Perfectionism – All or Nothing Thinking, What is Behind This?
Dr. Rick Petronella
September 2023 Newsletter
Perfectionism – All or Nothing Thinking, What is Behind This?
There appears to be something about perfectionism that makes people feel uneasy when they are faced
with the issue. Though sometimes glorified, perfectionism is not a positive virtue. At best, most people
consider it a mixed blessing that can lead to procrastination and, at times, seems to produce guilt. At
worst, it lures many individuals into the seductive and fatal path of substance abuse and physical illness.
Dr. David Burns, in his book “Feeling Good,” describes it like this… Think of it this way- there are two
doors to enlightenment. One is marked “Perfectionism,” and the other is marked “Average”. The
perfection door is ornate, fancy, and destructive. It tempts you. You want very much to go through it.
The Average door seems drab and plain. Who would ever want to go through that door?
So you try to go through the” Perfection” door and often discover a brick wall on the other side. As you
insist on trying to break through, you only end up with a sore nose and a headache. On the other side of
the “Average” door, in contrast, there is a magic garden, but it may have never occurred to you to open
this door and take a look! The door of perfection leads to anxiety, discouragement, and compulsive
emphasis on the externals of life. In the end, you can only find a conditional experience of love and life.
Perfectionism can be self-defeating and can take away the joy of living.
“All-or-nothing thinking” is a cognitive distortion where individuals perceive situations in absolute,
extreme terms with no middle ground. Perfectionism, on the other hand, is the need to be or appear
perfect or to believe that it’s possible to achieve perfection.
What is” all-or-nothing” thinking and perfectionism?
“All-or-nothing thinking” and “perfectionism” are cognitive and behavioral patterns that can be
counterproductive. This cognitive distortion involves viewing situations in absolute terms without
recognizing any middle ground. Examples include thinking, “If I’m not perfect, I’m a failure,” or “If I can’t
do it perfectly, there’s no point in trying”.
This type of thinking can lead to feelings of inadequacy, hopelessness, or even depression, as it can set
up unrealistic standards and reduce one’s ability to see nuances and shades of gray in different
Perfectionism is the pursuit of excellence to an extreme, often at the cost of well-being, relationships,
- A perfectionist may set impossibly high standards for themselves and may be overly self-critical when these standards aren’t met.
- While striving for excellence can be a positive trait, perfectionism can be debilitating, leading to chronic feelings of inadequacy, procrastination due to fear of failure, and excessive anxiety about making mistakes.
- It can also result in significant stress, burnout, and strain on relationships, as perfectionists might also have unrealistic expectations of others.
Both “all-or-nothing” thinking and perfectionism can impede progress and personal growth. People who
recognize these patterns in themselves often benefit from cognitive-behavioral strategies that challenge
and modify these thoughts and behaviors. Working with a therapist or counselor can be particularly
effective in addressing and reframing these patterns.
Someone who is a perfectionist may also engage in “all-or-nothing” thinking by viewing their efforts as
either perfect or a total failure. This can create a cycle of stress and self-criticism that makes it difficult
to enjoy achievements or make progress in personal development. Both patterns of thought can also
negatively impact relationships, as they can lead to unrealistic expectations and a lack of emotional
Comments like, “I never feel happy; I always feel sad.” “Everything is terrible; nothing good ever
happens.” “It’s always going to be like this.” This cognitive distortion involves viewing situations, people,
or events in extreme, polarized terms without considering the potential for middle ground or shades of
In some ways, “all-or-nothing” thinking can affect us with decreased confidence and self-esteem, less
willingness to take risks, and feelings of failure. Unable to think of solutions or find a middle ground, lack
of self-compassion, less resilience, unwilling or unable to forgive oneself.
Ways to overcome “all-or-nothing thinking”
The first and most important step to curb negative thought patterns is to learn to “recognize them.” This
can be challenging since our thoughts run unconsciously and consistently — and many of them aren’t so
positive. All-or-nothing thinking is a habit, and like any other habit, you need to notice it to break it.
Allow yourself to brainstorm all possible solutions, reasons, and explanations — from the reasonable to
the ridiculous. You might find that the gray area is much bigger and more plausible than you think.
Progress, not perfection
When we get trapped in all-or-nothing thinking, we’re essentially saying to ourselves that perfection is
the only good outcome. And that’s just not true. If we only accept perfection, we’re doomed to failure.
We’ll have a negative self-perception because no matter how well things turn out, we’ll never measure
It’s important to remember that it’s okay to make mistakes and that progress, not perfection, should be
our goal sometimes, we tend to fall into the trap of all-or-nothing thinking, where we believe that only
perfection is acceptable. However, this mindset is flawed. If we constantly strive for perfection, we’re
setting ourselves up for failure. We’ll end up with a negative self-image because no matter how well we
perform, there will always be something that we could have done better. It’s important to remember
that it’s okay to make mistakes and that progress, not perfection, should be our goal.
If you’re unsure if you’re a perfectionist or not, here are some standard behavioral signs for
you to keep an eye out for:
- You’re a high achiever. Shooting for the stars is great, but many perfectionists tend to have
an all-or-nothing mindset when completing tasks. Even if your effort is recognized and praised,
you’re never satisfied.
- You’re highly critical. Not only are perfectionists self-critical, but they hold others to a high
standard. They have tunnel vision when it comes to flaws and mistakes. To them, “almost
perfect” still means failure.
- You’re driven by fear The fear of failure usually motivates perfectionists since not reaching a
goal is the worst-case scenario imaginable.
- You have unrealistic standards If you’re unable to enjoy the journey or if it’s all about
reaching the summit, it might skew your standards. Disappointment and various mental health
issues like depression, self-harm, or eating disorders could manifest if you don’t achieve your
- You procrastinate. Although this may seem surprising at first, perfectionists often
procrastinate. Their fear of failure causes paralysis, preventing them from starting projects and
tasks. Procrastination has many causes but many cures, too.
How to overcome Perfectionism
Perfectionism isn’t good for your well-being. But you can practice many habits in order to shift
from an unhealthy self-image to a realistic one.
- Focus on the positives Perfectionism can cause us to focus on the negative aspects of
ourselves. Frequently — and consciously — thinking about what’s good in your life and focusing
on your strengths is one of the first steps to overcoming perfectionist tendencies.
- Allow yourself to make mistakes Show yourself some grace. Mistakes teach us about life and
ourselves. And the most remarkable accomplishments often result from the worst mistakes.
- Set more reasonable goals Having unrealistic expectations sets you up for failure before you
begin. Try splitting your largest goals into smaller sections to make them more attainable and
be realistic about how much you can achieve in a given period.
- Try to find the meaning in what you’re doing Seeing the meaning behind your tasks will
inspire you more than just trying to accomplish the task perfectly. Doing things with a genuine
heart gives us purpose and makes our jobs more fun and impactful.
Are you a Perfectionist?
Everybody has some “built-in” perfectionism, especially in our achievement- oriented, competitive culture.
Complete this questionnaire to discover how perfectionistic you are. Place an X by the statements you relate to.
____ I never do anything halfway; it’s all or nothing for me. Every time.
____ People who do things halfway make me angry or disgust me.
____ I believe there’s a certain way to do things, and they should always be done that way.
____ I get angry or defensive when I make mistakes. I hate to make them.
____ I often procrastinate on starting projects. I seldom meet deadlines. Or if I do, I kill myself meeting them.
____ I feel humiliated when things aren’t perfect.
____ I don’t like to admit to not knowing how to do something or being a beginner. If I can’t do something well, I won’t do it.
____ People say I expect too much of myself or of them.
____ In my family, you could never completely measure up to expectations.
____ I’m hard on myself when I lose, even if it’s only a friendly game or contest.
____ I often withdraw from others and from group activities.
____ I don’t think work should be fun or pleasurable.
____ Even when I accomplish something, I feel let down or empty.
____ I criticize myself and others excessively.
____ I like to be in control; if I can’t be in control, then I won’t participate.
____ No matter how much I have done, there’s always more I could do.
____ I don’t delegate often, and when I do, I always double-check to make sure the job is done right. It never is.
____ I believe it is possible to do something perfectly, and if I keep at it, I can do it perfectly.
____ Forgetting and forgiving is not something I do easily or well.
____ I often put things off because I do not have time to do them correctly.
____ I expect the best of myself at all times.
____ I generally think I could have done better.
____ Other people can’t understand my desire to do things right.
____ If anything I do is considered average, I’m unhappy.
____ I think less of myself if I repeat a mistake.
As you answer these questions, can you see yourself? There is no need to worry.
Anxiety and depression are two major symptoms of perfectionism. A therapist who is removed
from your situation can see things objectively. Talking about how you feel can lift such a burden
off your shoulders, and you don’t have to worry about any judgment.
There is a difference between excellence and perfection. Striving to be really good is
excellence; trying to be flawless is perfectionism. If you’re concerned about your perfectionist
behavior, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 678-395-7922.