The Thought Process Underlying Perfectionism and How Therapists Can Help By Jeremy Shapiro, Ph.D. on 3/5/21 - 7:10 PM

As I listen to my clients describe their “maladaptive” ways of functioning, I usually discern adaptive elements in the patterns they perceive as dysfunctional. This surprised me at first but doesn’t anymore.

It is as if their symptoms have a point, and the problem is that they have taken this point too far. If so, the solution is not to reverse the problematic way of functioning but to dial it down into a more moderate range—a smaller and more readily attainable goal.

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But not necessarily an easy one. Research indicates that black-and-white thinking lies at the root of many mental health problems. Thinking in simple binaries makes it impossible to dial behaviors down because, if it’s not black, it must be white—there is nothing in between. There are many examples of this pattern, and perfectionism is one.

Perfectionism is a schema that recognizes just two categories of performance: perfect and unsatisfactory. There is nothing in between.

Perfectionism doesn’t work. Research indicates that it is associated with low self-esteem, depression, eating disorders, and, ironically, poor productivity. Nonetheless, perfectionism has a valid purpose: it can be rewarding to strive for high levels of performance.

Kirsten was a middle-level manager who looked successful from the outside but suffered from anxiety that was mostly related to her job. She worked long hours but said she was always behind. She had nothing but critical things to say about her performance, although she acknowledged that her evaluations were more than satisfactory. I also noticed that Kirsten frequently disparaged her performance as a therapy client: I found what she said quite clear, but she often interrupted herself with comments like “That didn’t make sense” and “I’m all over the place in the way I’m telling you this.”

Replacing Binaries with Spectrums

The alternative to black-and-white cognition is to think of psychological phenomena in terms of spectra. The spectrum relevant to perfectionism concerns personal standards for performance. The question is: what is good enough? Here is the continuum of possible answers:

Horrible      Bad      Mediocre      Okay      Good      Excellent      Perfect

Clients with whom I have worked vary in how they answer this question. Almost none think that performances in the 1-3 range are good enough, but then variability kicks in. Some are content with performances that are below average but halfway decent, and standards range from there all the way up to perfectionism, with lots of gradations in between. I ask clients to mark the point on the scale that represents their answer to this question. Fractions and decimal points are often given by perfectionistic clients, who like to be precise, and Kirsten’s answer was 9.3

In black-and-white thinking generally, spectra are chopped into dichotomies. The two halves might be very unequal in size, because the dividing line might not be anywhere near the midpoint. We can understand clients’ thinking at a deep level by asking ourselves the question, “at what point does the client dichotomize the continuum?”

In black-and-white thinking about performance quality, perfectionists divide the continuum with a cut-point so close to its end that almost all of the spectrum is viewed as representing failure, with just a thin slice for success. On the above spectrum, the cut-point would be between 9 and 10. This lop-sided dichotomy results in constant failure experiences; it helped to explain why years of positive performance evaluations and promotions had not ameliorated Kirsten’s feeling that she was barely keeping her head above water as a professional.

To provide a visual illustration, I draw an arc over each side of the binary, label the large one “failure,” and label the small one “success.” This diagram illustrates the onerous nature of the standards by which perfectionists evaluate themselves.

The Goldilocks Zone

I generally try to help perfectionistic clients moderate their standards, but at first the idea of doing so makes many of them anxious. Their fear of lazy laxity may be so strong that it propels them to the opposite end of the spectrum: perfectionism.

Kirsten acknowledged that she strove for near-perfection in her approach to tasks, but her understanding of the problem was not that her standards were too high but that her performance level was too low. She said, “I need to strive for perfection to improve. If I start going easy on myself, I’ll become lazy and do even worse.”

This fear is the result of dichotomous thinking: if standards are not perfectionistic, they will be loose and sloppy. The solution is to replace this binary with another spectrum:

Lazy slacker      Easy-going      Average      Conscientious      Perfectionistic

This diagram shows that perfectionism itself can be understood as an extreme on a spectrum of self-evaluative standards that vary in stringency. This spectrum maps onto the previous one—it is about how good a performance must be to be considered good enough. Again, I ask clients to mark their point on the scale. (Kirsten gave herself a 9.2.)

When I help clients move beyond black-and-white cognition to think in terms of spectra, possibilities open. Rather than making either/or choices, clients can learn to think in nuanced ways about the personal standards they would like to have—not too low and not too high.

Not a Point but a Range

This spectrum shows that perfectionism is not so much a bad thing as too much of a good thing. Perfectionists are not wrong to value high standards, but they take a good idea too far.

I have found that it is not necessary to reverse high standards, but only to adjust them toward moderation. Nor is it necessary to adopt the standards of the average person. The solution is to move into the Goldilocks Range, which is an area around the midpoint of 5.5, say between scale-points 4 and 7, or even 3 and 8.

Previously perfectionistic people usually feel most comfortable around scale-points 7 or 8, and Kirsten was no exception. We had some careful discussions about the difference between excellence and perfection and about how a person could be conscientious, exacting, and achievement-oriented without being perfectionistic. I validated the value of high standards and made it clear that I was not suggesting she become easy on herself and satisfied with mediocre work. The modest but important changes she made preserved her rigorous, hard-working style but moderated it enough to allow some flexibility and satisfaction. Her anxiety level decreased, and she began to enjoy her job for the first time.

This post focuses on perfectionism, but the spectrum strategy applies to a wide variety of mental health and relationship problems, as described in my book, Psychotherapeutic Diagrams. I have found that clients generally function best when they move from the extreme end of a spectrum into the part of the Goldilocks Range that is closest to their original style. For example, aggressive clients become assertive, anxious clients become cautious, and oppositional clients become independent.

A small- to medium-sized adjustment usually changes a maladaptive style into an adaptive version of itself and transforms a problem into a strength. My clients are glad to discover that resolving their difficulties does not require them to become a different kind of person. I ask clients to mark the point on the scale where they would like to be, and the distance from their current position is usually about 2 scale points; this makes the goals of therapy seem quite attainable.

There is a big practical problem with perfectionism: People have only limited amounts of time and energy, life has many aspects, and being perfectionistic about some aspects means short-changing the others, because there are only so many hours in a day. The goal of living a well-rounded life requires us to give up perfectionism.


Trying to reverse clients’ habitual ways of functioning can feel like swimming upstream, with opposing currents such as genetics and long-term histories—difficult factors to overcome. When clients realize that the changes they need are not dramatic or wrenching, and a 2-point adjustment on a 10-point scale could change them from an unhappy perfectionist to a hard-working, conscientious person, they feel more relaxed and optimistic, and so do I. Thinking in terms of spectra has brought my therapeutic efforts into accord with my clients’ natural styles and made our work together more harmonious.


Shapiro, J. P. (2015). Child and adolescent therapy: Science and art (2nd ed.). Wiley.

Shapiro, J. (2020). Finding Goldilocks: A guide for creating balance in personal change, relationships, and politics. Services.

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy