Overcoming All-or-Nothing Thinking

Have you ever been labeled a "perfectionist"? Or do you consider yourself to be one?

While we all need to do high quality work, excessive perfectionism can do more harm than good. For instance, it can be damaging to your self-esteem and to that of the people you work with. It can put a strain on your relationships, and, in some cases, it can lead to health issues.

In this article and in the video, below, we'll look at why excessive perfectionism is unhealthy, and we'll think about what you can do to overcome it.

Click here to view a transcript of this video.

What Is Perfectionism?

Perfectionism is a set of self-defeating thought patterns that push you to try to achieve unrealistically high goals.

In his book, "The Pursuit of Perfect," Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar explains that there are two types of perfectionism: adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. (You can listen to our interview with Dr. Ben-Shahar /community/ExpertInterviews/TalBenShahar.phphere.)

Adaptive perfectionists work on developing their skills. Their standards are always rising, and they approach work with optimism, pleasure, and a desire to improve. This is clearly a healthy type of perfectionism.

Maladaptive perfectionists, however, are never satisfied with what they achieve. If something isn't perfect, they dismiss it. They may experience fear of failure, doubt, unhappiness, and other painful emotions.

It's important to understand the difference between maladaptive perfectionism and a healthy quest for success. Maladaptive perfectionists see mistakes as unacceptable, as they think that these lead others to see them as incompetent.

By contrast, people striving for excellence in a healthy way see mistakes as an opportunity to grow; they understand that mistakes are part of the learning process, and they accept them.

In this article, we'll focus on dealing with maladaptive perfectionism.

But Shouldn't Things Be Perfect?

Clearly, you need to work hard and deliver the best results possible.

This is particularly the case when lives are at stake, or when the consequences of failure are significant. Here, a casual approach to quality can be catastrophic. However, even with situations like these, you need to do your very best, test and check your work thoroughly, and then deliver.

When the consequences of imperfection are small, then it can be wasteful to seek perfection. Here, "good enough" genuinely is good enough.

You are also being wasteful if you keep on tweaking your work once you have successfully completed a thorough, disciplined, well-thought-through test plan.

Consequences of Perfectionism

When it gets out of hand, perfectionism (in the form of maladaptive perfectionism) can hold you back, both personally and professionally.

We'll look at some of its consequences below:

General Health

According to an analysis published in the Journal of Counseling and Development, perfectionism has been linked to health issues such as eating disorders, depression, migraines, anxiety, and personality disorders. The quest for perfection can also result in decreased productivity, stress, and troubled relationships.


Perfectionism has a negative impact on self-esteem. Perfectionists see their own self-worth tied in to what they achieve, and they believe that others judge them on this as well. Because they're never satisfied with their achievements, they can never live up to the standards they set for themselves. This can lead to a downward spiral of self-criticism and blame.


Perfectionism is closely linked to procrastination.

For instance, a perfectionist might not start a new project until he's found the perfect way to approach the problem. Because of this procrastination, perfectionists often fall behind on their work. This can affect their reputation and their work relationships.

Affect on Creativity

One of the consequences of perfectionism is that it has an inhibiting nature: perfectionism keeps us from taking risks, and it constrains our playfulness and our desire to dream. This, in turn, reduces our ability to innovate and to be creative.

How to Spot Perfectionism

It can be quite easy to recognize maladaptive perfectionism in yourself, if this is a problem. Look for some of these traits in your own actions and behavior...

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