What is perfectionism?

Perfectionism is generally defined as maintaining standards that are unrealistically high and impossible to attain (Hewitt & Flett, 1991).

Perfectionism is not necessarily problematic. Often it is very useful and facilitates academic and personal fulfilment. It could be helpful because it promotes self-efficacy, enhances our lives and probably enabled you to come to Maastricht University. Perfectionistic people have attention for details. The advance is that working together with a perfectionist will assure you they work precise and accurately. The downside lies in unattainable standards which can’t be reached. The perfectionist demands high expectations from himself but also from his surrounding; everything has to be perfect as they are afraid to fail. They automatically match their self-esteem to their capacities and performances.

self-esteem = performance

Perfectionism refers to self-defeating thoughts and behaviors associated with high standards and unrealistic goals. Perfectionism is often mistakenly seen as desirable or even necessary for success. However perfectionist attitudes actually interfere with success. The desire to be perfect can deny you a sense of satisfaction and can result in achieving far less than people with more realistic goals.

What causes perfectionism?

If you are a perfectionist, it is likely that you learned early in life that other people valued you because of how much you accomplished or achieved. As a result you may have learned to value yourself only on the basis of other people’s approval. Thus your self-esteem may have come to be based primarily on external standards. This can leave you excessively sensitive to the opinions and criticism of others. In attempting to protect yourself from such criticism, you may decide that being perfect is your only defense.

More information on the Students Affairs Counceling Center of the Illinois University

When it comes to writing a thesis, many students believe that if they are perfect and do not make any mistakes, they can be in control and protect themselves from being flawed. If you pursue perfection, it is likely to be your way of ensuring that you avoid exposing your perceived inadequacies. The pursuit of perfection may also be a way for you to maintain a sense of control and quell the uncertainty and anxiety inherent in the thesis process. Seeking perfection, however, is an elusive goal that only gives you the illusion of control.

A number of the following negative feelings, thoughts, and beliefs may be associated with perfectionism (Student & Staff Counselling, University of Cambridge):


  • Fear of failure. Perfectionists often equate failure to achieve their goals with a lack of personal worth or value All-or-nothing-thinking. This occurs when a situation is viewed in extremes. Perfectionists frequently believe that they are worthless if their accomplishments are not perfect. Perfectionists have difficulty seeing situations in perspective while this middle ground would be probably more helpful.
  • Anticipating negative outcomes. Occurs when a negative prediction is made (fortune telling..) and/or a catastrophic outcome is seen as inevitable.
  • Fear of making mistakes. Perfectionists often equate mistakes with failure. In orienting their lives around avoiding mistakes (procrastination), perfectionists miss opportunities to learn and grow.
  • Fear of disapproval. If they let others see their flaws, perfectionists often fear that they will no longer be accepted. Trying to be perfect is a way of trying to protect themselves from criticism, rejection, and disapproval.
  • Overemphasis on “shoulds”. Perfectionists’ lives are often structured by an endless list of “shoulds” that serve as rigid rules for how their lives must be led. With such an overemphasis on shoulds, perfectionists rarely take into account their own wants and desires. (Perfectionism are you on the downward spiral?)

How to manage perfectionism?

The first step in changing from being a perfectionist to healthy striving is to realize that perfectionism is undesirable. Perfection is an illusion that is unattainable. Try to balance your goal of writing a brilliant thesis with the goal of completing it on time.

The next step is to challenge the self-defeating thoughts and behaviors that fuel perfectionism.

Here are a few strategies:

  • Realistic goals. Set realistic and reachable goals based on your own needs and what you have accomplished in the past. This will enable you to achieve and also will lead to a greater sense of self-esteemSmall improvements. Set subsequent goals in a sequential manner. As you reach a goal, set your next goal just beyond your present level.
  • Try for less than 100%. Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and by aiming for 80% or even 70% success you will learn the world does not end when you are not perfect.
  • Focus on process. Try to focus on the process of writing your thesis not just on the final result. Evaluate your success not only in terms of what you accomplished but also on in terms of how much you enjoyed the task.
  • Face your fears. Confront the fears that may be behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?”’.
  • Celebrate’ your mistakes. Recognize that many positive things can only be learned by making mistakes. Just ask yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” It could help thinking about a recent mistake (any..) and list all the things you can learn from it.Healt
  • Healthy Striving. Healthy goal setting and striving are quite different from the self-defeating process of perfectionism. Healthy strivers tend to set goals based on their own wants and desires rather the primarily in response to external expectations. Their goals are usually based upon what they already have accomplished. In other words, their goals are realistic, internal, and potentially attainable. Healthy strivers take pleasure in the process of pursuing the task at hand rather than focusing only on the end result. When they experience disapproval or failure, their reactions are generally limited to specific situations rather than generalized to their entire self-worth.

More information: Student & Staff Counselling, Cambridge University.

General Tips & Tools

For Students
  • Confront your fears that are behind your perfectionism by asking yourself, “What am I afraid of? What is the worst thing that could happen?”
  • Look for role models who are satisfied with “good enough.” Note how they get things done, are satisfied with themselves, and are not looked down on by others.
  • Experiment with your standards for success. Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100%, try for 90%, 80%, or even 60% success. This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.
For supervisors

Whenever a student repeatedly doesn’t want to send a chapter draft because “it’s not ready yet”, you may suspect perfectionism is the problem. Don’t hesitate to refer them to Student Advisor and Academic Counselor.

Get support

Perfectionism can be difficult to resolve by yourself and it’s often best for you to seek help. Sometimes simply talking through a problem can help you find a solution. Pick people whom you know that will not judge you, will listen and encourage you.

Perfectionism can seriously impair your academic performance and that is not only distressing for you, but also means a lot of wasted effort. Talk to your supervisor about difficulties you encounter or visit a Student Advisor and Academic Counselor.

Available workshops at Maastricht University

Visit the Lectures, workshops and training courses page for the current offering regarding Study efficacy increase group (thesis); Fear of failure training; Workshop Stress Management.