Could a perfectionistic mindset be wreaking havoc in your life or the lives of your clients? Have you considered that perfectionistic tendencies could be one of the roadblocks to your clients achieving success? This article examines the origins of perfectionism, how it may result in a wide range of negative emotions and often leads to an all-or-nothing mindset that can derail even the most committed clients. 

What’s Wrong With Being a Perfectionist?

While what you consider perfect may be different from someone else’s idea of perfection, Andrew Hill, PhD, professor of sport and exercise psychology at York St. John University in York, England, defines perfectionism as “the perceived or actual need to be perfect. It typically manifests in striving toward unrealistic standards and harsh self-evaluative tendencies, like self-criticism.”

Hill notes that perfectionism is more than just a behavior. “It is a way of thinking about yourself and the world, especially in regard to what you think you must accomplish in order to feel like you are a worthwhile person.”

In a study published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, study authors Hewitt and Flett categorize perfectionism into three types: self-oriented perfectionism, other-oriented perfectionism and socially prescribed perfectionism. The authors found that self-oriented perfectionism, which involves having unrealistic standards for oneself, was associated with “various indices of maladjustment” including anxiety, anorexia nervosa and self-blame. Conversely, other-oriented perfectionism involves having unrealistic standards for significant others and led to “other-directed blame, lack of trust and feelings of hostility toward others.” Finally, with socially prescribed perfectionism, a person believes that he or she has to live up to others' expectations and standards, which the authors say has a wide range of associated negative emotions, including anger, anxiety and depression.

“The other-oriented perfectionist is often the ‘devil’s advocate,’” says Petra Kolber, author of The Perfection Detox and an award-winning fitness professional. “They’re great at pointing fingers at other people and their work, but not really good at offering solutions. Oftentimes, perfectionists who are other-oriented have very low self-esteem and dodge any accountability.”

Thanks to social media and other external influences, socially prescribed perfectionism has become increasingly common and may be, according to Kolber, the most toxic form of perfectionism. “This kind of person believes that the world she or he lives in and the people who live in it expect nothing less than perfection from them. This version is very toxic and unfortunately is rampant in the world of health and fitness.” Further, according to Kolber, the downside of being a self-motivated perfectionist is the risk of no longer finding joy in your accomplishments and the tendency to always look toward the next goal without taking the time to savor your current success.

Even in cultures that seemingly place high value on hard work and high-performance outcomes, Hill finds it difficult to see any upside to perfectionism. “There are upsides to working hard and having high standards, but you can have these without being perfectionistic,” argues Hill.

This is more than just an opinion—Hill draws his conclusion from research, including a 2019 study he conducted that looked at perfectionism at a cohort level. He and his colleagues found that “self-oriented perfectionism, socially-prescribed perfectionism and other-oriented perfectionism have increased over the last 27 years. We speculate that this may be because, generally, American, Canadian and British cultures have become more individualistic, materialistic and socially antagonistic over this period, with young people now facing more competitive environments, more unrealistic expectations, and more anxious and controlling parents than generations before.”

The High Cost of Perfectionism

Additional studies suggest there aren’t many benefits to being a perfectionist. From stress and burnout to exhaustion, depression and anxiety, perfectionism doesn’t yield many positive benefits. 

“Perfectionism is associated with a long list of negative problems,” suggests Hill, “mental health issues being the most severe. For most perfectionists, we are likely to be harsh on ourselves and others, have difficulty enjoying our lives and, paradoxically, not be as successful as we might be, [because perfectionists tend to] procrastinate and have difficulty dealing with setbacks.” 

Christine Clarke, chief pharmacist at Cottage Hospital in Woodsville, N.H., and a martial arts instructor, is a prime example of how an intelligent, successful woman can be sidelined by perfectionism. “My need to feel and do every exercise or meal plan ‘perfectly’ pretty much sucks the fun out of every program I do. When that happens, my progress usually ends right there. There is a lot of head work involved in trying to slay the perfection demons—too much sometimes. Self-esteem? I don’t have any of that—never did.” 

Do Ms. Clarke’s words sound familiar? As a health and exercise professional, you have undoubtedly encountered clients who abandon their efforts to improve their health after their first slip-up, their first missed class or workout, their first indulgence or deviation from their “ideal” diet. Perfectionists tend to be all-or-nothing in their thinking. For example, how many times have your clients not exercised on their own because they didn’t have time for a "full" workout? If they didn't have time for all of it, they don’t do any of it (even though you’ve assured them that every little bit counts). 

Learning to Be Perfectly Imperfect

There are many ways you, as a health and exercise professional, can help your clients ease off the path of perfectionism. Changing your language is a good place to start. 

“We have to look at our language,” urges Kolber, “and look at what types of goals we’re [encouraging our clients to set]. I think often, without realizing it, we make the body the definition of success, which is more toxic fuel for perfection. Remove words that reward outcome and replace them with words that reward effort. Ask different questions that imply fitness is a tool for creating a magnificent life versus a tool for carving a perfect body.”

Here are two resources you can use to help coach your clients to imperfect action. 

The Perfectionism Workbook: Proven Strategies to End Procrastination, Accept Yourself, and Achieve Your Goals by Taylor Newendorp, MA, LCPC

The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem & Find Balance by Sharon Martin, MSW, LCSW

Perfectionists tend to want to be in control. At the heart of control is fear—and fear of failure is a common fear associated with perfectionism. To help clients overcome this fear, take them through a worst-case scenario exercise. For example:

Coach: “If you were to fail at completing your 5K, what would happen?”

Client: “I’d be embarrassed.”

Coach: “And if you’re embarrassed, what then?”

Client: “Well, I couldn't face my coworkers who all knew I was running it.”

Coach: “If you can’t face your coworkers, what then?”

Client: “I couldn’t go to work.”

Coach: “If you couldn’t go to work, what would happen?”

Client: “I’d go broke and lose my house and car, and my wife would leave me…”

At some point in this conversation, the client realizes how unlikely it is that the worst-case scenario could ever happen. This can bring the client to one of two places: It will either lighten the load, as he or she sees the silliness in it, or it will reveal the deeper root of how the client is feeling. 

Kolber recommends health and exercise professionals take a look at our own tendencies. “Stop comparing yourself to the sound bites you see on social media,” she encourages. “When we can remember that we are here in service of others and put the lens on the people we’re serving versus the lens on ourselves—that’s how we move out of the comparison game. Your training and coaching sessions do not have to be perfect to have significant meaning and impact to those you serve.”

One of my personal mantras is “Progress, not perfection.” After years of putting off certain business goals, for fear of failure and not doing it perfectly, I’m finally checking them off my list. As one of my mentors reminds me, “Imperfect, massive action is better than no action at all.”