Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving

by: Dr. Marie-Pierre Fontaine-Paquet, Psy.D., C.Psych.

In this post, we will define perfectionism vs. healthy striving, describe when perfectionism is a problem, and we’ll offer strategies for overcoming perfectionism. 

Defining Perfectionism 

Wishing to do things well and having high standards is often adaptive and can help you to pursue and achieve your goals in life. This healthy striving can be contrasted with perfectionism, which is a felt need to do things perfectly and to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable. To help clarify the distinction between healthy striving and perfectionism, here are some characteristics of each one.

Characteristics of Healthy Striving:

  • Striving for high but achievable standards that result in feelings of satisfaction and increased self-esteem
  • Motivated by enjoyment of the process, enthusiasm, enjoyment of what you do, and desire for success and mastery
  • Efforts (not just results) give you satisfaction and a feeling of accomplishment
  • Self-esteem is not based on accomplishments and performance
  • Rewarding self or others for good performance
  • Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment

Characteristics of Perfectionism:

  • Repeatedly setting goals for yourself that are beyond reach and reason and not being satisfied by anything less than perfection
  • Motivated by fear of failure, obligation or duty
  • Driven to be the best, but unable to enjoy accomplishments
  • Feeling that your sense of self-worth and acceptance is based on accomplishments and performance
  • Criticism and judgment of self or others
  • Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
  • Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment

When is Perfectionism a Problem?

Like many things, perfectionism can be viewed as a problem when it interferes with a person’s wellbeing and happiness, relationships, or functioning at school or work. This is not always easy to know. If you struggle with perfectionism, the high standards you hold for yourself or others may be so long-standing and ingrained that they may even be unconscious and outside of your awareness. You may have a self-critical internal voice that constantly judges and berates you for not being “______” enough (fill in the blank: smart, hardworking, rational, strong, attractive, thin, sexy… and the list goes on), but you may be more aware of ensuing feelings of guilt, shame, sadness, inadequacy, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness. You may also be aware of feelings of anger, frustration and resentment when others fail to live up to your expectations, and perhaps this has caused difficulties in your relationships.

Perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can place an individual at higher risk for depression (see blog ‘Depression: How Your Thinking Can Lead to the ‘Blues’’) and anxiety. Research shows that perfectionism is associated with several psychological problems, such as depression, anxiety, worry about being judged by other people, excessive anger, body image and eating disorder problems, and obsessive-compulsive behaviours.

Strategies for Overcoming Perfectionism

Building Awareness:

The first step to change is to first build awareness of what it is that you want to change. Since perfectionistic thoughts and behaviours can be automatic and unconscious, this may not be an easy task! One way of identifying perfectionistic thoughts is to notice situations in which you experience emotions such as anxiety, sadness, anger, frustration or shame, and to reflect on thoughts and interpretations that may be contributing to these feelings. You can also pay attention to situations in which you find yourself engaging in  perfectionistic behaviours (e.g., checking and rechecking your work, spending too much time cleaning, excessive organizing and list making, difficulty making decisions, procrastinating, exercising excessively to stay thin, etc.), and notice what you may be thinking and feeling in these situations.

Evaluating Your Standards

Here are some questions to consider when evaluating whether your standards are serving you well or whether you might benefit from challenging or altering them:

  1. The excessiveness of the standard (e.g., Can this goal be met?)
  2. The accuracy of the belief (e.g., Is it true that this standard must be met?)
  3. The costs and benefits of imposing the standard (e.g., Does it help me to have the belief or standard?)
  4. The flexibility of the standard or belief (e.g., Am I able to adjust my standards and change my beliefs when necessary?).

If you determine that a particular standard cannot be met or that the costs of having a particular standard or rule outweighs the benefits, you may want to consider loosening your standards for that particular issue. If you are unsure, you may consider asking the opinion of a friend or loved one whom you trust.


Making Changes to Perfectionism:


Rather than being unwilling to accept anything less than perfection, remind yourself that no one is perfect nor do we need to be in order to be worthy, lovable and valuable as human beings. Think about what is good enough and possible in your current life situation rather than how things should be in order to be perfect. Work on developing self-compassion in place of harsh self-criticism and perfectionism, and more compassion for others. Coping statements like “It’s okay to make mistakes” and “Nobody’s perfect” can be helpful in challenging perfectionistic thinking. People who struggle with perfectionism tend to go to great pains to control many different aspects of their lives, including their own behavior, the behavior of other people, and the environment in which they live. Because you often cannot control or predict things that occur, it can be helpful to find ways to tolerate some degree of uncertainty and ambiguity in your life.


If perfectionism is a problem for you, chances are that the high standards you hold for yourself or others are long-standing and ingrained. The thought of giving up these standards may be very frightening for a number of reasons, and changing these long-standing patterns can be difficult. You may find that it is too difficult to overcome your perfectionism alone or with the help of your family and friends. A psychologist can help you better understand your perfectionism and the role it plays in your life, and support you in changing these long-standing patterns. A psychologist can also support you in addressing problems often associated with perfectionism, including anxiety, depression, anger, eating disorders and relationship problems.

This blog is based on some parts of the book: “When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism” by Antony & Swinson (1998)


Read more about our Anxiety, Stress & Obsessive-Compulsive Treatment Service.

Combatting Depression: Strategies for Your Relationships

by: Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic

Finding a path toward recovery from your depression symptoms can be challenging, but is doable! In this third post in our depression blogs, we provide strategies to help you deal with depression symptoms associated with your thinking and how you might be processing your feelings, emotions, and needs.

We’ve offered you some tips to help take the first few steps toward feeling better. We suggest that you start your recovery journey by employing strategies for your self first, and then once you’ve started on those, our fourth blog post offers you strategies for your relationships.

Strategies for Your Self: Develop Structure, Routine, and Self-Care into Your Life

When we are depressed, we tend to become depleted of energy. We move less and feel tired. These circumstances can drain us of important mental and physical stimulation that we need for our well-being.

Put structure and everyday routine back into your life and begin to increase your level of self-care. Create a routine. Make sure to schedule activities that are meaningful or pleasurable to you. Include 20 minutes of physical exercise each day. Prepare healthy meals that will nourish your body and mind. Get good rest. If you are having difficulties sleeping, consult resources that will assist you to develop a soothing nightly ritual that will help you to unwind and relax and ultimately improve your sleep.

Learn How to Regulate and Soothe Stress, Negative Feelings and Emotions

With depression, we can struggle with our feelings and emotions – we feel too much or too little. When we are overwhelmed by strong, intense feelings and emotions, it is important to develop practices and strategies to effectively deal with these internal reactions.

Pause before you act on your thoughts and feelings and try to restore a sense of calm and ease. Learning how to restore calm and ease within ourselves is an important life skill. Make a list of activities that are calming and soothing for you, and engage in these activities when you are emotionally distressed. For example, sipping tea in a peaceful place, going for a walk, engaging in deep body and muscle relaxation, taking a warm bath, learning how to breathe rhythmically and deeply, visualizing peaceful and tranquil settings, quietly reading a book, and listening to calming music are examples of ways to enhance coping.

Try to remember, intense feelings and emotions mellow with time. Try to reassure yourself that these feelings and emotions will pass and you will be okay once again. Once we are calmer, we can begin to think about the thoughts and feelings we are experiencing that are contributing to our depression.

Challenge Negative Thoughts and Feelings about Your Self and Others

Negative views of our ‘self’ and of other people can create a deep sense of hopelessness, as discussed previously. In the midst of feeling depressed, pay attention to the thoughts, interpretations, assumptions, and beliefs you have about yourself or others. Do you notice a negative bias in how you are thinking or feeling about yourself and others?

Try to challenge these negative views and find counter-examples to these negative thoughts. Try to recognize good things about yourself and others at home, work, and in play. Practice noticing positive attributes about you and other people—at least once a day. You can also develop a list of positive things about yourself and other people in your life. Have your list handy and read it whenever you are feeling negative. Do not be surprised if your list of good things begins to grow as you start to engage in this exercise of positive appreciation.

Sometimes our negative thoughts and feelings towards others are grounded in real experiences in which others are behaving inappropriately toward us. If people are behaving toward you in a negative manner that is harmful (i.e., verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse), it is important to seek out support and professional help to find a way to address these circumstances.

Develop Self-Compassion in Place of Harsh Self-Criticism and Perfectionism

Sometimes a negative, critical voice toward our ‘self’ and others may be at the root of our depression. When left unchecked, this voice can make life unbearable.

Do you notice a highly critical or perfectionistic inner voice that pervades your life? How do you feel while and after you have berated, attacked, or criticized yourself? Probably not very good. Try to develop a more compassionate and understanding counter-voice at these times. Making mistakes and not meeting expectations and demands are bound to happen throughout our lives. It is part of being human. Remind yourself that no one is perfect nor do we need to be in order to be worthy, lovable, and valuable as human beings. Ask yourself if you would be as harsh toward others, such as a family member, partner or friend if they had not met an expectation? Would you be more understanding of others? Try to develop a kind, gentle, understanding and reassuring voice toward yourself in these moments.

Try to lighten the impact of this oppressive voice by reframing the self-criticism in positive terms. For example, ask yourself what you can learn from the present situation that may help you grow as a person in the future as opposed to harshly attacking yourself. Try to find constructive solutions to your mistakes or problems, rather than senselessly depleting your energy and berating yourself.

Try to find ways to challenge harsh self-criticism. Ask yourself, “How realistic are the expectations and demands that I hold of myself and others?”. Remember that human beings are limited in terms of what we can achieve. We can’t always meet all of our or others’ expectations or needs. In addition to negotiating our needs with those of other people in our lives, we also have to balance a lot of competing needs in different contexts, including work, family, and play.

Find counter-examples that contradict the extreme and global way you are putting yourself down. Create a more balanced and accurate view of yourself. Think about what is good enough and possible in your current life situation rather than how things should be in order to be perfect.

Be Mindful, Build Awareness of the Present Moment

When we are depressed our thoughts are often focused on worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. Depression impedes on our ability to live in the present moment, which often further aggravates the cycle of worry and negative rumination.

Try to notice these moments as they are happening without any judgment. Simply notice your ‘self’ thinking or feeling something that is connected to worry about the future or rumination about something that happened in the past. As you notice what is happening, try to gently shift your attention to your body. For example, if you are walking notice how the soles of your feet feel with every step you take. Practice using your senses to notice how things look, feel, taste and smell around you.

By gently shifting your attention to the present moment, you rest your awareness in the here and now of being alive. This mindful practice can help you to build an inner sense of refuge from the stresses of life. Also, this practice can occur under any circumstances and over time, will help you to develop greater resilience and freedom from the negative thought and emotional patterns associated with depression.

Identify, Label, and Access Emotions and Needs and Make a Plan of Action

Emotions provide us with important information about what our concerns, goals, and needs are for ourselves and in our relationships with others in the world around us. Depression is a signal, calling for us to listen to what our feelings are telling us about what concerns or goals have gone unmet, or what we might want or need for ourselves or in our relationships with others.

Being able to identify, label, and express these feelings in words is important if we are to appreciate what our concerns are and what we might need as individuals and from our relationships. When we figure out what our emotions are telling us, we can then develop a plan of action toward taking care of ourselves more effectively. We can develop strategies to address our goals and concerns, and meet our wants and needs in a manner that does not create further difficulties for us.

Try to identify and label your emotions. Pay close attention to the feelings that underlie what you are experiencing. For example, you may be feeling numb, but masked underneath resides hurt and sadness. Or you may feel outwardly sad, but are also angry deep down. This may not be easy to do at first and takes practice.

Also, try to tune into what the concerns, unmet goals or needs are that come with these feelings and emotions. What do you need for yourself in your sadness or anger? Write about your feelings in a journal with a particular focus on what these feelings are telling you about what you might need for yourself or in your relationships with others.

Begin to plan and create strategies of how you can go about meeting your goals, wants, needs, or desires in a manner that is constructive for you and for those around you. You may require support from others to help you organize your thoughts and to develop plans to have your goals, wants, or needs met.

Seek out Professional Support: Consulting with your Physician and a Registered Clinical Psychologist

Consulting with a physician may also be an important first step to assess your current mental health status. Depression can be associated with many biological and medical causes that require medical interventions.

Seeking the professional support of a registered clinical psychologist may be important to help you address the negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself, or others. Learning how to address perfectionism, self-criticalness, and process your emotions and clarify wants, needs, and goals can be challenging. Contact a registered clinical psychologist if you find that dealing with your thoughts and feelings on your own has become unmanageable.

Read more additional posts from the ‘Depression’ series:

Learn more about our Depression, Mood & Grief Treatment Service.

Depression: How Your Thinking Can Lead to the ‘Blues’

by Dr. Dino Zuccarini and Tatijana Busic

Are you tired of struggling with low energy, negative thoughts, and feelings that seem to absorb so much of your day? You may be suffering from the debilitating symptoms of depression.

This is part one of four in our blog series about depression. These posts have been created to help you consider what might be at the root of your feelings of depression. In the first two blogs, we write about some common causes of depression; particularly, about how you’re thinking and how the way you deal with your emotions might be causing or contributing to your feelings of depression. Finally, in the last blog, we provide you with strategies you can use to deal with depression on your own, or in your relationships with others.

What is Depression?

Depression has many different symptoms. When we’re depressed, we experience symptoms, such as, chronic negative feelings and emotions (e.g., sadness, worthlessness, guilt, irritability, restlessness or lethargy), loss of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, difficulties with attention, concentration and decision-making, changes in appetite or weight, fatigue, bodily aches and pain. Individuals suffering from depression are also typically bombarded by a chorus of negative thoughts about themselves, others and the world around them. These negative thoughts and feelings may be at the root of your depression.

How Our Thinking Paves the Road to Depression

There are several biological and psychological causes of depression. Let’s review a few ideas about how your thinking can contribute to depressed feelings.

1.  Negative Views of Our Self and Others

Your depression may be linked to negative thoughts and feelings you are having about yourself, others or the world around you. These negative thoughts and feelings can emerge from difficult life experiences at any time in our life—from childhood onward to present-day challenges we are facing in our lives. These difficult life experiences can affect how we might think and feel about our self and others (i.e., thoughts and feelings of inadequacy, worthlessness, incompetence, a sense of being unlovable and insignificant). When you think and feel negatively toward yourself and others for a long period of time, you can become hopeless. You can begin to attribute negative situations and events in your life to negative thoughts you have about your self. A sense of hopelessness about our self further blocks us from being able to achieve our goals and get our needs met. You might also believe that others think and feel the same way about you, which further deepens the hopeless feelings.

As a result of childhood or present-day challenging life experiences, we may have also developed a negative view of others. Others may have been harsh, inaccessible or unsupportive to us during some difficult life moments—and now, it may seem to us that all others are unreliable, undependable and untrustworthy, or potentially harsh and judging. These views of others may diminish the likelihood that we’ll be able to connect with friends or family for support when we are facing challenges and need others the most.

When we hold a negative view of ourselves and others as a result of past or present-day life experiences, we can begin to feel hopeless and less capable of meeting our goals, concerns, and needs, and unable to reach out during times when we are in need of others support and care. These negative views of ‘self ‘and ‘other’ cascade into feelings of depression over time.

2.  Unrealistic Standards, Ideals and Expectations Fuel Perfectionism and Self-Criticism

We all have standards and ideals that create expectations that then guide our thinking, behaviours and emotional reactions toward others. From childhood onwards, the outside world through our parents, teachers, and employers place expectations and demands on us. We also develop our own expectations about our own and other people’s behaviour (i.e., how we and others ‘should,’ ‘ought to,’ or ‘must’ think, feel, and behave). Our expectations can sometimes be unrealistic and unachievable, which can create a great deal of pressure and stress in our lives. Unrealistic expectations of others may also create difficulties in our relationships with others. When we are too overly driven by our own and other’s unrealistic expectations, we can become hopeless trying to keep up with all of these demands. We can also lose touch with what we are really feeling, preferring, desiring, wanting or needing for ourselves.

Some individuals maintain unrelenting, rigid standards and ideals about how they or others should perform in the world. In these circumstances, some individuals may have unyielding and high expectations about their performances. They may strive for perfection in their endeavours, and be self-critical and harsh toward themselves when they do not meet these expectations. A self-critical internal voice may emerge that continuously judges or berates the individual (e.g., ‘you dummy’, ‘you’re lazy’, ‘you’re weak’, ‘you screw things up all the time’). Research affirms that self-criticism and perfectionism are often cornerstones of depression.


Perfectionism and self-criticalness may initially work together inside of you to ensure that you perform well. You may criticize yourself to improve your performance so that you will see your self or others will see you in a more positive manner. The more we drive ourselves in this manner, the more we wind up feeling overwhelmed and stressed. We start living an unbalanced life that can feel overwhelming and stressful. Over time, perfectionism and a self-critical voice can create a sense of guilt for not performing adequately, and hopelessness about our self (i.e., global, negative view of your own self as inadequate, not good enough, and worthless). Some individuals can also be critical and harsh toward others for failure to live up to their demands. This can create difficulties when you are engaged in either constant conflict with others or others decide to disconnect from you and you becoming increasingly isolated over time.
CFIR psychotherapists can support you to deal with your negative views of self and other, and the unrelenting self-criticism and perfectionism that might be at the root of your depression. We integrate cognitive-behavioral, mindfulness and acceptance and commitment, and psychodynamic-based approaches to help you deal with the thinking that might be contributing to your depressed feelings.

Read more additional posts from the ‘Depression’ series:

Read more about our Depression, Mood & Grief Treatment Service.

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