Perfectionism – How to Break the Cycle and Get Moving Again

by Jennifer Miller on July 16, 2012

in Personal Effectiveness, Workplace Issues

graphic with does anal retentive have hyphen

Are you a perfectionist? If so, do you think this trait serves you well?

Your answer probably depends upon how perfectionism shows up in your life.  According to research reported in Psychology Today, there are two types of perfectionists:

  • Self-oriented perfectionists: are people who adhere to strict standards while maintaining strong motivation to attain perfection and avoid failure. They tend to engage in rigorous self-evaluation. Their motivation in achieving high standards is internal.
  • Socially-prescribed perfectionists: are those who believe that others hold unrealistic expectations for their behavior (and that they can’t live up to this). Socially-prescribed perfectionists experience external pressure to be perfect and believe others evaluate them in a critical way.

What this means:

When someone is a self-oriented perfectionist, they derive pleasure from working hard. They also show higher levels of self-control and achievement. In this way, striving for superior work output is a good thing because accomplishment begets additional achievement. When perfectionism is used as a means to continually improve without impeding forward movement, then it’s a good thing.

By contrast, socially-prescribed perfectionists are looking outside themselves for validation, which creates a perception of lack of control. People whose perfectionism is built upon trying to please others is associated with higher levels of shame, guilt and depression. If a person strives to be “perfect” because of others’ expectations, then he sets himself up for an endless spiral of comparisons with a yardstick over which he has no control.

Do you ever fall prey to what others think you should do?

If so, follow these three steps to get you back on track and into high-achievement mode.

Step #1: Stop “Shoulding” On Yourself

Quit guilt-tripping yourself with the “should”. “I should have known better” isn’t a healthy way to talk to yourself. Reframe the internal dialog to “I didn’t make a smart choice. I learned from this, so next time, I’ll make a smarter choice.”

Step # 2: Get Back on Track

Refocus on your goal: what are you trying to accomplish? Identify 1 – 2 tasks you can take within the next 24 hours that will help you get the focus back on your objective.

Step #3: Celebrate Small Victories for Yourself

Perfectionists tend to see things in absolute terms – it’s not “good enough” until it’s perfect. Taking this view creates long stretches of time when there’s no opportunity to pat yourself on the back. Break this cycle by “chunking” your project or task into smaller segments. Then, stop every so often and congratulate yourself for your effort up to this point. It will do wonders to spur you on.


Whenever you’re tempted to evaluate yourself on what others think of your performance, ask yourself this critical question: does it live up to my high standards? If it does, then you are on solid footing when you then need to discuss someone else’s expectations of you. It doesn’t mean that others will agree with your assessment, but at least you are operating from a positive viewpoint, rather than one that diminishes the way you view yourself.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dora October 9, 2012 at 9:54 am

No, anal retentive does not have a hyphen……..I looked it up. Freud would love me.

Jennifer Miller October 9, 2012 at 4:54 pm


Yes, yes he would. 🙂

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: