People often confuse perfectionism with excellence.

When we strive for excellence, we have high standards. And in general, theres nothing wrong with having high standards. In fact, it can be a good thing. High standards can encourage us to make improvements, solve problems and do quality work.

Perfectionism, however, is an impossibly high standard — with no room for imperfections and no compassion for mistakes.

High standards may be a stretch to achieve, but they are attainable. They are things that we can reasonably accomplish with effort, practice, and persistence. But pursuing perfection is futile. It can never be achieved. And yet, perfectionists pursue impossibly high standards even when doing so negatively affects their health, relationships, and self-worth.

Having impossibly high standards adds stress to everything you do. Its demoralizing because you can never meet your impossibly high standards. So, you constantly feel like a failure, no matter how much you accomplish. And setting impossibly high standards for others, your family and coworkers, leads to nagging, frustration, and arguing that erodes your relationships and leaves them demoralized, as well.

People who strive for excellence can accept that mistakes are inevitable and value what they learn from them. They dont let mistakes define them.

But perfectionists see mistakes as evidence of their inadequacy or inferiority. They expect themselves to know everything, to out-perform everyone, to always know the right thing to do or say, to be above reproach, and never let anyone down. This is not only unrealistic, its a heavy burden to carry.

Heres how I explained the difference between excellence and perfectionism in The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism:

People often confuse perfection with excellence. Excellence is a healthy striving to be outstanding or above average. It promotes personal growth and improvement. But perfectionists dont just expect excellence, they have such painfully high standards that anything short of perfect is intolerable. Unlike excellence, perfectionism is a narrow, intolerant expectation that we will never make mistakes or have any imperfections. Excellence, on the other hand, allows for imperfections and mistakes; its more forgiving than perfectionism.

The primary difference between excellence and perfectionism is the way making mistakes or having flaws is viewed. As perfectionists, we tend to overgeneralize mistakes and shortcomings. We take one mistake and use it to deem ourselves as complete failures or inferior. This thinking error keeps perfectionists stuck on the negatives and unable to see the potentially positive aspects of mistakes and imperfections when in reality there are many benefits to embracing our imperfections and learning from our missteps.

When we expect perfection, well inevitably be disappointed. Everyone makes mistakes no matter how smart they are or how hard they work. Instead, we should strive for excellence. Excellence is striving high, but offering yourself grace for mistakes made and things you dont yet know. (Martin, 2019, page 7)

And when you expect yourself to do the impossible, youre constantly disappointed. You tear yourself down with harsh criticism that far exceeds your actual shortcomings or mistakes. And no matter what you accomplish, you never feel good enough.

When we pursue excellence or high standards, we value the process, not just the outcome. We know that the learning, fun, relationships, and memories that we build along the way, are often as important as the outcome. When we value the process, we are better equipped to weather lifes ups and downs because we know that the outcome isnt always a reflection of our effort, skills, or intelligence.

Failing to achieve a goal whether its getting a 10% raise or throwing a picture-perfect birthday party for your child — is particularly disappointing for perfectionists because they are results-focused, not process-focused. They tend to only see what they did wrong and cant find any value in doing something imperfectly.

This kind of perfectionist thinking can also be used to justify a success at any cost mindset. And this is how many perfectionists end up compromising their health and relationships in the name of winning or achieving. And when we have this mindset, we cant appreciate the learning that comes from mistakes and we cant enjoy the process of learning, growing, and healthy striving for excellence.

Perfectionism is rigid theres only one right way to do things, theres only one way to be successful, being second-best is unacceptable. But high standards are fluid, meaning we can adjust our goals or expectations as needed.

Heres an example of striving for excellence rather than perfection:

Dillon started an Advanced Placement History class with a goal of achieving 100% on every assignment. However, the unit on the American Civil War was particularly challenging and then Dillon got sick and missed two days of school. Initially, he was disappointed with his performance, but he recognized that hed tried his best and pushing himself so hard had probably contributed to getting sick. Dillon adjusted his unrealistic expectations and decided to aim for an A in the class. This was still a high standard, but it was attainable and more flexible than his original goal. In other words, we can have high standards without expecting perfection from ourselves or others.

When we strive for excellence, we feel satisfied with a job well done. We learn from our mistakes and dont let them define us. We enjoy the process, not just the outcome of our endeavors. And we remain flexible and can adjust our standards and goals as needed. We dont get stuck on all-or-nothing thinking or self-criticism. And when we strive for excellence rather than perfection, we aim high, but we keep our lives in balance; we value self-care, fun, and relationships, in addition to our accomplishments.

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2019 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photo courtesy of Samuel Zeller on