Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be perfect, to have the perfect life? For some, this is the ultimate destination, where happiness, fulfilment, health, confidence, validation and success are the juicy rewards. Sounds great doesn’t it? 

Except perfectionism is actually making us sick. Unless you’re a heart surgeon or an accountant, it’s not propelling anyone towards greatness. 

Perfectionism has been studied by psychologists looking at 40,000 young people in the US, Canada and the UK over 27 years. An 11% rise in perfectionism was found. The extent to which people attached an irrational importance to perfectionism had risen 10% and worryingly, a 33% rise was seen in the extent to which people felt they needed to show themselves as perfect to receive validation. 

There is a positive association between perfectionism and anxiety, depression and eating disorders, all of which have risen accordingly. On the physical side perfectionism is associated with issues such as elevated blood pressure.  There is also anecdotal evidence that perfectionism can be one of the reasons for suicide attempts, particularly amongst young men. 


Ultimately, this is not the kind of perfectionism that drives people to greater sense of satisfaction and happiness. This is perfectionism that is absolutely toxic for self-esteem, self-worth, mental and physical health. If the numbers are extrapolated into the future, the prospects are extremely worrying. 



The research highlights three main causes:

  • Compare and despair culture stemming from media and social media. This is about comparing your insides to other people’s projected, marketed, edited and filtered outsides, and deciding that you come up short. 
  • Capitalist culture where material gain, image, is king and the ultimate goals to aim for. Never mind your character or contribution to society, your worth as  a person is judged by how impressive your job title, salary, house, car or handbag is. 
  • The way that and frequency with which young people are tested and measured as they grow up, and the perceived impact that the results could have on their outcomes and success for the rest of their lives. Being measured and encouraged to constantly do better is also a prominent feature of life in the corporate world with annual appraisals, quarterly targets, monthly goals and the like. It’s rarely the case that you are patted on the back and told how well you are doing and to keep doing what you’re doing, there is always the question of ‘where next’ and what new dizzy heights of achievement you might push to next and which new skills you plan to acquire. 


Having given well over 20 talks on this topic to a variety or corporate and personal development audiences, there is another trigger too for always striving for more and feeling as though you aren’t good enough unless you are perfect. And that is family pressure. Well-meaning parents and grandparents who want their children to be huge successes can be enormous sources of pressure to study more, achieve more, earn more and so on. When this pressure is a feature of home life, and then reiterated at school/work and in the media, is it any wonder that people assume that they must keep pushing themselves to be better?

And if you’re pushing yourself to be better, there has to be an underlying assumption that you – as you are right now – simply aren’t good enough. Striving for perfection can be seen as the only way to fix this but the perfectionist solution you try to implement is stealing your self-esteem whilst feeding your inner critic. You’re playing a game that it is impossible to win. 

Here’s something I know to be true. Trying to fix what feels wrong on the inside with external achievements doesn’t work. Feelings of powerlessness about your ability to be good enough and receive enough validation take hold, providing rich fertiliser for mental health issues and destructive habits to numb how you feel about yourself and your life. Drinking, emotional eating, endless scrolling and shopping are just a few of the habits that are easy to lean on to escape how you feel. 

Stepping away from the toxic perfectionist trap is something you change from the inside out, not from the outside in. It is a journey from fear and harsh self-judgment to love, truth and kindness, from ego to heart. It can include a switch in your internal values system too: rejecting some of what you’ve been told that success ‘should’ look like. After all, if success comes at the expense of your health and happiness, is it really success?  I don’t think so! This past year (2020) has highlighted the importance of health as a precursor to success. 


So – how do you escape the trap of toxic perfectionism? 

First, acknowledge the destructive cycle and accept the idea that external achievement is not part of the solution. Now filter external influences and change your attitude to them. It might mean unfollowing a bunch of people on social media, no longer reading fashion magazines, or not giving so much airtime or importance to the opinions of certain people in your life. 

Next, a shift in behavior is required where creating self-trust and self-esteem through meeting your needs and self-validation becomes number one priority. These needs will be partly physical – dietary, sleep, movement et al. They will also be emotionally and spiritually related, including the need to do things for the sheer joy of it, standing up for what you need in your relationships and what’s important for you, plus following a career that is truly fulfilling rather than for status and validation. 

You cannot think your way to a new way of acting and feeling about yourself, you can’t think your way to a new way of treating yourself. Instead, you act first, and the thinking and feeling follows. To feel truly good about yourself, you must treat yourself as if you already have great worth, and as if what your body and heart desire is of the utmost importance. By showing yourself through a shift in behavior, your feelings and thinking follow. Energy has to flow towards self-care and self-validation, rather than the external. 

Lastly, focusing on progress and the reality of achievements, rather than the failure to be perfect, works as a powerful perspective shifter of your worth. Plus it’s about how so-called failures are interpreted; as a disaster that means something detrimental to your worth, or as learning opportunities that are the bedrock of your life experience and wisdom. Essentially, this is about celebrating progress and learning, not berating yourself for failing to reach perfection. 

You are already enough, I promise. The sooner you cut the ties between what you look like, achieve or own and your self-worth, the happier and healthier you will be. Interestingly, you will also most likely be more successful! 


Let’s tackle toxic perfectionism so we can ACTUALLY make our difference in the world. 

Harriet Waley-Cohen


Harriet Waley Cohen is one of Actually’s Coaching Partners. Harriet’s vision is for a world where it doesn’t occur to women that they or their bodies aren’t good enough, where they know, accept and celebrate their true value. As a sought after speaker and women’s leadership coach, Harriet’s clients and audiences show hugely positive changes in how they think, feel and act in their relationship with themselves and their potential. They learn how to ditch disempowering behaviours, feelings of low self-belief and general overwhelm to become confident, healthy, and successful. Harriet is the creator of the fast growing and feisty brand Self-Love & Sass, to be found on instagram at @selflove_and_sass

To book an exploratory to discuss Harriet giving a talk on ‘Breaking Free from Toxic Perfectionism: Create Success With Wellbeing’ at your organisation, email help@harrietwaleycohen.com 

To supercharge your ability to conquer your inner world so that you can have anything you want, you will love Harriet’s entry level, easy to implement DIY emotional wellbeing bundle, Calm, Centred and In Control: https://bit.ly/CCCbundle


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