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The Pressure to Achieve: When Does Ambition Turn into Unhealthy Perfectionism?

In today’s society, there is a constant pressure to achieve and be successful. Everywhere we look, we are bombarded with messages that tell us we need to be the best, have the most, and do it all flawlessly. Through social media, we also have a front row seat to observing others achievements, increasing the pressure to pursue our own. The messages we receive and the content we observe via social media increase the pressure, ambition, and drive we experience internally. While ambition and drive can be positive traits, they can also lead to unhealthy perfectionism.

In this article, we’ll explore the difference between healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism, and how to let go of the pressure to achieve.

What is Unhealthy Perfectionism?

Unhealthy perfectionism is an extreme desire to be perfect in all aspects of life and it is often accompanied by a fear of failure and a need for control. Unhealthy perfectionism is fueled by unrealistic standards that deny our human limits (e.g. energy, time, capacity) and our needs (e.g. sleep, relaxation, creativity, food). People who struggle with unhealthy perfectionism are overly critical of their own performance because of these impossibly high standards.

The Negative Effects of Unhealthy Perfectionism

While striving for excellence can be a positive trait, an unrelenting and judgemental drive, like unhealthy perfectionism, can have negative effects on mental health and overall well-being. Some common consequences of unhealthy perfectionism include:

  • Anxiety and stress caused by constantly feeling on edge about everything you should be doing and everything you are not doing correctly.
  • Low self-esteem when you are constantly dwelling on how you are failing or falling short, it is impossible to feel confident in yourself or your abilities. 
  • Procrastination when you are worried about failing, this fear can become so strong that it is easier to avoid the situation than facing it. This avoidance can result in a constant cycle of procrastination.
  • Burnout caused by the constant pressure to do everything perfectly and constant judgment or feelings of failure in what you do. 
  • Relationship problems resulting from holding your partner to the same standards of perfection or from constant fears that you are failing in your relationship or for struggling to prioritize relationships over other responsibilities. 
  • Difficulty accepting criticism because it feels like a confirmation that you are failing and results in high levels of distress or defensiveness. 
  • Fear of taking risks can hold you back from taking steps that would further your career/business/success because you are afraid of failing.

Healthy Ambition

Healthy ambition is a positive trait that involves setting goals and working towards them. It is driven by a desire to improve and grow, rather than a fear of failure. At the core, people who are driven by healthy ambition maintain a compassionate, supportive stance of cheerleading themselves through life’s challenges. They know that failure is a natural part of the learning process and being able to let go of mistakes and move on. Because of this cheerleading approach and acceptance of failure, people with healthy ambition are able to accept setbacks and learn from them, rather than being consumed by them.

Unhealthy Perfectionism

Unhealthy perfectionism, on the other hand, is driven by a fear of failure and a need for control. At the core, people who are driven by unhealthy perfectionism maintain a condemning, shaming stance of critiquing themselves. People with unhealthy perfectionism constantly compare themselves to unrealistic standards and are overly critical of their own performance. They may also struggle with accepting criticism as it feels like a confirmation of their central fear that they are failing. Because of this condemning approach and fear of failure, unhealthy perfectionists become disproportionately overwhelmed by setbacks.

How to Let Go of the Pressure to Achieve

After reading through the contrasts between healthy ambition and unhealthy perfectionism, you may have a better sense of which you fit with. If you find yourself struggling with unhealthy perfectionism, there are steps you can take to shift the approach you take with yourself and with the concept of failure.

Recognize Your Expectations

The first step in letting go of the pressure to achieve is to recognize the expectations you are holding for yourself. To find these expectations, reflect on the following questions: 

  • What situations do you feel the most pressure in or the most disappointed in yourself? 
  • Are there activities you find yourself avoiding because you’re unsure you will be able to do it well? 
  • What expectations are you holding for yourself in these areas? 
  • Would you hold these same expectations for another person? 
  • Has someone explicitly communicated these expectations to you? 

For many people, beginning to explore these expectations helps them see how unrealistic or unreasonable they are with themselves. At one point, these expectations may have been protective; they may have helped you feel a sense of control in the midst of chaos or helped you receive love/care from your parents/caregivers. Now, these attempts to protect you are doing more harm. If you’re unsure if these expectations do harm you, consider referencing the lists of harmful effects earlier in this article and journal how they apply to you. 

Set Realistic Goals

Instead of striving for perfection, try setting more realistic goals that are achievable and allow for mistakes and setbacks. Try prioritizing progress over perfection with the expectations that you set for yourself. Here are some contrasting examples: 

  • Perfectionist goal 1: I am going to write the whole paper today because I should get it done early.
  • Progress goal 1: I am going to create a draft outline today to get the ball rolling.
  • Perfectionist goal 2: I am going to clean the whole house today.
  • Progress goal 2: I am going to start with the bathroom since it is the worst and get what I can complete before resting later today. 

Highlight and Challenge Perfectionist “Voice”

Remember earlier in the article where we talked about the difference between the internal approach of healthy achievers versus unhealthy perfectionists? Healthy achievers maintain a cheerleading approach while unhealthy perfectionists maintain a condemning approach. Our internal dialogue can embody these postures, or even both at the same time. When working with clients who are struggling with perfectionism, I encourage them to practice identifying when their internal dialogue is promoting perfectionism or is cheerleading them. For example, a perfectionist dialogue might sound like, “Why are you being so lazy? You need to get that work done. You also failed to do x, y, z. Why can’t you get it together? It’s not that hard.” A cheerleading dialogue might sound like, “I know you’re feeling overwhelmed and worried about not doing a good job. You are capable of what needs to be done and it will be less stressful if you start to work on it now. Let’s take a few deep breaths and then get started. You’ve got this!” 

As your awareness of unrealistic expectations and your perfectionist voice grows, it’s time to practice using a supportive, cheerleading inner dialogue. 

Practice Self-Compassion

Another way of understanding and practicing a supportive stance towards yourself is to practice self-compassion. Self-compassion involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding, rather than being overly critical. It involves fairly examining your progress/behavior, showing kindness towards yourself, remembering you are allowed to be human, and accepting the current situation. In practice, a compassionate inner practice can look something like this: 

“I know that you are scared and overwhelmed with how this project is going and so you are avoiding it (fair examination of your progress). It is hard to keep working when you feel this way and that is understandable (kind response to yourself). You’re allowed to struggle since you are human and not perfect (allowing your humanity). It is going to be hard to meet this deadline, but I know that you can do this and you still need to try (accepting your current situation).

If you are interested in learning more about self-compassion, we encourage you to take a look at Kristin Neff’s resources and work at

Embrace Imperfection

It’s time to challenge the idea that you can be perfect and get everything done. Perfection is an impossible standard to achieve. Instead of striving for perfection, try embracing imperfection. Recognize that making mistakes and experiencing setbacks is a natural part of the learning process and an opportunity for growth. Embracing imperfection is a non-linear process. There will be days where it is easier to do than others. Remember, progress is what matters, not perfection. 

Seek Support

If you are struggling with unhealthy perfectionism, it can be helpful to seek support from a therapist or counselor. They can help you identify and manage your perfectionistic tendencies and develop a healthier mindset. A supportive relationship like the one in therapy can help you learn how to approach yourself in this way.


While ambition and drive can be positive traits, they can also lead to unhealthy perfectionism. By recognizing your expectations, setting realistic goals, highlighting perfectionism, challenging perfectionism, practicing self-compassion, and embracing imperfection, you can let go of the pressure to achieve and cultivate a healthier mindset. Remember, it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being the best version of yourself.

When to Seek Help 

Destination Therapy provides a safe space to communicate openly, address challenges, and build a healthier relationship with ambition. Whether you are a busy professional dealing with perfectionism, burnout and anxiety or looking to explore if couples therapy can equip you with the tools to build a stronger, happier bond, we can match you with one of our therapists, who will be able to help with your concerns. 

If you’re ready to explore therapy, we offer a free 15-minute consultation call to discuss your needs and see if couple therapy is right for you.

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