Is Perfectionism Your Greatest Motivator or Your Biggest Enemy?

By Dr. Lisa Lewis

Are you a Perfectionist?

Perfectionism is simply defined as the “refusal to accept any standard short of perfection.” This characteristic is often used to describe fitness enthusiasts and self-improvers.

Is this a quality that has been ascribed to you? Have friends, family, teachers, coaches, or coworkers noticed your drive to succeed? Your need to excel? Your unquenchable desire to improve, compete, and achieve?

Perhaps more importantly, do you agree? And, if you do identify as a perfectionist, do you consider this a positive or a negative thing? Does it enhance your motivation, help you push yourself toward your goals, and bring you successes and achievements? Or, does it set you up for disappointment, self-criticism, and shame?

Take a look at your aspirations, your thoughts about yourself, and your actions. The standards and “shoulds” that you set for yourself can be motivating, but they can also lead to feeling discouraged. And what about the standards others set? In the age of social media, it can be hard to avoid comparing ourselves to Facebook friends, Instagram sensations, and YouTube celebrities. Although it can sometimes be inspiring to see gorgeous people doing amazing things, constantly comparing yourself to others can lead to a self-critical, never-good-enough appraisal of your own pursuits.

In light of all the internal and external demands placed upon us, it’s no wonder perfectionism has become a commonly used and often derogatory term.

Perfectionism is not one-sided, however; there are both, benefits and drawbacks to aiming for flawlessness. According to Dr. Joachim Stoeber, a professor of psychology at the University of Kent, perfectionism is a “double edged sword” for those who posses it, bringing both the drive to succeed, and the over-focus on imperfections and failures.1 In many ways, striving for your best can lead to success, fulfilment, and improvement; but on the other hand, disappointment with anything less than “the best” often results in constant disappointment, shame, and negativity. Researchers have examined both the positive and negative sides of this double-edged sword.2,3

The Bright Side of Perfectionism

“Perfectionistic strivings” (also described as “healthy perfectionism” and “positive perfectionism”) can help you derive pleasure from your efforts, but also allows you to accept limitations and setbacks.4 Apply this type of perfectionism to athletic, fitness, or professional pursuits, and the result is a highly motivated, fulfilled go-getter. In fact, perfectionism is often viewed as a personality strength in athletic contexts like sports and fitness.5

Can you think of someone in your life who demonstrates the positive aspects of perfectionism? What are the qualities he or she possesses? Researchers at Cardiff Metropolitan University interviewed elite athletes and determined that athletes with perfectionistic strivings had high personal standards and were very organized, and that athletes felt that both of these qualities were helpful in achieving success and feeling proud and accomplished.6

People who describe striving for the best and focusing on future goals and performances benefit from their perfectionism.

Setting goals and then seeking them out, committing yourself to pushing hard and self-improvement—these aspects of perfectionism result in positive thoughts and feelings, and ongoing motivation to pursue goals.

The Dark Side of Perfectionism

On the other hand, “perfectionistic concerns” (also termed “unhealthy,” “maladaptive,” and “negative” perfectionism) fosters a need to avoid failure, and constant pursuit of unrealistic goals.4 These types of perfectionists do not derive pleasure from their accomplishments, but instead dwell in what went wrong.

Unhealthy perfectionism not only ruins the enjoyment of achieving goals, it is also associated with low self-esteem, and with women in particular, it is correlated with feelings of inadequacy.7 A study led by researchers at Georgia Southern University identified a strong connection between perfectionistic tendencies and depression and anxiety8, and a researcher at Yale University concluded that “perfectionistic individuals experience depression that is focused primarily on self-worth and self-criticism; they berate, criticize, and attack themselves, and experience intense feelings of guilt, shame, failure, and worthlessness”.4

Instead of feeling successful and accomplished, perfectionists who focus on imperfection and get stuck in the past end up feeling depressed, guilty, and worthless.

Not only is that sad and unfortunate, it’s just plain counterproductive. In the case of the unhealthy perfectionist, the perfectionism breeds thoughts and feelings that negatively impact motivation and performance.

Researchers studied elite athletes who described themselves as perfectionists and identified six negative aspects of perfectionistic concerns:6

  1. Tendency to be self-critical
  2. Dissatisfaction with goals, and feeling unable to “shake it off”
  3. Over-concerned about mistakes
  4. Doubts about actions and overthinking
  5. Fear of letting others down
  6. Competitor pressure feeling overwhelming

Do any of these traits hit too close to home for you? If so, don’t despair! A little “reframing” is in order and can go a long way. Reframing is the process of shifting your focus from negative and detrimental thinking to positive and constructive thinking. In essence, when you practice reframing your thoughts, eventually you are able to change your feelings and actions.9

Instead of viewing yourself as just a healthy or unhealthy perfectionist, consider yourself to be somewhere along a spectrum; you may have qualities or habits that lean toward “healthy” and others that lean toward “unhealthy.” No matter where you fall on the spectrum, you can always work toward maximizing the healthy aspects of your inner perfectionist, while minimizing the deleterious effects of the unhealthy aspects.

Maximize the Benefits of Healthy Perfectionism

  1. Strive for perfectionism. Keep a future-oriented outlook. You can push yourself and maintain high standards, but keep your focus on the next performance, instead of dwelling on disappointments from the last. In addition, be sure your ambitions are realistic; try not to set yourself up for failure.
  1. Use Goal Setting. Living a goal-directed life is integral to maintaining motivation and feeling accomplished. Setting specific goals with precise timelines and action steps is a great way to get yourself focused and moving forward, as opposed to getting stuck in the past.
  1. Keep tabs on your successes. Don’t hesitate to pat yourself on the back when you hit a PR or achieve a goal! It’s not only about moving forward from failures; it’s about recognizing successes.

Minimize the Damage of Unhealthy Perfectionism

  1. Don’t sweat being imperfect. If you concern yourself too much with not getting something just right, it will only lead to self-blame and lower self-acceptance. No good can come of dwelling in the past. When you make mistakes, or fall a little short of your goals, remember that no one is perfect. Just because you didn’t accomplish 100 percent of what you set out to do, it doesn’t mean you are a failure. It only means you were less than perfect on that occasion. Imperfection is normal, human, and part of the process of improvement.
  2. Reframe your thinking to combat the negative effects of perfectionism. Specifically, try:
  • Positive Reframing – What went well, even in failure? What did you learn?
  • Acceptance – Less-than-perfect happened. Accept it. Keep it movin’.
  • Humor – Don’t take yourself too seriously!
  1. Use Performance Routines and Distraction Techniques. Chat with others, listen to music, or use relaxation techniques and mental rehearsal before your next attempt at a goal or performance.6If you’re in a gym setting, can you take a break for a minute or two to take your mind off of worrisome thoughts and onto something lighter, like the weather or your favorite sports team? If not, many people use a specific playlist or favorite genre of music to either get “pumped up” or to “chill out” prior to attempting a new personal record. Mental rehearsal is another way to distract yourself from negative or worrisome thoughts, and all you need for this skill is your imagination. Visualize yourself successfully completing the lift or skill you plan to perform, and pay attention to the details of your execution.

So, is your perfectionism your strength, your weakness, or a bit of both? Remember to be flexible with yourself, even if you have your heart set on a specific accomplishment. The truth is that talking negatively to yourself has zero benefits. You can still work hard and pursue your goals without beating yourself up.

If you can’t help but compare yourself to your seemingly-perfect friend or colleague, or that amazing competitor you follow on Instagram, give yourself some time and space away from social media. In fact, beyond social media, in your life in general reduce your exposure to anything that makes you feel badly about yourself. Your self-esteem and your enthusiasm about your goals will benefit as a result.

Finally, embrace your perfectionism. It has so much to offer: motivation, strong work ethic, pride, and a sense of accomplishment.

You can be mindful of your negative inner perfectionist, and work to dial down her volume, while also enjoying the benefits of your optimistic, future-oriented, high-achieving positive inner perfectionist.

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About the author:  Dr. Lisa Lewis

Dr. Lisa Lewis is a licensed psychologist with a passion for wellness and fitness. She earned her doctorate in counseling psychology with a specialization in sport psychology at Boston University, and her doctoral research focused on exercise motivation. Lisa is also a certified drug and alcohol counselor and has taught undergraduate courses as an adjunct professor at Salem University, Wheelock College, and Northeastern University in courses including exercise psychology, developmental psychology, and abnormal psychology. Lisa currently works as the associate director of a college counseling center in Boston, MA, and she has a small private practice in the nearby town of Brookline.


  1. Stoeber, J. (2014). Perfectionism in sport and dance: A double-edged sword. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 45(4), 385-394.
  2. Flett, G.L. & Hewitt, P.L. (2005). The perils of perfectionism in sports and exercise. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 14-18.
  3. Stoeber, J., & Otto, K. (2006). Positive conceptions of perfectionism: Approaches, evidence, challenges. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 10, 295-319
  4. Blatt, S.J. (1995). The destructiveness of perfectionism: Implications for the treatment of depression. American Psychologist, 50, 1003-1020.
  5. Hill, A.P., Gotwals, J.K., Witcher, C.S. & Leyland, A.F. (2015). A qualitative study of perfectionism among self-identified perfectionists in sport and the performing arts. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 4, 237-253.
  6. Sellars, P.A., Evans, L, & Thomas, O. (2016). The effects of perfectionism in elite sport: Experiences of unhealthy perfectionists. The Sport Psychologist, 30, 219-230.
  7. Ashby, J.S., Rice, K.G., & Martin, J.L. (2006). Perfectionism, shame, and depressive symptoms. Journal of Counseling & Development, 84, 148-156.
  8. Kilbert, J., et al. (2014). Resilience mediates the relations between perfectionism and college student distress. Journal of Counseling and Development, 92, 75-82.
  9. Stoeber, J. & Janssen, D.P. (2011). Perfectionism and coping with daily failures: positive reframing helps achieve satisfaction at the end of the day. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 24, 477-497.
  10. Carron, A.V., Hausenblas, H.A. & Estabrooks, P.A. (2003). The psychology of physical activity. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  11. Hagan, A.L. & Hausenblas, H.A. (2003). The relationship between exercise dependence symptoms and perfectionism. American Journal of Health Studies, 18, 133-137.
  12. Hausenblas, H.A. & Symons Downs, D. (2002). Exercise dependence: A systematic review: Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 3, 89-123.

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