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Pernicious Perfectionism: 3 Pervasive Patterns

If you are a perfectionist, you know all too well how this way of being can trap you.

You set high expectations for yourself, which can lead to success, and boost your self-esteem. But with those lofty goals can come a reciprocal mountain of self-criticism and judgment, which gets in the way of the success you seek!

Are you stuck in Pernicious Perfectionism?
Are you stuck in Pernicious Perfectionism?

Three Typical Patterns of Perfectionism

Rigid perfectionistic beliefs have been linked to everything from anxiety disorders to suicidal ideation, not to mention the paradoxical decrease in performance. Building awareness of your pattern is the first step in using your Mindful-Mastery skills to prevent the pernicious outcomes.

Here are three typical patterns of perfectionism and the common thought, feeling, and action tendencies underlying them. Consider the Dashboard forms submitted by Amy, Jay, and Donna, which break down the elements of their experience when faced with a performance situation.


Amy: The Overachiever

Facts of the situation (What, who, when) “I am noticing the feeling in my body of…. “I am noticing the thought …. “I am noticing the emotion of (one word)… “I am noticing the impulse to…
Project due at work Tension in shoulders, face, arms “I can do this!” “Less than perfect is not an option!” Eagerness, frustration Push harder


The Pattern: Perfectionism had worked for Amy growing up in a highly critical family. When faced with any type of situation in which she believed she would be evaluated, Amy’s habit was to throw herself into excellence with full force.

Most of the time, she was successful in her pursuits and she received praise from others. So, naturally, each time she succeeded it reinforced the behavior of pushing herself too hard.

The Problem: Because Amy pushed herself so hard; she had difficulty with time management and would also frequently burnout after working on a project. Recovery time from the intensity of her work left her with less time for other areas of her life that brought her joy.


Jay: The ‘Failure’

Facts of the situation (What, who, when) “I am noticing the feeling in my body of… “I am noticing the thought …. “I am noticing the emotion of (one word)… “I am noticing the impulse to…
Decision about job choice Heaviness, fatigue “If it’s not perfect, it’s nothing.” (all or none) Hopelessness, sadness Do something enjoyable

The Pattern: Jay grew up in a family of over-achievers. The expectations for perfection were tacitly implied as everyone around him was successful in their pursuits. This programmed the belief in Jay that “anything less than perfect is worthless.” Naturally, as the automatic appraisal of his work was “worthless,” sadness and hopelessness would follow.

The Problem:  This type of ‘all or none’ thinking is common in perfectionists, and can cause serious difficulties in getting started at all in pursuits. The belief that ‘every choice must be perfect’ makes taking the first good enough step seem impossible. Because the emotion of sadness is physiologically related to retreat behavior, Jay became paralyzed in moving towards his goals.

Donna: The Procrastinator

Facts of the situation (What, who, when) “I am noticing the feeling in my body of…. “I am noticing the thought …. “I am noticing the emotion of (one word)… “I am noticing the impulse to…
Need to study for finals Agitation “I can get to this later”, “I shouldn’t have to” (Rationalization) Anxiety, anger Procrastinate

The Pattern: Donna had always gotten good grades in high school, without much effort. But when she got to college, the new demands and less structure increased her anxiety. Anxiety is linked to a natural tendency to move away from the source of anxiety, so Donna would delay studying. When worry thoughts emerged about the need to study, she would squash them with (unhelpful) rationalizations based on past experience.
The Problem:  Procrastination and rationalization became reinforced in Donna because they reduced her anxiety, in the short term. But then she would get caught between the anxiety of wanting to produce an ideal outcome, and the anger of the demands being put upon her. Naturally, this increased the stress of limited time, and made creative problem solving that much more difficult. So her work was not really up to her full potential.

Recognizing Patterns – Building Awareness

If you get caught in pernicious perfectionism, you may recognize your autopilot in one or more of the examples above. As you can see, patterns of autopilot thinking and behaving naturally set in as they function to reduce discomfort or increase pleasure.

For Amy, success was like a drug, for which she would repeat the same actions (pushing too hard), like a rat at the proverbial lever. For Jay and Donna, thinking patterns acted as more insidious drivers of their procrastination and avoidance behavior.

The Practice – Overriding Problematic Perfectionism

Regardless of which pattern (or combination) you identify with, being skillful means holding the Middle Path. This means neither over criticizing nor over rationalizing your performance, neither pushing to hard, nor avoiding entirely.

To begin building your self-awareness and skillfulness, complete a Dashboard form for your experiences the next time you have a project due. Then use the Validate – Check – Change steps described in last blog to help you to be as effective as possible.

Steps in Overriding Pernicious Perfectionism

1.Label the emotion (e.g. anxiety, sadness, irritation) driving the ineffective behavior (i.e. avoidance or over pushing).
2. Check if your thinking is judgmental or all or none. Find the balanced thought.
3. If you are avoiding, find a small step you are willing to take in the approach direction. If you are pushing to hard, take a pause and schedule something fun as a alternate reward for your work.

Perfectionism can catch us in a cruel purgatory; promising excellence, while keeping us caught in the mind-y self judgments that kill creativity. By building your awareness of the patterns of perfectionism, you can catch when autopilot takes hold and derails your success. Sometimes ‘good enough’ is the better than perfect.

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Pernicious Perfectionism: 3 Pervasive Patterns

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2015). Pernicious Perfectionism: 3 Pervasive Patterns. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2019, from


Last updated: 15 Dec 2015
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