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Cutting the Costs of Perfectionism

9781572247567Perfectionism isn’t cheap.  In fact, it is existentially unaffordable.  Here’s a review of these costs and of the possible ways of cutting them.

Perfectionism is a Psychological Liability

Flett and Hewitt (2002) write: “perfectionists are more likely than nonperfectionists to experience various kinds of stress” (p. 257) and list four perfectionism-specific mechanisms that contribute to and exacerbate stress:

  • Perfectionists generate stress by pursing unrealistic goals (stress generation mechanism).
  • Because of their future time perspective, they anticipate future with worry and anxiety (stress anticipation mechanism).
  • Perfectionists perpetuate stress by coping with stress in such maladaptive ways as rumination or re-doubling of the effort to avoid mistakes and prevent failures (stress perpetuation mechanism).
  • And, finally, due to their cognitively-distorted perfectionistic appraisal strategies, they enhance stress by overgeneralizing, catastrophizing, and dichotomizing (stress enhancement mechanism).

Brown and Beck (2002) make a convincing summary of how a perfectionistic cognitive style with its rigid thinking constitutes a vulnerability to depression.

Perfectionists and compulsives are a tormented, unhappy lot.  William Reich referred to compulsives as “living machines,” highly productive but not enjoying what they produce (Maxment & Ward, 1995), typically presenting with symptoms of anxiety, worry, depression, and dysthymia.

One of the goals of existential self-rehabilitation is to redefine perfection in a manner that would allow you to leverage an unconditional self-acceptance and to become invulnerable to others’ disapproval of you.  Furthermore, an effective existential rehab would help you become more accepting of uncertainty in order to reduce your anxiety about the aspects of your life that you cannot control.  Your ultimate challenge is to shift from dichotomous, black-and-white dualistic self-perception (that predisposes you to depression and anxiety) to an emotionally-wiser and reality-congruent platform of nondual and dialectical thinking.

Perfectionism is a Relational Liability

Many a perfectionist is encouraged into therapy by family members and supervisors to address the problem of anger and hypercriticism.  As such, if unaddressed, perfectionism is a relational liability that leads to social alienation, loneliness, missed social and professional opportunities.  Effective existential rehab will help you realize that you are, have been, and always will be “perfectly imperfect,” which, in turn, will allow you to compassionately identify with others and accept them as they are.  In other words, once you understand that you are always doing the best that you can at any given point in time you will be perfectly positioned to see that it is also true of others.

Self-acceptance paves the way for compassion.  Another goal of existential self-rehab is to re-calibrate your expectations of others to more closely match the reality of this “perfectly imperfect” world, with the overall goal of reducing your sense of disappointment and frustration.

Perfectionism is a Productivity Liability

As a perfectionist, you are likely to be preoccupied with productivity, and, therefore, concerned with how an existential self-rehab might interfere with your work ethic and work standards.  There is nothing to worry about.  An effective existential self-rehab offers you an opportunity to learn to augment your productivity by reducing your preoccupation with the outcome and shifting your attention to maximizing your efforts.  By learning about how to free your awareness from outcome preoccupation, you will have an opportunity to practice “finding the flow” (Czikszentmihalyi, 1997) in order to facilitate experientially-peak performance.  Also, an existential self-rehab offers you tools to loosen up the rigidity of your perfectionistic thinking and unblock your creativity by cultivating choice awareness and reducing mindlessness, and thus possibly enhance your productivity and market value.

Perfectionism is an Existential Liability

Let’s face it: for some, perfectionism is an answer to existential vacuum.  Berg (1961), in writing about the historical origin of neurotic compulsions, suggested that in the progressively unstructured society, an individual no longer has the benefit of the social exoskeleton (social structure) to guide his or her behavior, and is, thus, forced to structure one’s own behavior.  As such, achievement-oriented, compulsive perfectionism might be conceptualized as an attempt to find meaning in pursuing perfection.  Perfectionism, in a manner of speaking, is a worship of outcomes.

Mindfulness-based self-rehab offers you a fix of perfection; it allows you an opportunity to appreciate the ordinary perfection that surrounds you in day-to-day life and, as such, becomes one viable solution to the gnawing problem of the existential vacuum.  Furthermore, the emphasis on the here-and-now presence is an opportunity for you to yank your perfectionistically avoidant “ostrich” mind from the ruminative quicksand of the past that is already gone and from the future that isn’t yet, and to plug back into the “matrix” of what still is.

Perfectionism is a Spiritual Liability

The run-away ethics of perfectionistic moralizing can lead to a spiritual impasse.  Perfectionistic rigidity gets in the way of forgiving.  Effective existential self-rehab is an opportunity to re-infuse the morality of forgiveness into the unsolicited attempts to save the world.  Existential self-rehab employs an understanding of dialectics which allows a perfectionistic mind to finally zoom out from its dogmatic comfort zone to a more complex, more panoramic worldview that can compassionately accommodate the subtleties and nuances of this ever bewildering and ever changing reality of ours.  The goal is to replace perfectionistically-narrow one-angle point of view with a whole spectrum of view which would ultimately allow you to compassionately coexist with the often-paradoxical ebb-and-flow of the world at large.

Adapted from Present Perfect: a Mindfulness Path to Letting Go of Perfectionism (Pavel Somov, 2010)

Cutting the Costs of Perfectionism

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2014). Cutting the Costs of Perfectionism. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 2, 2020, from


Last updated: 5 Feb 2014
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