6 Common Perfectionism Traps

“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.” – Salvador Dali

Perfectionists tend to hold very high standards for themselves and their loved ones.  They tend to visualize an ultimate successful outcome and excel at mobilizing all of their resources to move towards their chosen goal(s).  While this can be a wonderful and productive trait, perfectionists often get into trouble when they become too rigid in their thinking, goals, or standards.

When the bar is set very high, there is clearly a longer way to “fall” if those goals are not met.  This can come from being overly attached to goals and standards and being less open to flexibility in the present moment.  While there are many positive aspects to perfectionist tendencies, it is important to recognize the traps associated with the perfectionist’s tendencies towards extreme thinking.

Perfectionism Traps

“The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety” (Knaus, 2008), outlines 6 common perfectionism traps:

(1) Self-perfectionism

Self-perfectionism gets people trapped into the rigid mindset of “I must not make mistakes,” “I must have the approval of others,” or “I must behave in a certain way to be worthy.”  When people adopt this way of thinking, it can be very painful to feel the slightest sense of disapproval or there may be intense feelings of shame or self-punishment when a mistake has been made.

These forms of faulty cognitions keep you stuck… they tend to play over and over again in the mind, almost as a form of self-mockery or self-punishment.  These thoughts take you away from the present moment (i.e., mindlessness) and keep you from changing your behaviors in an effective way that will actually help you reach your goals.

(2) Social perfectionism

Social perfectionism is the idea that other people “should” comply with your rules.  This form of perfectionism and control will eventually go awry since the only person’s behavior you can control is your own.  If you want to choose to put yourself in a position where you are guaranteed to be frustrated, ineffective, and drive away those you care about, try to control the behavior of other people.

Sometimes other people’s ideas and desires correspond with your own, and you can happily engage in similar activities together. Other times, people hold differing views or have different wants/needs.  Begin to learn how to build up your emotional tolerance by choosing to focus in on what you can tolerate about important people in your life.  Look for one positive to balance each negative.

(3) Learning perfectionism

Learning perfectionism occurs when you find yourself being your own worst critic when you are trying to learn something new.  Perfectionists can be their own toughest critic, and can be excessively harsh on themselves when they don’t pick up new skills or knowledge “right away.”  Recognize the rigidity of this mindset and the negative consequences that it has on you.

We all can be awkward and slow when learning a new skill.  Try to reframe your difficulty as a learning opportunity.  There is much to be learned from failure – minor and major.  Apply mindfulness to difficulties that you encounter when learning something new – really observe and notice where the difficulties occurred and what corresponding thoughts and emotions you had as a result.

(4) Product perfectionism

Product perfectionism is the idea that anything “less than perfection” in what you do is seen as a threat or as unacceptable and evokes a strong feeling of anxiety.  Many perfectionists who are creating something new in their home or work lives feel a powerful sense of anxiety over whether or not the final product will be “good enough” or meet some ideal standard.

For many, this anxiety over the perfection of the final product prevents them from taking action when they should and keeps them stuck in the “development phase” for far too long.  Try to reframe this anxiety by recognizing that development is a process.  Notice that creating new products has many stages and that there are often opportunities to go back and make revisions on products later.

(5) Comparative trap

The comparative trap occurs when you relentlessly compare your own accomplishments to those of other people. Perfectionists tend to choose very accomplished people to look up to and compare their own progress.  While having very successful role models can be inspiring and motivating, be careful that it doesn’t put you in the position of never being satisfied “enough” with your own work that you are able to develop real traction and momentum.

Constantly comparing your own success and performance to other people makes it more likely that you will be in a constant state of anxiety and fear.  It also tends to make people feel much more anxious when in the presence of others that you have “decided” are superior in some way.  Instead of getting caught up in this competitive mindset, focus on what you can do to improve.  If you must compete or compare, compare your current self to your former self… strive to be “better” than you used to be.

(6) Performance anxiety

Performance anxiety can ensnare you when you begin to believe that you must succeed in all of your endeavors.  This is the idea that success is the only option and that mistakes cannot and should not be made.  This is a rigid way of thinking, is highly unrealistic, and is difficult to maintain in the long-term.

A new way of reframing this need to succeed in “everything” is to focus instead on performing to the best of your abilities at any given moment.  If you are tired or feeling sick, recognize that you will not be able to attain “peak” performance.  Practicing mindfulness can help you become more in tune with your current mental, emotional, and physical state so that you can be more accurately assess your true capabilities in any given moment.

If you identify as a perfectionist, or if you believe that you have certain perfectionist tendencies, it is likely that you identify with at least one of these traps of perfectionism.  Choose to mindfully focus on the perfectionist trap that you struggle with the most.  How can becoming more present in the moment and accepting of reality help you detach from strict standards or rigid mindsets?

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Online self-tests to assess perfectionism and perfectionist tendencies:

Knaus, W.J. (2008). The cognitive behavioral workbook for anxiety. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: wide web by josef.stuefer / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on August 6, 2011 at 12:31 pm

    By no means have I mastered these, but here are two principles that have helped me with my own perfectionism:

    1) The “Fail Faster” Principle – The faster you fail, learn, try again, and repeat, the faster you will succeed. The only way to succeed is to fail first. Accept failure as part of the process that leads to success. Without failing first, one cannot achieve success.

    2) The 80/20 Principle – 80 percent of your results come from 20 percent of your efforts. Become a perfectionist in doing, and only doing, the 20 percent of the work that gets you the 80 percent of the results. This way you insure that your perfectionism aids you in achieving your goals, rather than preventing you from achieving them.

    • Laura on August 14, 2011 at 9:20 pm

      James – I love those two principles! I think that people often get stuck in the trap of fearing failure to the point that they “fail” to take the necessary risks to reach their goals. We can certainly learn a great deal through failure (e.g., how to succeed) if only we are willing to accept the inevitability of failure on the path toward success.

      Regarding the 80/20 Principle, how does one ascertain exactly “which 20 percent” of the efforts to focus on? Or… how do you go through the process of trimming out the “extra” work that isn’t producing real results?

      Thanks for your comment!

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