How to stop being a perfectionist

Being perfect sounds good but the pressure can affect your physical and mental health along with your work performance. Organisational psychologist RACHEL SETTI offers some solutions.

Heard of the saying “nobody’s perfect?” Well it’s true.

Many of the highly successful yet anxious executives, including many lawyers, I’ve coached are driven by the double-edged sword called perfectionism.

Undoubtedly, setting challenging goals is often a key ingredient for success. Some aspects of perfectionism can lead to positive outcomes, such as when you get a sense of internal satisfaction for completing a job well done.

However, when you tip that balance and your measure of success becomes based on unattainable standards, the path of (self) destruction lies ahead.

The fear of failure is not uncommon among driven professionals, who often berate themselves for even the smallest error and find that any perceived negative feedback feels excruciatingly bad.

Perfectionism can lead to negative emotional states including depression, anxiety, stress and a host of psychosomatic symptoms which impact performance.

It can also stifle creativity and risk taking.


How to stop being to perfectionist

The downside of being a perfectionist

By Rachel Setti



Pressure for perfection at work

External influences, such as your workplace, can also amplify perfectionistic tendencies. Humans are not islands, and it is widely believed that organisational culture can significantly influence an individual’s emotional state and behaviour.

An environment that constantly scrutinises your output can exacerbate these feelings. A good example is the conventional billing system. Lawyers often tell me that it cultivates a culture of internal competitiveness and errorless outputs. The conveyor belt of goal-oriented achievements (commonly measured in six minute increments) can be unrelenting, particularly as it is constantly monitored and judged.

Overlay this with individuals who display perfectionist tendencies and you have a recipe for unhealthy behaviours such as procrastination, increased conflict, eating disorders and more.

How to beat it

Want to avoid this gremlin called perfectionism from interrupting your capacity to reach your true potential?

• Listen to your inner voice for one week. What messages do you give yourself when you make mistakes? Write your thoughts down as you go (don’t leave it until later as memory has a tricky way of distorting reality).

• At the end of the week, look at your list. What is your dominant pattern of thinking? What words are you using? Look out for thoughts starting with “I must…”, “I have to…” and reframe them into a set of more flexible options such as “I will try to…”, “I prefer to…”, “I choose to...”.

• If it’s too difficult to get rid of all the “musts”, set a couple of high priorities for the week, which truly need to be achieved – remember that, by definition, not everything can be high priority.

• Above all, ask yourself whether you would treat a good friend the way you treat yourself. If the answer is “no”, then stop self-sabotaging and start self-forgiving.

Rachel Setti is an organisational psychologist and coach who specialises in effective leadership and interpersonal skills. Visit for more information.