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Perfectionism/Low Self-Esteem

Self-esteem is initially acquired through two main sources: how others treated us and what others told us about ourselves. When these messages were positive and realistic, individuals develop a sense of self-worth. However, when messages are unrealistic or highly critical, individuals may have difficulty developing an inherent sense of self-worth and may rely on a variety of other factors to improve self-esteem.

Sometimes, when individuals experience insecurity, they seek validation and self-worth in their achievements, possibly leading to perfectionism. Others may feel a sense of insecurity not about who they are but about the world (due to difficult or uncontrollable factors in their lives) and turn to perfectionism to provide a sense of control.

Perfectionism is a pattern of rigid and unrealistic thoughts, expectations, and behaviors with the intention of achieving excessively high goals and/or avoiding any mistakes, human flaws, or unplanned situations. Perfectionists often experience frustration, shame, disappointment, and self-blame when those expectations are not met. Additionally, perfectionism can cause frequent negative thoughts, worry, and self-doubt. Perfectionists may also experience mental health concerns (e.g. anxiety, depression, eating disorders), procrastination or avoidance of tasks, and difficulty in their relationships.

A common myth is that perfectionists are more successful and have more control over their lives. However, the success of perfectionists is not due to their unrealistic expectations and thoughts but in spite of them. The perfectionism pattern is often a barrier to success because of the anxiety, self-doubt, and procrastination involved. Many perfectionists worry that without their perfectionism they will not be successful, but most find that without the compulsive need for perfection, they are better able to achieve their goals.

Perfectionism vs. Healthy Striving (adapted from David Burns, MD)

Perfectionism Healthy Pursuit of Excellence
1. Being motivated by fear of failure or obligation
2. Setting standards beyond any reasonable reach
3. However great your accomplishments, they never seem to satisfy you
4. You are preoccupied with fear of failure and have difficulty moving on from failure
5. Self-esteem must be earned and you must achieve things in order to be loved and accepted
6. Becoming overly defensive when criticized
7. The focus is always on outcomes
8. Goals are always perfection all of the time
1. Being motivated by enthusiasm or passion
2. Setting high and realistic standards
3. Your efforts provide a feeling of satisfaction and sense of accomplishment, even if you are not always perfect
4. You bounce back quickly from failure or disappointment and recognize it as an opportunity for growth or learning
5. You enjoy an unconditional sense of self-worth that is not dependent on your achievements
6. Seeing constructive criticism as an opportunity for growth
7. The focus can be on both outcomes and the process
8. Goals are one step beyond present or former achievements

These strategies can be a starting point to improve self-worth and reduce perfectionism:

  • Set realistic standards and goals—they can be high but they also need to be achievable
  • Enjoy the process, not just the outcome
  • Recognize flaws as part of human nature
  • View mistakes made and constructive feedback given as opportunities for growth and learning
  • Challenge your unrealistic thoughts and expectations about yourself and those around you. Try coming up with more positive and realistic thoughts and expectations and say them to yourself (even if they are hard to believe at first).
  • Engage in authentic communication and relationships. Self-worth increases when we can be genuine with others.
  • Remember that failure is always involved on the journey to success—practice acceptance that failure is inevitable
  • Make a list each day of your accomplishments and strengths
  • Reward yourself for no particular reason at all
  • Let yourself feel disappointment and frustration without spiraling into negative thinking and blame of self/others
  • Make a gratitude list, acknowledging what has gone well in your life rather than what hasn’t
  • Give yourself credit for the effort you make rather than for the outcome of your efforts.
  • Accept compliments from others
  • Regularly give yourself a break (mentally and physically)
  • Ask for what you need. We feel more empowered and confident when we act assertively.
  • Practice engaging in nonjudgmental thinking about yourself and others

The Counseling Center offers a number of services aimed at helping individuals experiencing perfectionism and low self-esteem, including:

To begin any of these services, please first schedule a brief assessment.

How to overcome perfectionism 

Personal Excellence
11 Signs You are a Perfectionist

The Power of Vulnerability Video
Brené Brown discusses how shame is a barrier to vulnerability

Listening to Shame Video
Brené Brown explores what happens when we confront shame

Comprehensive Workbook on Self-Compassion
CCI’s Workbook (7 Modules) on building self-compassion

Comprehensive Workbook on Overcoming Perfectionism
CCI’s Workbook (9 Modules) on overcoming perfectionism

Comprehensive Workbook on Improving Self-Esteem
CCI’s Workbook (9 Modules) on improving self-esteem


  • I thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power by Brown
  • Radical Acceptance by Brach
  • Present Perfect: A Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need for Control by Somov
  • When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by Antony and Swinson
  • Be Happy without Being Perfect: How to Worry Less and Enjoy Life More by Domar
  • Too Perfect by Mallinger and DeWyze
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