Perfectionism & Procrastination: Tag Team Trouble

Perfectionism and Procrastination are each formidable foes by themselves.  But when teamed-up, together they can inflict even greater damage to our performance and emotions. This post will identify some of the cognitive causes of these self-defeating behaviors and suggest some REBT thinking strategies to take down this tag team.

Perfect is the enemy of good

This aphorism, attributed to Voltaire, can be hard to swallow for die-hard perfectionists.  What is wrong with 100% perfect? If the choice is between 95% and 100% good results, why not choose 100% perfect?

Well, what if the 100% perfect results cost 100% more in time, money, blood, sweat, and stress just to get that additional 5 percent? Now does it still seem reasonable and worth it?  Perhaps sometimes, but I think generally not. Even a perfect diamond is a highly impractical item. If it is perfect at 10x magnification will it still be perfect at 100x?  Does physical or human perfection even exist?

Procrastination & delayed perfection

Mark Twain wasn’t to be outdone by Voltaire when he asserted, “Continuous improvement is better than delayed perfection.”  How true.

So often procrastinators, by being late, unprepared or goofing, are seen as uncaring and shirking responsibility.  Actually, it is more likely they are suffering from shame, anxiety, and functional impairment from their crippling procrastination.

Think about a college student’s perfectionism that kept her from submitting on time the first paper worth 20% of the course final grade. Despite getting a zero, the instructor assured her that just by completing the remaining papers on time she could still pass the course.  Instead, this perfectionistic student dropped the course and lost the necessary credits to graduate on time. Also evident here is the perfectionism – procrastination connection we’ll examine later.

Perfection vs perfectionism

It is the “ism” in perfectionism that causes human dis-ease.  Valuing perfection is fine. This inspires humans to want to do our best work and make our reasonably best effort.  Civilization is largely built upon this striving. But when striving becomes driving for perfection, and when desiring becomes demanding perfection of ourselves or others, we create the self-defeating “ism” of perfectionism.

Wanting the best result is not the same as needing the best result.  The “ism” that makes “perfect the enemy of the good” arises from the demand (not just desire) for perfection that creates high anxiety until the demand is satisfied. As valued and functional as perfectionistic preferences can be, perfectionism generally comes at a self-defeating price we call neurosis (smart people acting stupidly!).

When good enough isn’t

For most perfectionists the concept of “good enough” is unacceptable – if not repugnant.  Settling for less than best at times seems like lowering the bar and aspiring to mediocrity.  Easing up on demanding “musts” and “shoulds” at times can summon fears of failure.  For many perfectionists there are only two grades: A+ and F.

But there are times when “good enough” makes good sense for conserving time, money and energy better spent doing other things our values dictate as more important. Perfect perfectionists are victims of their rigid thoughts that demand excellence (of self and others) but don’t allow the flexible, adaptive behavior characteristic of Rational Living.  See Stress Blog Post #5

Give up the “ism” to take control

As a former pathetically self-conscious, anxiety-prone, people-pleasing perfectionist who had the good fortune to become a disciple of REBT and student of Stoicism, I have worked (and still do) to acquire the tools that continue to fortify my character and nourish my mental and emotional well-being.  So I’ll briefly share an example of how REBT can deliver equanimity and personal empowerment.

I hate painting –

but we had completed the reconstruction on the second floor with only the hallway walls left to paint which I was doing on a warm summer Sunday afternoon.  As I struggled to cut-in along the ceiling in a corner to finish the project that had taken many months, I heard my three young children frolicking in the backyard kiddie pool.

Sweating and swearing, I repeatedly tried to get the line straight while hearing these joyous voices that would soon outgrow the pool and that I would never hear quite that way ever again. I declared to myself, “it’s good enough!” But my REBT training took me way beyond this measure of rationality.

I then liberated myself from the “Tyranny of the Should” (I need to, should, must finish this perfectly) by pushing the wall paint brush up onto the white ceiling for all the world (but nobody cares) to see.  Then I joined my family outside and never did correct that ceiling reminder of my exercise of reason, values and self-mastery characteristic of Rational Living.

Dare to be average –

at times!  Like “good enough,” the concept of “average” seems anything but aspirational, and anathema to doing one’s best.  But the use of average here is as an antidote to the demanding “ism” of perfectionism. Flexible thinking (as opposed to rigid demands) supports mental health and Rational Living.

Daring to be average at times challenges us to take our foot off the gas, especially when the price we’re paying for perfection (stress symptoms, relationship strain, etc.) just isn’t worth it. The occasional mantra of “dare to be average” relieves pressure, realigns perspective and takes back control from the “ism.”

The perfect storm

Most perfectionists understand the Family of Origin influences, including excessive parental expectations, birth order, and role.  They also see how their own identity and sense of worth has been shaped by the need to please and excel in the past.  But what perpetuates perfectionism today?



USA – the perfect cure

Unconditional Self-Acceptance (USA) is the perfectionism anti-dote.  When we learn to want – but not need – to be liked and accepted, we can risk rejection by doing what we want instead of what we think others want.

When we have high levels of USA, we not only can tolerate disappointing others, but ourselves as well.  We understand that our self-worth is a given and need not be constantly proven by the success of our deeds and behaviors.

When we transgress or disappoint, we don’t blame our “selves” but focus on improving our behavior, thus constantly growing and perfecting our actions – not our selves!  Instead of self-downing, we accept ourselves, unconditionally, as worthwhile but fallible human beings (FHB’s).  See Stress Blog Post #4

Perfect procrastination

Referring back to the college student who got taken down by the perfectionism-procrastination tag team, her self-defeating surrender was first the result of perfectionistic demands re: the quality of her paper.  Her elevated anxiety reduced her creativity and productivity, which exacerbated her fear of failure and disapproval. Having low USA, like most humans, her perceived worth stood to be de-valued if she failed.

In addition to the perfect storm of perfectionism (people-pleasing & self-downing), procrastination also involves:



In the case of the college student, as the paper deadline drew closer her anxious discomfort increased along with her avoidant behavior attempting to manage the anxiety.  Avoidance of discomfort is central to procrastination and is self-defeating in a myriad of ways.  Just ask her. See Stress Blog Post #6


Perfection musterbators necessitate ideal results, while procrastinating discomfort dodgers also put-off unpleasantness.


The STRESS Doc, Richard E. Madden, earned his MSW in Clinical Social Work and his PhD in Electromedical Sciences. He is licensed in New York State as a Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) for the direct practice of psychotherapy with individuals, groups, couples and families. REBT/CBT is a modern, efficient and results-oriented approach toward achieving unconditional self-acceptance, frustration and discomfort tolerance, emotional control, elimination of self-defeating behaviors, mood management and improved love & work relationships. Dr. Madden defines this relative freedom from self-imposed emotional distress and self-defeating behavior as “rational living.”

All content copyright ©1975- Richard E Madden, PhD, LCSW, Rational Living Made Simple. All Rights Reserved.