When Perfect Isn't Good Enough

When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism

By Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., and Richard P. Swinson, M.D.
Published 2009, 2nd edition
ISBN: 978-1572245594
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have

Why Should You Read This?

If you’re looking for science-backed ways to reduce perfectionism, consider this book. The authors cite 3 psychology studies where using these methods, the participants were able to lower their perfectionism scores.

In one study, researchers observed statistically significant drops in 2 aspects of perfectionism, concern over mistakes and doubts about actions. In the former, it’s about becoming anxious about making small mistakes. In the latter, it’s about lacking confidence in the outcomes of your actions. Using the methods, the participants expressed less anxiety over these 2 points.

In another study, 75% of the participants reported large decreases in perfectionism scores (46% drop with book vs. 7.6% without). And these effects were maintained at the 8-week and 16-week follow-up periods.
Finally, the third study considered using the book alone versus using the book along with eight 50-min sessions with a therapist. In both cases, overall perfectionism scores dropped. What was interesting was the effect using the book alone. Forty percent of the participants showed improvement compared to 46% using both book and seeing a therapist. While lower, this shows the benefit of the book’s cognitive behavioral methods on their own.

What’s It About?

The book has 4 main parts: 1) Understanding Perfectionism; 2) Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism, 3) Working with Specific Problems and Perfectionism, and 4) What’s Next (keeping your perfectionism in check and what to do if it returns).
The first part lays the foundation for addressing perfectionism. The authors define what are perfectionist beliefs and behaviors. They describe how they negatively impact you and the people around you. And how these are different from “normal” behavior.
Part 2 lists specific strategies for helping you identify perfectionist thoughts and behaviors. This is relevant because what is reasonable to a perfectionist may be extreme for others. This section is about helping you find that difference.
Part 3 discusses the links between perfectionism and other psychological issues (e.g., depression, anger, anxiety, worry, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and body image). The authors state there are possible interactions between these conditions and perfectionism. So, treating these problems without addressing perfectionism may not be effective.
Finally, Part 4 is what to do to prevent your perfectionism from returning. Perfectionism is pretty engrained and isn’t likely to go away quickly. These methods are what to do to get back on track.

Key Concept 1: Using CBT Techniques to Address Perfectionism

The book uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) methods to dealing with perfectionism. This approach starts with identifying your perfectionistic triggers, thoughts, and behaviors. Once you know that, you then question the benefits of these perfectionist actions. Are they providing you with the advantages you think they are? Or are they doing more harm than good?
If the costs are high and benefits lacking, then there are ways to change both the thoughts and behaviors. You need this two-pronged approach because the two feed off each other. Thoughts lead to behaviors and behaviors can reinforce thoughts. You need to break this connection.
The key to treatment is keeping a journal to record your thoughts, observations, and answers to the book exercises. These help to examine and dissect what’s going on. In fact, the authors state:
“On its own, just reading this book is unlikely to lead to a dramatic reduction in your perfectionistic thoughts and behaviors. To see real changes, it will be important to actually use the strategies.”
Compared to other forms of therapy, CBT is more “problem-focused” and “action-oriented.” And while the best outcomes are often with a therapist, the science says you can get some improvement if you apply these methods on your own.

Key Concept 2: It’s about Cost Benefit Analysis

Setting standards and working towards them are what perfectionists strive for. There is nothing wrong with that. Where perfectionists go astray are their standards and execution.
For perfectionists, the authors state:
People who are perfectionistic tend to have standards and expectations that are very difficult or impossible to meet.
Although having high standards is often helpful, perfectionism is associated with having standards that are so high that they interfere with performance.
Perfectionism is often associated with other problems, such as anxiety and depression
This last point is critical. If what it takes for you to achieve those standards are causing problems, then you have to ask if it’s worth it.
Consider looking at your standards through various lenses:
  • Excessiveness: can most individuals meet your goal?
  • Accuracy: is it true that unless the standard is met, failure is the outcome?
  • Flexibility: can you adjust your standards when necessary? Or does the standard provide no room for change?
  • Costs and benefits: does striving for your standard provide more benefit than the associated costs?
In brief,
“Perfectionism is a problem when it leads to unhappiness or interferes with functioning. Having excessively high standards can affect almost any area of life, including health, diet, work, relationships, and interests.”
Note the distinction between having high standards and meeting them. If you feel “greatness” comes by having high standards, then few would argue would that. But if you’re not meeting those standards and are frustrated, as opposed to energized to get better, then you need to rethink.

Takeaway 1: Assess Where Perfectionism is Impacting Your Life

Are you a perfectionist in everything? The authors state that it’s common for people to be perfectionist in some situations but not in others. The point is to identify where and when your perfectionism shows up and how bad is it. Consider the following:
  • Helpful vs. unhelpful standards impacting you or others or both
  • Look at the impact of your standards
  • Are they higher than most people?
  • Are you able to meet these standards?
  • Are other people able to meet your standards?
  • Do your standards help you meet your goals or get in the way?
  • What would be the costs of relaxing these standards or ignoring the rule?
  • What would be the benefits of relaxing these standards or ignoring the rule?
  • Assess the degree of impairment
  • Does it affect performance at school, work, hobbies, etc?
  • Assess the impact on others
  • Do they feel anxious or frustrated when interacting with you?
  • How does perfectionism affect your relationships?
  • Assess the emotions generated by perfectionism*
  • Sad or depressed
  • Anxious
  • Angry, irritable, frustrated
  • Flexible vs. rigid perfectionistic beliefs
  • Difficult to relax standards?
  • Difficult to recognize being overly perfectionist?
  • Becoming upset when unable to meet own standards*
At the end of the day, are you able to achieve what you want by following perfectionist habits? If the answer is yes, then it’s not a problem. The self-assessment is about asking if your perfectionism is benefiting you or not.
* Note, your perfectionism may have collateral damage. For example, you may not be the type to impose your standards on others but that doesn’t mean you don’t affect them. Your frustration from not meeting your own standards may leak as anger at others.

Takeaway 2: Cognitive Distortions are often at the Root of Problematic Perfectionism

In small amounts, thoughts described as perfectionistic can be helpful. The problem is perfectionism’s cognitive distortions promote extreme viewpoints. These include:
  • All or nothing thinking: viewing things as either right or wrong, without recognizing the complexity of the situation or many points on the continuum; all or nothing is often linked to excessively high standards; anything that falls short of meeting the standard is viewed as a total failure.
  • Filtering: selectively focusing on and magnifying negative details at the cost of positive information, which is viewed as less important. For example, it doesn’t matter if you have 1000 likes, it’s the one dislike that bugs you.
  • Mind reading: thinking you know what others are thinking and that their thoughts of you are negative
  • Probability overestimations: predicting negative events are more likely to occur than in reality
  • Tunnel vision: focusing excessively on detail and missing the big picture; this gets in the way of task completion as you focus on the specifics of one step and don’t complete the entire process
  • Interpersonal sensitivity: being overly concerned about the actions of others and often having extreme need for approval by others
  • Catastrophic thinking: believing you can’t cope with the negative outcome if it were to occur
  • Extremely rigid standards and inflexibility: not willing to alter or bend the rules for any reason
  • Over-responsibility and excessive need for control: believing that you have more control over life events than you do; feelings of over-responsibility lead people to spend too much time on tasks to protect themselves from making a mistake or from being harmed
  • Using “should” statements: often describing actions as mandatory
  • Difficulty trusting others: being unable to delegate tasks to others or feeling the need to watch people closely
  • Inappropriate social comparisons: making social comparisons more frequently than others and often feeling negative emotions, especially when they compare themselves to individuals more experienced than themselves
Cognitive distortions don’t help you make progress. They just make you feel more negative and self-critical.

Takeaway 3: Challenging Your Basis for Perfectionism

In CBT the key is to question your thoughts and beliefs around your problematic behavior. Recognize that your standards are possibilities and not hard facts.
The book describes several strategies to address this:
  • Examination: consider the actual results to confirm or contradict your belief
  • Education: seek accurate information on a topic to provide ground truth on the belief itself
  • Taking another perspective: do others, or more importantly people you respect, view the situation the same way you do?
  • Compromising with yourself and others; what happens if the standards are lowered?
  • Hypothesis testing: evaluating the accuracy of your predictions, beliefs, and thoughts; test the validity of the perfectionistic prediction; make a mistake or be imperfect – does the world end?
  • Changing your social-comparison habits: perfectionists tend to compare themselves to people who are more experienced or skilled than they are
  • Using coping statements; when you don’t have time to use the above strategies replace your negative thoughts with less critical ones. Best example is using self-compassion over self-criticism. Acknowledge the effort you made even if it is less than what you had hoped for. Partial credit is better than complete rejection.
  • Tolerating uncertainty and ambiguity: how much certainty do you need? Is knowing a nice-to-have or a must-have?
The goal is to identify bias and assumptions you didn’t know you had.

Takeaway 4: Changing Perfectionistic Behaviors

To overcome perfectionism, you need to change the behaviors keeping these perfectionistic beliefs, attitudes, and predictions alive. The two feed off each other. While it makes sense that thoughts lead to actions, it is also true that actions can sustain thoughts. An example of the latter is when you rigidly adhere to rules, you don’t know what happens when you relax them. You assume bad things will always happen but they may not.
The following strategies are for modifying perfectionistic behaviors:
  • Exposure-based approaches: involves repeatedly confronting the feared object or situation until the fear decreases; best used for situations triggering intense negative reactions such as fear or anger; also useful for dealing with avoidance mechanisms
  • Response prevention: stopping yourself from engaging in problematic, perfectionistic behaviors; generally different from exposure where you do something anxiety provoking; in response prevention you disengage from behaviors that protect you from feeling uncomfortable or to prevent bad things from happening (such as rechecking)
  • Prioritizing: a 3-step process for getting things done. First is to generate a list of tasks to complete. Then rank these based on importance (and consequences if the task is not completed). Complete the task in order of urgency and importance.
  • Overcoming procrastination: for a perfectionist, being fearful of not completing the task well or not knowing where to start because it’s overwhelming are common reasons. The solution is to break the task into smaller units and work on these smaller tasks.
There is no one size fits all solution. Different behaviors may require different approaches.

Takeaway 5: Accepting Imperfection Since Complete Control is Impossible

The following quote from the book highlights the relationship between control and perfectionism.
“In some ways, perfectionism reflects an extreme need for control. Perfectionists often strive to control the emotions, thoughts, behaviors, performances, and appearances of themselves and others. However, it’s impossible to have control over all aspects of your life. Furthermore, your attempts to have complete control either haven’t worked or have come with an unreasonably high cost (for example, impaired relationships) which is why you’re reading this book.”
Along with CBT, the authors briefly mention mindfulness and acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT). Both ask you to accept who you are now (imperfect) as a way to curb your perfectionist tendencies. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t change the current you. But change works best when you aren’t so negative and self-critical.
Now, some may ask what about grit and perseverance? Maybe, the standards are fine and it’s just a point of insufficient effort. Consider the following from the book:
“Efforts to control experiences are a problem when they are extreme, intense, overly rigid, or ineffective. If you are constantly trying to control your own thoughts and feelings as well as the behaviors of others, and your attempts are not working, don’t take it as a sign to simply try harder. Rather, it may be a sign that it’s time to give up some of your efforts at having complete control over your experiences.”
The point is what happens if you accept imperfection. Do things get better or worse? As long as you’re looking at all the data, use the evidence to guide your decisions.

Cons: Gaps & Issues

The quibbles are minor and more stylistic.
This book describes perfectionism in an abstract almost clinical fashion. In other words, there isn’t a lot of empathy. You don’t get a sense the authors are perfectionists but rather observers of the behavior. For some, you may want this level of objectivity. Others may find the detachment make reading dry and not relatable.
Another issue is the few scenarios presented are short and generic, devoid of any depth. Again, this is a style concern and some may find it too textbookish.
As to the studies cited by the book, there are a few issues. First, the study sizes were small (<50). That’s not uncommon for psychology studies but studying more people offers more support.
Second, the greatest impact was often on lowering perfectionist concern over mistakes. This may be important for some. But if you’re struggling with other areas, it’s not clear how well these methods translate.


If you want a rational, evidence-based approach to reducing perfectionism, check this book out. In brief, the authors rely on CBT methods to address perfectionism systematically:
  • Helping you identify where and how perfectionism is affecting you
  • Recognizing the cognitive distortions that are often at the root of dysfunctional perfectionism
  • Challenging your perfectionist beliefs and thoughts
  • Changing perfectionist behaviors
  • Acknowledging that imperfection is the first step to change
If you’re struggling with perfectionism, this is a good starting place. The methods are easy to follow and the evidence to date suggests they may lower your perfectionism without seeing a therapist. On that basis, I recommend this as a Get It / Must Have.

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