The paradox of perfectionism — Got Anxiety? |

The paradox of perfectionism — Got Anxiety?

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D.
Mary B. Barmann, MFT

Editor’s Note

This is the third in a four-part series from the Barmanns about perfectionism.

Click here to read part one.

Click here to read part two.

Oftentimes, anxiety drives our behavior. With respect to the concept of perfectionism, there are two primary sources of anxiety which cause individuals to display perfectionistic behaviors: (1) not being successful in attaining one’s unrealistic self-standards, and (2) making mistakes en route to achieving goals that are virtually unobtainable.

The beliefs that maintain these fears demonstrate the paradox of perfectionism. That is, those who behave in a perfectionistic manner typically believe that to maintain order and control in their lives, they must behave in a particular manner.

In reality, when performed excessively, these behaviors have an effect that is the opposite of what the person desires — disorder, and a lack of control in one’s life, due to the inordinate amount of time it takes to get things done, as well as the tendency to procrastinate or avoid situations that trigger the need to be perfect.

Let’s take a look at the most common response styles displayed by those who believe the only way to do something, is to do it perfectly.

“When performed excessively, these behaviors have an effect that is the opposite of what the person desires — disorder, and a lack of control in one’s life, due to the inordinate amount of time it takes to get things done, as well as the tendency to procrastinate or avoid situations that trigger the need to be perfect.”


In our previous article, we discussed several cognitive errors that trigger perfectionistic behaviors.

These behaviors maintain perfectionistic thought patterns in that they prevent people from learning that their beliefs are inaccurate predictions related to the occurrence of future achievement.

For example, those who believe the only way to avoid making mistakes is to spend a great deal of time re-checking their work — consistently performing this behavior results in preventing the individuals from learning that they probably could have achieved the same result by spending far less time engaging in excessive reassurance checking.

Following are five other common perfectionistic response styles:

1. Overcompensating

This type of perfectionistic behavior involves overdoing some particular task in order to ensure that it has been performed “just right,” thus avoiding feeling anxious concerning the possibility of not meeting their high standards.

An example would include giving someone extremely specific instructions, in various formats, to be perfectly certain the individual completely understands the instructions, thus ensuring the task will be performed in a mistake-free manner.

The instructions may be communicated face-to-face, followed by an email, a voicemail, and culminating with stopping by the person’s home for an additional review of the information.

2. Excessive List Making

Organizing one’s day by making “to do lists” is fine — most people make lists of this nature.

However, this behavior, as is the case with all other perfectionistic styles, differs from the norm concerning its frequency and intensity.

Excessive organizational routines actually get in the way of being productive due to their time consuming nature and strong need to review, re-write, and frequently add items to these lists.

A patient seen within our private practice has the tendency to spend up to three hours each day constructing her “chore list,” followed by making sure the items are in a “just right” order.

If any task is completed out of order, she will re-write the list and review it several times. She will also file these lists in a safe place for years, “just in case.”

3. Procrastination

A hallmark for those who display perfectionism is the tendency to put off beginning a task. They frequently “get stuck” in the starting position.

When high standards must be achieved in a self-imposed mistake-free manner, anxiety stops by for a visit — a very long visit.

The inner voice of anxiety reminds the individual that by not starting a particular project, there exists no possibility of making mistakes, no chance of a less-than-perfect performance, and the possibility of experiencing feelings of self-doubt and uncertainty will have no opportunity to surface.

4. Excessive Slowness

In addition to procrastination, those with perfectionistic traits tend to take a considerably long time completing projects due to a difficulty making decisions that could result in mistakes, therefore requiring the need for excessive reassurance checking.

An individual may display this behavioral pattern in the manner in which he or she speaks — very slowly, self-monitoring each thought, word, phrase, and sentence in order to guarantee a perfect social interaction.

Conversations of this nature take forever, and are frustrating for the recipient as well.

5. Avoidance

Those who strive for perfection will often find themselves avoiding any task that might trigger the need for setting even higher self-standards, and associated self-imposed perfectionistic results.

Those with Social Anxiety will typically avoid nearly any social interaction that could result in being viewed as awkward, inept, not intelligent or boring.

Rather than accepting an invitation to a social gathering and risk anything less than a perfect social performance, the individual chooses to err on the side of caution, and not attend.

As with all perfectionistic response styles, the perceived solution becomes the problem.

Barry C. Barmann, Ph.D., is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Nevada and California. His wife, Mary B. Barmann, MFT, is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in California. They own the Center for Anxiety & Chronic Worry in Incline Village. Barry may be reached for comment at; visit to learn more.

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