Taming Perfectionism With CBT

By Amanda Polster, LMSW

Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.” (Brown, 2010)

Perfectionism. That strong and often annoying desire  to accomplish everything unwaveringly and flawlessly. Research shows that perfectionism often leads to symptoms of anxiety and depression, and has increased over time with the influence of social media and technology (Schrijvers, 2010).

Perfectionism is defined as “the compulsive need to achieve and accomplish one’s goals, with no allowance for falling short of one’s ideals” (Neff, 2011). Sounds familiar right? While it is important to set goals and create a level of motivation to reach accomplishment, perpetually attempting perfectionism can actually hinder our ability to achieve our desires due to the enormous level of stress and anxiety it can cause. Setting incredibly high expectations often leads to disappointment and failure if full accomplishment is not achieved. 

Perfectionism does have an upside. Even if we drive ourselves crazy in the process, perfectionism can be an incredible determinator to do our best. “Striving to achieve and setting high standards for [ourselves] can be a productive and healthy trait” (Neff, 2011). The problem is, this mentality can become dangerous when our entire self worth is valued by our ability to accomplish everything perfectly, with no mistakes or room for error. 

Try these tips below to help relieve some of the anxiety and fear of failure that we experience when we set extremely high expectations and judge our worth based on accomplishing these goals. 


Acknowledging We Did Not Create this Culture Ourselves

Society places extreme pressure on us to achieve. We live in a society where individual success functions on a “survival of the fittest” culture. Making mistakes is viewed as failing instead of as opportunities to learn and grow. As a society, the interest to achieve perfectionism can lead to the belief that “the better I do, the better I’m expected to do” by others (Benson, 18). When we acknowledge that we did not create this culture, we can relieve ourselves of the blame of attempting to live a completely idealistic lifestyle. Identifying this societal standard can also normalize the perfectionist mentality and reduce feelings of isolation and beliefs that I am the only one who experiences this pressure.


Identify our Contrasting Values

Perfectionism may sound wonderful on the surface, but often contrasts with our interest in growing, learning, and continuing to set new goals. If we achieve perfection in every aspect of our life, we likely will experience boredom and a level of dissatisfaction because our desire to compete  and find new things to learn will be compromised. Living a perfect life in all realms will result in a lack of space to grow or develop. This is an opportunity to acknowledge our imperfections as not faults but as part of our humanity. Identifying our contrasting values also allows us to acknowledge the cliche yet real experience that we often learn more from our mistakes than our successes.


Setting Boundaries

One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, discusses the importance of setting boundaries to improve self compassion and acceptance and counter feelings of perfectionism. Setting boundaries can be challenging, especially if we enjoy presenting as sweeter and perfect on the outside. However, study shows that the more compassionate a person is, the more boundary-conscious they are; the heart of compassion is actually acceptance (Brown, 2010). If we accept ourselves for our imperfections and flaws, we are more likely to hold others accountable for hurting us and less likely to allow others to take advantage of our kindness and support.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Imperfection

Worthiness does not have prerequisites; however we often assign prerequisites to our levels of worth in an effort to achieve perfection. Examples of these prerequisites might be…


            “I’ll be worthy if I get an A on this paper”

            “I’ll be worthy if he calls me back and asks me on another date”

            “I’ll be worthy if I lose 20 pounds”

            “I’ll be worthy if they offer me this job”

            “I’ll be worthy if I can hold my marriage together”


Often times, these prerequisites not only create additional feelings of anxiety to accomplish these expectations, but they also are expectations that may not completely be within our control. For example, if we take sole responsibility for repairing a relationship, we are holding our own blame as well as the blame of someone else - that must feel very heavy! Moreover, if we ground our worth in whether we get offered a job, this can result in displacing feelings of shame on ourselves where the decision is not a reflection of our capacities but a reflection of the decision of an agency.


Cognitive behavioral therapy can be a powerful tool and model in reframing and countering prerequisites to our feelings of worthiness. When we challenge some of these expectations and their impact on our worth, we can relieve ourselves of the pressure to accomplish everything perfectly. CBT can also support in reframing destructive self-talk language of blame and shame around not accomplishing tasks at our highest capacity to develop healthy self-talk language around compassion, courage, and care. Cultivating self-compassion as part of CBT allows us to reframe our experiences from imperfections to opportunities, identifying that the more imperfections we have, the more opportunities we have to grow.


Benson, Etienne. The many faces of perfectionism. 2003. Vol 34, No. 10.


Brown, Brene. The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Brene Brown. 2010.


Schrijvers, Didier L., Ellen R. A. De Brujin, Marianne Destoop, Wouter Hulstijn, Bernard G. C. Sabbe. The impact of perfectionism and anxiety traits on action monitoring in major depressive disorder. 2010. Vol 117, Issue 7. pp 869-880. Journal of Neural Transmission.


Neff, Kristin. Self Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself. Kristin Neff. 2011.