Perfection Paralysis and How to Reduce It

Sometimes, you're so desperate to do your best and achieve perfection that you become completely immobilized. Discover why this happens in this article!
Perfection Paralysis and How to Reduce It
Valeria Sabater

Written and verified by the psychologist Valeria Sabater.

Last update: 15 November, 2021

Perfection paralysis describes the state you find yourself in when you’re desperate to reach 200 percent of your potential, yet you only manage zero percent. Salvador Dali said that you must rule out the idea of perfection from your mind because you’ll never achieve it. However, your brain can’t help but nurture this unhealthy need.

In the movie world, no director was more of a perfectionist and more obsessed with detail than David Lean. Thanks to him, we have films like Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Doctor Zhivago. However, his obsession with every tiny detail was exasperating for the rest of the film crew, because he was so particular and demanding.

One of the most well-known occurrences was that he wanted a scene with poppies in a snowy field. This was impossible in reality. Therefore, achieving it resulted in a delay in filming and considerable financial losses. Furthermore, as his biographers explain, this desire for perfection led Lean to suffer periods of depression and despair, as well as disagreements with his fellow professionals.

American writer Pearl S. Buck said that the desire for perfection makes some people absolutely unbearable. We can add something more to this mix, that of emotional suffering and psychological wear and tear.

A statue in water.

What’s perfection paralysis?

Science suggests that there are more young people who are perfectionists these days than ever before. In fact, research, such as that conducted by Western University, confirms that perfectionism has increased considerably since 1990. Indeed, millennials are coming up against this dimension far more than previous generations.

All of this comes at a high cost. It often results in anxiety, stress, depression, and even eating disorders. Without a doubt, the most common denominator in these particular conditions is perfection paralysis. Let’s find out what it is.

Fear of failure

Perfection paralysis is defined by the immobilizing fear of the failure of not reaching your own expectations, as well as those of others. In fact, when you’re approached to carry out a task or project at work, you might say to yourself, “I’m going to give 110% and produce something that’s absolutely perfect”.

However, what actually happens is that you become paralyzed by stress. Naturally, when stress and anxiety take over your mind you can’t be creative. Nobody is able to work when their emotional states are at rock bottom. Fear of failure stops you, and you’re unable to come up with any creative and innovative ideas.

Where does the need for perfection come from?

Behind perfection paralysis is the fear of failure and of disappointing others. However, why do you feel this way? Why is it that, instead of enjoying the creative process, you get bogged down by anxiety?

There are various hypotheses. These are:

  • Much of the desire for perfection comes from your education and upbringing. Indeed, many parents encourage their children to be the best and to achieve excellence in everything they do. However, in the long run, this means you develop an unhealthy self-demand.
  • On the other hand, there are factors like lack of self-confidence and work overload. Sometimes, you might be under extreme pressure and have too much work. Add to this your need to do everything perfectly and you might simply freeze.
  • Another frequent factor occurs within organizations. Sometimes, when a leader faces the challenge of making a decision concerning a particular problem, they might find themselves faced with piles of information and dozens of possible strategies. In these cases, the mere fact of having to evaluate so much data all at once can cause the phenomenon known as analysis paralysis.
A man's head covered by a cloud.

How to handle perfection paralysis

Feeling immobilized, stressed, scared, worried, and even exhausted. Perfection paralysis subjects you to a psychological state in which you feel debilitated, unproductive, and distressed. In fact, it doesn’t matter how talented and skilled you are when you’re driven by this kind of fear and anxiety.

What can you do when this happens?

Three strategies to reduce perfection paralysis

The first strategy is simple. Relax and look at the bigger picture. Because if there’s one mistake that people obsessed with perfection always make, it’s obsessing over details to the extent that they lose perspective.

Sometimes, stepping back makes you see clearer. Furthermore, giving your mind a break might mean you get some better ideas. Therefore, it’s a good idea to switch off and come back to the task later.

Another basic and essential resource is to improve your self-confidence. Self-demand means you become unhappy with your performance. While ambition can sometimes work in your favor, you must make sure that you don’t end up paying for it with a loss of your own self-esteem. Be kind to yourself and believe in your own capabilities.

Finally, stop obsessing. Thinking negative thoughts and senselessly turning things over and over in your mind creates the perfect recipe for perfection paralysis. Stop yourself from entering that vicious cycle of exhausting worry. Do your best to conquer your greatest enemy, the one that destroys your successful performance and well-being: your need to be perfect.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Curran, T., & Hill, A. P. (2019). Perfectionism is increasing over time: A meta-analysis of birth cohort differences from 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin, 145(4), 410–429.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.