Perfectionism Isn't What You Think

“I’m a perfectionist” 😇

You’ll often hear this said by someone who seems to have their whole life together. They seem to sit back and calmly put out consistent, excellent work.

It’s these people that give Perfectionism its shiny reputation. But this isn’t really perfectionism, it’s having high standards, and there’s a big difference.

In reality us perfectionists are dealing with stress, anxiety, and procrastination. We’re perfectionists out of shame, and it’s not something you’d want to be.

I didn’t consider myself a perfectionist, and maybe you don’t either. But once I learned what it was, so much of my behavior made sense. I understood my procrastination and learned how to overcome it.

Perfectionism vs high standards

People often confuse Perfectionism with having high standards. So what’s the difference?

High standards

If you have high standards, you’re setting ambitious but achievable goals. You’re striving to do your best but also understand that mistakes and setbacks happen.

When you have high standards you’re know that your work might fall short of your goals, but you’ll learn from your mistakes and work to improve.

People with high standards see the difference between trying to create something excellent and the impossible ideal of perfection. Their high standards help them in their work, motivating them to try a bit harder.

If you play video games you know the feeling of coming so close to getting a high score. It motivates you to try again, knowing that goal of excellence is within your reach.


Perfectionism, on the other hand, is a binary where work is either perfect or a failure. Perfectionists go beyond setting ambitious goals, instead setting unachievable ones.

Perfectionists struggle to accept mistakes and are incredibly self-critical. Their perfectionism hinders them in their work. They’ll procrastinate for fear of making a mistake. This kind of self-pressure often leads to burn out, poor results, depression, and anxiety.

Perfectionism is driven by shame and fear. The shame of not being worthy. The fear of being discovered as an imposter.

Shame expert Brene Brown puts it perfectly:

Perfectionism is not the same thing has striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. It’s a shield. It’s a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from flight.

The inner voice of the Perfectionist might say:

  • “Everyone will find out I’m a fraud."
  • "My manager will realize I’m not qualified for this role."
  • "People won’t like it and they’ll think less of me.”

You and your work

Perfectionism probably doesn’t affect every part of your life. You might be a perfectionist at work but not in the way you dress or how you cook. You’ll usually find it in areas you most associate with your identity or self worth.

Perfectionists struggle to understand one important thing: You are not your work. Your work is not you. You have value and deserve love even when you’re struggling to put out good shit.

You might need to read that again a few times so it really sinks in. I struggle with accepting it myself.

When my therapist told me, “Your self worth is not your work,” I asked her honestly, “Then what is my self worth?”

That’s when you know you need to do some soul searching. For me it meant reconnecting with friends and family, picking up hobbies, and disconnecting outside of work hours. For you it might be different.

How do I beat perfectionism?

The best way I’ve found to beat it is Struthless’s 70% rule:

Aim for 70% of perfect.

It’s become the mantra for me when creating work. “Is it 70%?”

It helps me begin projects, it helps me work on projects, it helps me finish projects. As long as it’s 70% I’m satisfied.

I recommend watching Struthless’s whole video on the concept. So much of what I’ve learned about my own perfectionism started with this video. The 70% rule comes in at 3:22 in the video.

Generally, getting comfortable with imperfection. It’s why I force myself to write short blog posts that aren’t going to be perfect. By setting up deadlines you force yourself to tolerate imperfection and short circuit that part of your brain.

Beating perfectionism is still a daily battle for me. But every time I finish something I get a little bit more comfortable with my flaws and humanity. I hope you can do the same.