Joyful Musings

By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC

Progress Not Perfection


Joy-4-11Setting high goals for yourself and wanting to be successful are admirable qualities. Being a high achiever is laudable, but if you’re never satisfied with anything less than perfection, you set yourself up for continual frustration,  unhappiness, and disappointment.

The seeds of perfectionism can be planted in many ways. Parents can instill it by over-emphasizing achievement or making their love conditional on meeting certain expectations. Society encourages perfectionism by glorifying hard work, high grades, and competitiveness as paths to success. Even our genetic makeup can predispose us towards perfectionism. Read the following traits and decide if you sound more like a high achiever or a perfectionist.

All-Or-Nothing Thinking:  Perfectionists and high achievers both tend to set high goals and work hard toward them. However, a high achiever can be satisfied with doing a great job even if their very high goals aren’t completely met. Perfectionists will accept nothing less than, well, perfection.

Critical Eye: Perfectionists are far more critical of themselves and others than are high achievers. While high achievers take pride in their accomplishments and tend to be supportive of others, perfectionists spot even tiny mistakes and imperfections in their work and in themselves, as well as in others and their work. They hone in on these imperfections even when the rest of the project or task turned out well.

Unrealistic Standards: Unfortunately, a perfectionist’s goals aren’t always even reasonable. While high achievers may set their goals high, perfectionists often set their initial goals out of reach, setting themselves up to be less likely to achieve them.

Focus on Results: High achievers can enjoy the process of chasing a goal as much or more than the actual reaching of the goal itself. Conversely, perfectionists see the goal and nothing else. They’re so concerned about meeting the goal and avoiding the dreaded failure that they don’t enjoy the process of growing and striving.

Depressed by Unmet Goals: Perfectionists are much less happy and easygoing than high achievers. While high achievers are able to bounce back fairly easily from disappointment, perfectionists tend to beat themselves up and wallow in negative feelings when their high expectations go unmet.

Fear of Failure: Perfectionists are much more afraid to fail than are high achievers. Because they place so much stock in results and become so disappointed by anything less than perfection, failure is especially scary. And, since anything less than perfection is seen as ‘failure,’ this can lead to…

Procrastination: It seems paradoxical that perfectionists would be prone to procrastination, but perfectionism and procrastination tend to go hand in hand. This is because, fearing failure as they do, perfectionists will sometimes worry so much about doing something imperfectly that they become immobilized and fail to do anything at all!

Defensiveness: Because a less-than-perfect performance is so painful and scary to perfectionists, they tend to take constructive criticism defensively, while high achievers can see criticism as valuable information to help their future performance.

Low Self Esteem: High achievers tend to have high esteem while perfectionists, because they tend to be self-critical and unhappy, often suffer from low self-esteem. They can also be lonely or isolated, as their critical nature and rigidity can push others away as well. This can lead to lower self-esteem.

Albert Einstein once said, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”  Let your mistakes be valuable lessons. Aim for progress, not perfection, and learn to say ‘Well done!’ You’ll be far more successful in the long run.

Editor’s Note: Joy is a practicing psychotherapist in Riberas. She can be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 765-4988 or through her website:

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