• Perfectionism means setting impossible standards for yourself

  • It has been linked to psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders, and also – maybe counterintuitively - affects our ability to reach our goals

  • If perfectionism is holding you back, find a therapist here

The burden of perfection is intense in society today. Social media floods us daily with filtered, airbrushed, carefully chosen pictures, of people living happy lives, looking attractive and achieving wonderful things. And it never goes away! It is present, relentless and fully accessible 24/7. 

If this alone wasn’t enough, the constant pressure to achieve is omnipresent and even encouraged. We are all supremely busy, almost wearing this as a badge of honour – achieving, climbing the career ladder, parenting and excelling in our hobbies. Understandably, we have less time for face-to-face relationships and deeper connections. Switching off from the busyness can increasingly involve time spent alone, whilst scrolling through our feeds and distorting further our perceptions and expectations of what is real. There is more opportunity than ever before to compare, compare, compare and then to feel inadequate.

Some of us will be more prone to the vulnerabilities of perfectionist striving, than others. Early experiences from often well-intentioned demanding parents, critical teachers or other authority figures can engrain deeply the messages of self-worth being highly dependent on grades, achievement or looks. Acceptance or approval can begin to feel highly conditional on us meeting these expectations, with the strong fear that we are undeserving of love or acceptance unless we continue to strive, achieve and perfect. 

Long after the early authority figures have disappeared from our lives, or faded into the background of daily life; we enter the adult world, with the internal critique embedded firmly in our psyche. It feels normal and almost right to self-impose these often impossible standards. Thinking is also rigid being very black and white: ‘I am perfect or I’m failing’. Shades of grey feel incomprehensible or just a bit ‘meh’ - ‘Why bother if I can’t be perfect?’ It is this perspective that can often leave people feeling reluctant to change their perfectionist drive. It might not feel achievable to feel good about yourself, whilst simultaneously relinquishing perfection.

5 tips to dilute perfectionism and boost self-esteem


Frankly acknowledge that perfectionism is not doing you any favours. In fact, it is actually preventing you from feeling joy and satisfaction from your achievements. Predominantly, you are likely feeling a failure from not meeting your own expectations. How often can you realistically achieve perfection? 1-5% maybe? There is significant room for fruitless berating of yourself for the other 95-99%.


Understand where the early perfectionist messages are rooted. What experiences have contributed to you believing that you have to be perfect? Write this down in a journal and begin to view it from a new and different perspective. Consider the types of authority figure you would have liked to have had in early life. What kind of qualities would they have demonstrated to support you in feeling encouraged, accepted and wholly good enough?


Question your beliefs about needing to please, perfect or appease others in your life today. Will you really be rejected for not being perfect? Do people care as much as you think? Often, we are placing far more pressure on ourselves than others ever would do. People often prefer someone who is real, genuine and imperfect. Perfectionism can lead to competitiveness, rigidity or coolness which can be off-putting.


Be mindful of your social media usage. If you are comparing yourself and feeling low, then take a step back. Observe the images that are presented with a critical eye. This is just a snap-shot of someone’s life and is not the day-in-day-out real-life story. Understandably, people will post their best photos, accompanied by a favourable filter. How can you to compare yourself to these? You can also reduce your social media engagement if you find this triggering.


We are all flawed human beings with our strengths and weaknesses. No-one, yes, no-one has it all sorted out! Remember this, when you are tempted to idealise someone and assume they have it all together. There may be aspects of another that you wish to emulate or aspire to, but no-one is faultless. Instead, focus inwards and notice your own positive qualities and strengths. This is not about being arrogant, but rather having a quiet, inner acknowledgement and acceptance of the things you can do well. Jotting these thoughts down in a journal can be helpful, enabling you to begin to shift your focus. If you struggle with this exercise, ask a friend whom you trust to feedback to you.

If you are struggling to control your inner perfectionist and are longing to feel self-acceptance, now could be the time to reach out and get support through counselling. Counselling can offer an opportunity to gain greater awareness and understanding about why you are self-critical. You can learn to become kinder and self-compassionate, which can ultimately improve your mood and sense of wellbeing.

Harriet Frew is a verified welldoing.org therapist in Cambridge

Further reading

The downsides of perfectionism

All or Nothing personality type: good or bad?

What's the connection between shame and low self-esteem?

Why self-compassion is key to success