and does things right the first time. Checking his work and taking care of any details does not slow his progress. He works alone, so he does not have to oversee the work of others who might not be as careful.

Terry, on the other hand, sometimes gets lost in the details. She is not good with figures, but does not trust her staff enough to use their figures without checking them herself. She gets frustrated with this mundane work and makes mistakes herself. She does not always realize that they are her mistakes and becomes angry with her subordinates for doing poor work. It takes a great deal of time to resolve the inconsistencies between Terry's and her staff's calculations. It slows the process and reports do not get out in time. Terry envies guys like Joe who work alone so quality control is never a problem.

Brent is detail-oriented at work as well. It sometimes slows him down and frustrates his staff when he struggles to work out a detail in scheduling or in a presentation that could be worked out at another time or delegated. ("We could do it Tuesday at 3:00 or Wednesday at 2:00. It will take twenty minutes to set up and twenty minutes for the presentation. Maybe we should be there at 1:30. Oh, but that would conflict with another meeting. Maybe we could...") Fortunately, Brent has a wonderful administrative assistant, Sheila, who knows how to move Brent away from details by suggesting that she take care of it or that it be delegated to a subcommittee. Although Sheila can be a perfectionist with some things, she does not seem to get stuck on details. Brent has other bright and hardworking staff members whom he can depend on to move things forward even when he gets stuck. Perfectionists can lose the forest for the trees, but they can also learn to navigate more skillfully.

Rules and Structures

Perfectionists can be rigid in their views. For them there is a right way and wrong way to do things. Usually, the right way is synonymous with their way. They can be very stubborn about doing things differently. When Joe takes his boys fishing they have a routine for preparation, for fishing, and for cleanup. It is time-efficient, neat, organized, and consistent. The boys think the "fishing ritual" is overdone and they resent having to comply. They just want to grab their poles, throw them into the back of the truck, grab some worms at the bait shop, and jump into the river. They have tried to argue the point with their father with no success. They comply because he has a fit if they do not.

In June's kitchen there is a right way to bake a cake. If done correctly the cake will be delicious and the kitchen will still be clean. She has special utensils and pans for cake baking, for making the icing, and for decorating the cake. If you are going to take the time to cook in June's kitchen you are going to do things right. The kids are notorious for using salad bowls to mix icing and mixing bowls to make salad. They put her nice knives in the dishwasher and they use the dish sponge on the counter and the counter sponge on the dishes. Her husband is just as bad. He squeezes the toothpaste from the middle of the tube even though he knows it is wrong and it irritates June. He leaves his socks in his shoes and leaves his shoes in the middle of the bedroom. She complains, but her children and husband say that she is too fussy about unimportant things. They do not understand that an organized home is a peaceful home and that taking good care of your belongings will guarantee that they are ready when you need them. June wonders if her children will ever learn. She imagines their homes in the future and it gives her a sick feeling inside. As for her husband, there is no way he will ever change. He is a good man so she counts her blessings and tolerates his ways.

Some perfectionists have very high moral and ethical standards. They find it hard to bend the rules. While often more accepting of others' behaviors, they have a hard time allowing themselves to behave in ways that could be perceived as unethical. For example, one of my good friends who is a bit of a perfectionist plugs my first book when he gives presentations. His sense of humility and his ethical standards, however, make it uncomfortable for him to plug his own book. When I return the favor by praising his work in front of others he gets a bit embarrassed, but modestly accepts the acknowledgment. According to his rules, self-boasting is not okay; allowing others to boast about him is better, but not great; boasting about others is good friendship.

Expectations Are High

Perfectionists expect a great deal from themselves. They expect themselves to perform perfectly and to rarely make mistakes, especially in the areas of their lives that are most important to them. June's "identity" or "self-esteem" comes from being a loving and caring mother and wife. Keeping her house neat and well-organized is part of that job, so she puts in a lot of time to make sure everything at home is perfect. Joe is similar in that doing his job well makes him feel good about himself. He expects nothing less than perfection from himself. There is no excuse, as far as he is concerned, for doing sloppy work. He acknowledges that sometimes things go wrong on the job, usually things that could not be anticipated or were out of his control. This does not bother him nor does it make him feel like a failure. He simply goes back and fixes the problem until everything works perfectly.

Perfectionists often have high expectations of others as well. Expecting people to do their best is one thing. Expecting perfection from others often means setting unreasonable goals that can be impossible to achieve. For perfectionists, however, there is often no difference in their minds between "doing your best" and doing things perfectly, especially when it pertains to their own performance. It is OK if others cannot always do things perfectly, but they know they can and so they must always do things perfectly themselves. In the Marine Corps, Sgt. Joe's command style included a mix of demanding perfection and expressing belief in his recruits' abilities so that they would come to believe in themselves. He thought that was the essential combination in training young soldiers. With his sons, he can forget to add encouragement to his demands for performance. The kids resent him for expecting too much from them, more than they can handle. The younger son, Sergio, has given up trying to meet his father's expectations.

Brent is an inwardly focused perfectionist when it comes to his work performance, but when it comes to women he has the high expectations of an outwardly focused perfectionist. He has a picture in his mind of Ms. Right. He thinks that when he finds her he will marry her and they will have a perfect life together. He has been looking in earnest since his second year in college. Twelve years later he is still looking, with no potential candidates in sight. He does not have a well-defined set of characteristics in mind. He just has a general impression of an angel, a sexual goddess, a confident, independent, yet thoroughly devoted partner. Blond is preferable, but he's not that picky. Athletic would be great, but shapely is sufficient. He is not a materialistic fellow, but he would not complain if she came from a wealthy family. Brent thinks he wants a competent and beautiful wife, but his low self-confidence makes it difficult for him to tolerate women he thinks are better than him, so he dates women who are less educated than he, less talented, less perfect. While they are non-threatening and make him feel good about himself, he would prefer a partner who is more his equal. Brent, a lonely man, is stuck between his low self-esteem and his high expectations.

When Terry and her ex-husband, Steve, were married, they often argued over the issue of expectations. Each thought the other expected too much and gave too little. Both were successful individuals who were a little competitive with one another. Steve resented Terry's larger paychecks, trips all over the country, and the social status she seemed to throw in his face. Terry resented his ability to connect with people, especially their daughters. Everyone liked Steve and that secretly annoyed and hurt Terry. They did not give each other any room for being weak, making errors, or feeling vulnerable. These things were not tolerated in themselves or in each other. They both always felt a pressure to perform, to be in control, to be competent in each other's eyes. They could not find a way to be vulnerable, to seek consolation from one another, or to give support when it was needed. Their high expectations for themselves and for each other ended their marriage.


Neatness in appearance can also be a sign of perfectionism. Impeccably groomed and dressed individuals are often perfectionists, at least when it comes to hygiene. However, there are plenty of perfectionists for whom personal grooming and physical presentation are not priorities. In other words, they are slobs. Brent's appearance is impeccable. His hair is just the right length, never too long and never with that "just got a haircut" shortness. His car is immaculate as well. Despite the fact that it is not the kind of car that makes a personal statement, it is well maintained and impressive to others. June, Terry, and Joe all have specific standards for their children's appearances as well as their own. They all emphasize that their appearance communicates many things about a person's character. Terry and June's girls understand this and are usually very nicely groomed. Joe's boys don't really understand why this is such a big deal. After a lot of arguing with their father, they agree to wear shoes in public, to keep their hair short, and to bathe regularly.

Take time to think about this.

Perfectionists often have high expectations of others. Expecting people to do their best is one thing. Expecting perfection from others often means setting goals that can be impossible to achieve.

Mistakes Are Avoided

Perfectionists hate to make mistakes. The worst feeling for a perfectionist is when someone sees one of their mistakes before they get a chance to fix it. The humiliation that goes with being caught in an error creates intense psychological pain. Some perfectionists have panic attacks in these situations, while others become furious. Methodical and systematic, Brent and Terry work very hard to not make mistakes at work. They check and recheck their facts before they give a report. They are methodical and systematic in their work so as to avoid errors. Both would say that the worst possible thing that could happen at work would be to have one of their superiors find an error in their work. They would be humiliated beyond belief. Of course, this kind of thing is not likely to happen, because they are extremely careful. If you put Brent on the spot he would recall that there have been times when he has made errors and, although he was embarrassed, there had been no real lasting consequences. He owned up to the error, corrected it, and held his breath for a while, waiting to be fired. Of course, Brent would also say that he had been lucky those times. The next time there could be greater consequences.

Terry can recall times when errors were found in her work. She had been embarrassed at first, but soon grew angry. She knew exactly which of her staffmembers were at fault for the error and vowed never to trust their work again.

Confidence Is Low

Perfectionists can have great difficulty in taking risks, particularly if their personal reputations are on the line. Brent is our best example. He is in a type of job where creativity can be an asset. New ideas from employees, particularly the sales staff, have made the company a lot of money in the past. Coming up with new ideas rather than relying on the tried and true ways of business, however, means making yourself vulnerable to the criticisms of others. If you rely on creative whims rather than facts, you might fail. At least, that is the fear of Brent and other more conservative perfectionists like him. The fear comes, in part, from a lack of self-confidence. ("My ideas are not good enough." "People will laugh at me." "I will look like an idiot." "I could not stand the humiliation.") The risk-takers that Brent hates, and possibly envies or admires, think very highly of themselves and do not care if others hate their ideas. They do not expect themselves to always be right or to always have great ideas. But they know that if they keep trying, soon they will hit upon a winner. If their ideas are rejected, they might get their feelings hurt, but they recover quickly. The consequences of failure for these people do not feel as great as they would to perfectionists.

Being conservative with new ideas is a problem for Brent, because the other people in his company who are taking risks by trying out new ideas are climbing the corporate ladder, leaving Brent behind in their wake. His superiors think of him as a good worker but not having what it takes to make it to the top. Brent does not see this. He is clinging to the idea that his hard work and dedication will advance him.

On the occasions when Brent has had to go out on a limb with a new idea he has been very anxious. He would check out his ideas with co-workers, his assistant, Sheila, his friend Jessica, his mother, and anyone else who would listen. Everyone would think Brent's ideas were fine, but he could not be comforted. Even after the idea was approved and successful, Brent attributed his success to tuck and to the mercy of his boss.

Although Brent's perfectionism seems complex and multilayered, it illustrates several aspects of the way that many perfectionists think about themselves. There can be low self-confidence, fear of humiliation and rejection, and an inability to attribute success to their own efforts. Perfectionists like Brent may fend off compliments and maintain their fear of failure even after repeated successes.

Organization and Neatness

June, our housewife, and Brent, our middle manager, both provide excellent examples of perfectionism at home. Perfectionists like Brent and June like things neat and organized and become anxious and sometimes overwhelmed when things are in disarray. Unfortunately, making certain that things are always neat, clean, and well organized takes time and energy that could be spent elsewhere. June worries about what others think of her housekeeping. Her mother was very neat and organized and emphasized to June that your home is a reflection of you, as are your children. She passed the value of perfectionism on to June, so June spends a great deal of time cleaning her house. She cleans up after each family member leaves home and then straightens up at the end of the day after each returns. June is not comfortable going to bed with a messy kitchen. She needs things to be organized before bed or she has difficulty getting everyone off to school and work in the morning.

Early in her marriage, June would follow after her husband, cleaning up as he used dishes, changed clothes, or read the mail. This greatly irritated Bill. When they had their first child, June went through a stressful phase, where she found that she did not have the time and energy to tend to her child and to keep the house the way she liked. She exhausted and frustrated herself trying. June finally had to give in to allowing things to be in some disarray until the end of the day, when the baby was down for the night. She tried to straighten up during the baby's nap time, but did not have the energy until Angela was about six months old.

Brent's mom was very much like June. Unlike his brothers and sisters, Brent appreciated his mother's attention to neatness. As a middle manager, Brent does not have the time to keep his small apartment as neat as he would like. He hired a housekeeper. Actually, he hired several housekeepers until he found one conscientious enough to meet his standards. Of course, there are some things even she is not very good at, and Brent has to redo her work in those areas.

Brent cannot tolerate clutter. It stresses him out. If he needs lots of materials on his desk at one time to complete a project, they are placed in neat piles. He has a small portable filing cabinet about the size of a milk crate that he can put on his desk or on the floor near his desk when many materials are needed. The milk crate has colored hanging folders. He just slips his materials into the color-coded files for ease in identification. Keeping things neat does take extra time and energy, but for Brent it is well worth it, because clutter just slows his thinking and distracts him from his work.


Perfectionists can have trouble making decisions. They worry about making a wrong decision, so they toss around in their minds two or three possible options and the consequences if each is wrong. Linda Gorin-Sibner, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles, California, calls this process "ambivalating." The person feels ambivalent about a choice or decision, thinks it over and over, but fails to reach closure. If the person is lucky, someone else will make the decision for them, thereby assuming responsibility for the outcome. More often the decision is that no decision is made or the decision is made by default. That is, enough time has passed that the decision is made by itself. A simple example is ambivalating over whether to rush to file income tax forms on time or to apply for an extension. If you wait long enough to decide, the only real alternative is to file for an extension. Thus, the decision is made by default. Some perfectionists are comfortable with and even grateful for other people making decisions for them when they are stuck and do not mind when decisions are made by default.

Terry gets stuck in her work when she cannot decide which approach to take on a report or project. When she has two choices of action, each quite different, she tries to compare their advantages and disadvantages. There are usually several pros and cons to each approach and she has trouble deciding how to proceed. Sometimes Terry faces the same dilemma when ordering from a menu or when trying to decide what to wear. She can get overwhelmed by too many choices.

Joe, in comparison, is very decisive and does not seem to be bothered by the idea that he could be making a poor decision. He has been trained to assess a situation quickly, select a solution, and act -- before someone else's actions interfere with his goals. Making decisions does not bother June either. Like Joe, she knows there is a right way and a wrong way to do things and she selects the right way -- simple enough. With Brent, it depends on the topic. He can be very decisive in managing his staff, or their work, or when executing a project similar to those he has completed in the past. He gets stuck when the decision has to do with women and dating. ("Should I call or should I wait? I don't want to seem pushy or desperate, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm not interested, just in case she is interested. What if she doesn't like me? I'll feel like a real jerk. She did give me her phone number, but what if she was just trying to be polite? She's probably banking on the fact that I will not call. She'll probably have an excuse for not being able to go out even if I ask.")

Trusting Others Is Difficult

Perfectionists can appear to others to have a need to be in control. It may not actually feel like control to them, but they do acknowledge that they do not trust others to do a job as well as they can. Terry does not trust the work of her subordinates, so she checks it over, and over, and over. June does not trust her daughter to handle her own interpersonal problems or to know how to dress herself, so she offers lots of suggestions and cannot help but intervene when her daughter is having a problem. At business meetings, Brent will sometimes interrupt one of his underlings during a presentation in front of the "big boss" to offer clarifications or elaboration. These additions are not usually helpful. They simply irritate his staff and disrupt the flow of the presentation. Brent worries that, since his employees are less experienced than he, they may not be able to make their points as clearly as he might. These presentations are important, and his staff's performance will reflect on him and his department.

Joe tries to watch his son patiently as he paints the shutters on the kitchen windows, but he is compelled to show him how to do it right by taking the brush from him often. They both become so frustrated that Joe finishes the job on his own. Relinquishing control can mean that quality may suffer.

In attempting to control outcomes by doing the work themselves or spending time and energy worrying about or checking the work of others, perfectionists waste time and offend others. By checking up on or interfering with other people's actions, perfectionists inadvertently communicate that they do not trust the work of others or do not believe their work is good enough. When those people are your children, these messages of distrust can have unwanted effects on their psychological development.

Copyright © 1999 by Monica Ramirez Basco

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Free Press (March 2, 2000)
  • Length: 288 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780684862934

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Raves and Reviews

Cathi Hanauer Mademoiselle The book worked like a year of shrink sessions.

R. Reid Wilson, Ph.D. author of Don't Panic: Taking Control of Anxiety Attacks Finally, someone who understands the fear, pain, and exhaustion caused by the pursuit of perfection.

Mike Maza The Dallas Morning News [Basco] explains how to recognize and challenge the counterproductive thinking, oversimplifications and overblown expectations of perfectionists, and includes a chapter on how to live with one.

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