You are currently viewing The Disease of Perfectionism

The Disease of Perfectionism

By Mary Shippy


I was in New Mexico a few years ago visiting a Navajo Pueblo.  We were watching the women weaving rugs.  They were beautiful in design and color.  Navajo tradition tells us that every Navajo rug is woven with one very visible and intentional imperfection woven into it.  They believe that this allows spirit and energy to move in and out of the rug.  I have thought a lot about this experience over the years as I work with leaders who are driven by perfection at the expense of their team and in reality themselves.  Perfection is not a chronic issue for everyone – but for those to whom perfectionism is compulsive and debilitating it can look and feel like a disease.

We are human precisely because we are imperfect.  So what is it about this drive for, this addiction I see, to this “idea” of perfection?  Dr. Brené Brown says, “Understanding the difference between healthy striving and perfectionism is critical to laying down the shield and picking up your life.  Research shows that perfectionism hampers success.  In fact, it’s often the path to depression, anxiety, addiction and life paralysis.”(1)

Define the Difference between Perfectionism and Excellence

One exercise I often give my perfection prone clients in their struggle with perfectionism is to define the difference or distinction between Perfectionism and Excellence.  I encourage them to survey this question with friends to get different opinions and impressions.  This will ultimately lead us to a discussion around what perfectionism is and is not:

Perfectionism is not the same as driving for excellence.  When we are driving for excellence, it is based on an internal value of quality, excellence and achievement.  Driving for excellence is an offensive maneuver.  When we are driving for perfection it is primarily a defensive move, a way to protect ourselves from judgement, blame and pain – for if I or my team do things perfectly, act perfectly, perform perfectly – we minimize the risk of criticism, negative feedback and judgement.  Perfectionism then becomes a shield of protection – protecting me from hurt and pain.

Perfectionism is not the same as self-improvement.  Improving yourself is inward focused, rather than outward focused.  Perfectionism is about earning approval from others.  At its heart it is about performing for others and managing my image with others.  If I and or my team do this perfectly others will think well of us and we will be seen as good – I am what I accomplish.

Perfectionism is not the same as being successful.  Research shows that perfectionism hampers achievement and success.  Perfectionism demands that you or your team do not fail, make mistakes, or disappoint – therefore you are constantly managing risk and managing perception. Success and achievement on the other hand puts us into healthy competition, opens us to learning and making mistakes and not always winning.

Practice Self-Kindness

The second exercise I give my clients after this discussion is to hand me their perfectionism whip and practice self-kindness.  At the heart of self-kindness practice is coming to the realization that you are enough – being kinder and gentler with ourselves and each other is the beginning of freedom from the trap that we are what others think of us. Finding a place in our lives where we don’t have to perform or hustle for others approval and worthiness.

A self-kindness exercise that has been helpful to many of those I work with is this:  Take 5 minutes before you enter your work space to sit in your car and practice breathing with your eyes gently closed repeating with your breath in and out – “I am enough”.  At the end of the day, when you get back into your car, take 5 minutes and repeat the exercise.

If you are perfectionistic prone, maybe it is time.  Time to give yourself a break.  Time to give others a break from you.  Time to embrace your life and let go of striving and driving to be what you believe others want you to be.

Upcoming Sessions

If this resonates with you, and you’re in the Denver area, consider attending the Business Owner’s Bootcamp on October 13 to hear Christine Watkins Davies present a breakout session on Rising Strong: Personal & Organizational Resiliency

Based on the research of Dr. Brene Brown, the physics of vulnerability show that if we are brave often enough… we will fail.  This session will provide ways to create and use tools that help individuals and teams during times of struggle or failure.  Utilizing these skills will help you write a courageous new ending to your story.

>> Register now


1 Brené BrownThe Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are