Perfectionism and Recovery

‘The perfectionist is a man whom it is impossible to please because he is never pleased with himself.’

(Johan Wolfgang von Goethe)

‘A perfectionist is someone who takes great pain and gives them to others.’


Perfectionism is an attitude that has been described frequently as a central feature of emotional distress. A strong need for perfectionistic self-presentation can influence our behaviour, especially around nourishment. It doesn’t allow the person to display imperfections or admit to difficulties. Perfectionism is sabotaging our learning and our recovery progress.

How much of a perfectionist are you?

  • Are you critical of people who don’t live up to your expectations?
  • Do you get upset if you don’t finish something you start?
  • Do you do things precisely down to the very last detail?
  • Do you want to be liked by everyone?
  • Do you feel that you have to do everything well?
  • Do you crave approval from others?
  • Do you avoid taking risks?

Perfectionism kills all spontaneity and pleasure. It is a burden that keeps us away from people. To become mature, we need to go through a process of examining the shoulds and oughts. We need to discard those rules and ideals that are destructive of our well-being and tailor-make a set of values that fits our own experience of life.

What is the difference between perfectionism and excellence?

Excellence – being willing to try new things, take risks, and learn from our mistakes.

Perfectionism – avoiding new experiences because we are terrified of making mistakes.

Conquering our perfectionism will release other abilities we didn’t know we had and will make life easier, more relaxed, more satisfying and more fun.

People who were not perfect but made it:

Charles Darwin – He did poorly in the early grades and failed a university medical course.

Albert Einstein – He performed badly in almost all of his high-school courses and failed his college entrance exams.

Sir Winston Churchill – He was at the bottom of his class in one school and twice failed the entrance exams to another.

Pablo Picasso – He could barely read and write when his father pulled him out of school at age 10. A tutor hired to prepare him for secondary school gave up and quit.

Paul Ehrlich – This 1908 Nobel Prize-winner in medicine did badly in school, hated exams, and couldn’t write compositions or give oral presentations.

Walt Disney – got fired by a newspaper editor because ‘he had no good ideas’.

Thomas Edison – teachers called him ‘too stupid to learn’. He made 3000 mistakes on his way to inventing the light bulb and than held 1093 patents.

 How to overcome perfectionism:

Read some biographies and find out that not everybody is perfect.

Remind yourself that if you are working toward your recovery, it needn’t matter that you make mistakes along the way, you need to give yourself permission to make mistakes. Who never made mistake, never made a discovery.

Learn to take risks.

Learn to laugh, most perfectionists think ‘Life is no laughing matter’, you change it.

Look at problems as opportunities.

Learn how to say ‘No’.

Learn to say, ‘Good enough!’ ‘I am enough.’ ‘It is good enough for now.’

Let go the desire to be super person – instead making plans, explore possibilities.

Accept praise from others and praise yourself. The secret lies in recognising what you can and can’t control.

Learn  to see beauty in imperfection.

Add your own suggestions, which you find helpful in overcoming perfectionism and becoming ‘human’.