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Looking Good but Feeling Awful: Escaping the Perfectionist's Paradox

Woman staring out of window ruminating on imagined mistakes
Getty Images / Leon Harris

In a world where perfection is easy to fake (but never accomplish), many people find themselves in a toxic, unsustainable cycle. After a decade of ticking every box on her “Perfectionist Check List,” the strain caused Claire Eastham to crash. She started her recovery by listing ways to “get better quicker” and be perfect again. Thankfully, Claire soon realized that perfection is unattainable. Her thirst to achieve the impossible had made her miserable for years. She now has 5 top tips for escaping perfectionism’s false promises – read about them here.

I was in my early twenties when I first suspected that my "perfectionist" tendencies may be unhealthy. 

What gave it away? Well, I was determined to the point of being obsessive. I neglected my basic needs, such as food and rest. Most of all, I was terrified of failure. 

Check, check, check... and bingo

Until this turning point, all these toxic perfectionist behaviors had helped me succeed. My education, career, and love life looked fantastic on paper. Physically, I was in the best shape of my life. 

In truth, my fight for bodily perfection wasn't about health or fitness. My excruciating diet, exercise, and self-maintenance routine centered on attracting a partner. But who cared if it wasn't for the right reasons? I was a machine! 

Even the hint of a qualm would cause me to berate myself. What was I trying to say, exactly? That a high-flying career, thriving love life, and my peak physical health were bad?! Yes, I'd developed a tremor in my hands. Achieving a night of uninterrupted sleep was, ironically, just a dream, and I felt sick most of the time. 

Still, no one got anywhere in life by coasting. These things only happened because I'd worked hard for them. The tremors and the lack of sleep were blips, and having blips meant not being perfect. So, I would feel better if I became even MORE flawless. 

My very public breakdown in 2019 would suggest otherwise.

Your perfectionist instincts may do more harm than good

Recognizing the need to change is the first step. But it's not all plain sailing from there. Undoing decades of learned and (formerly) trusted behaviors takes time. I'd slip in and out of old habits as I wrestled with the idea that my lifelong philosophy was unhealthy. 

My "perfectionist instincts" had been praised and rewarded my whole life. My family, teachers, and employers said they were impressed by my behavior and work ethic. A college professor once told me, "You have an incredible line of sight." (A military reference, I think).

Perfectionism got me the results I longed for and made me feel safe. It became a cycle. Being "successful" was my identity, and I couldn't face the idea of being anything else.

I needed some time at "perfectionist rehab"

As I lay sedated on my couch in the days following my breakdown, I had to face that my instincts were wrong. Unhealthily wrong. 

For example? I'd just had a public breakdown. I was receiving psychiatric treatment. Even after all that, I was scribbling down ways in my journal to "get better quicker" and that this was “just a small setback.”

I still have that notebook. By the state of my handwriting, I couldn't even grip the pen properly, never mind convince myself and the world that I was "fine." 


A thought raised its voice in my head, loud enough for me to stop and pay attention. 

This isn't working for you. What if something affected your body instead of your mind? Would you brainstorm your way out of a broken leg? Or rest up and let yourself recover? You can't control everything! 

The thought finally began to morph into a real wake-up call. I slowly realized that perfectionism was unhealthy and unsustainable. It had been the root of so much of my rumination and anxiety in my life, and I had to escape this miserable cycle. Not to mention I was sick of dealing with emotional storms that followed whenever I fell short in any way. 

"Perfectionists think they have to be perfect; when they are not, they get angry. They also expect other people to be perfect and get angry or impatient when others prove imperfect." ~ The Dangers of PerfectionismAndrea Brandt, Psychology Today, 2019. 

No matter how insignificant my mistakes were, I'd become furious with myself. There was no self-kindness involved; I didn't deserve it.

Perfectionism was the monster I'd been living with 

I didn't know how to be anything other than the most perfect person who ever lived. As I researched for this article, I came across this quote: 

"Many perfectionists worry that if they let go of their (meticulousness and conscientiousness), it will hurt their performance and standing." ~ Matt Plummer and Rebecca Knight, How to Manage Your Perfectionism, Harvard Business Review, 2019. 

Looking back, I used to cling to a system that helped me achieve and avoid the worst label of all: "failure." That it caused devastating consequences for my health didn't matter... until the day it did. 

It took a long time, but as I began to heal, I accepted that I needed to make some changes. Perfectionism had become the monster I lived with.

5 tips for escaping the toxic cycle of perfectionism

1. Accept that you're all too human... and that's how it should be

Perfection is impossible. Taking responsibility for your mistakes is the right thing to do, yes. But tipping into endless self-criticism is the opposite and will emotionally burn you out. Try being kind to yourself instead!

"Hating yourself or berating yourself for not being perfect doesn't help you. Self-forgiveness is a tool not just for anger but for all uncomfortable feelings." ~ The Dangers of Perfectionism, Angela Brandt, Psychology Today, 2019. 

2. Understand that failure isn’t the end 

Sure, the initial feelings are deflating and uncomfortable, but they pass. I realized that mistakes are opportunities to obtain more wisdom. 

Nowadays, I try not to jump to berating myself when I fail. Instead, I jot down what I've learned about myself and any "life lessons" I've taken from the situation. Scenarios tend to repeat themselves with different people or objects in a new setting. Reminding myself of how I coped last time may be helpful. 

3. Know when to stop

I set myself time limits/fake deadlines for certain activities. E.g. At 5 p.m., no matter what, I have to finish and accept the work I've done that day. The brain responds to boundaries.

4. Don't expect others to live up to your "standards"

You'll forever be disappointed. First off, your standards may be impossible. Secondly, accept that other people are human and have free will. If you thought perfectionism would make others like you, the reality may not match. Many peers may be frustrated with nothing being good enough for you!

In life, there isn't one way of doing anything. My husband reminds me of this during housework. 

5. Understand that obsession is a bad habit, not a goal

Are you working hard for good results, or are you becoming obsessive? 

It's easy to confuse the two, but "working hard" means you won't neglect basic needs such as exercise, food, and rest. 

If you find yourself becoming obsessed with something… FIND A DISTRACTION! Find something to create space between you and your toxic perfectionist urges. 

When I'm on the brink of becoming obsessive, I find something that'll snap me out of the danger zone. My go-to distractions are short but sweet — a word search, for example, or a funny video about unlikely animal friendships. 

The takeaway

Escaping the miserable, toxic cycle of perfectionism isn't easy. My instincts toward being "perfect" will always be a part of my personality. However, I can recognize my triggers and the warning signs these days. 

In the words of Salvador Dali: "Have no fear of perfection - you'll never reach it." 

If we accept that, we may all become healthier and happier.

The information presented is solely for educational purposes, not as specific advice for the evaluation, management, or treatment of any condition.

The individual(s) who have written and created the content in and whose images appear in this article have been paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals for their contributions. This content represents the opinions of the contributor and does not necessarily reflect those of Teva Pharmaceuticals. Similarly, Teva Pharmaceuticals does not review, control, influence or endorse any content related to the contributor's websites or social media networks. This content is intended for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered medical advice or recommendations. Consult a qualified medical professional for diagnosis and before beginning or changing any treatment regimen. 


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