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Perfectionism in the Time of COVID-19

Yes, you are doing enough already.

Enduring a global pandemic while feeling more restricted than usual (and possibly sitting with yourself a lot more) can bring a lot of your stuff to the surface—underlying anxieties and vulnerabilities, go-to coping methods and defenses, thoughts and feelings about yourself and those around you—perhaps the very things you are currently discussing online with your therapist.

While there is something undeniably unifying about adjusting to the new normal of COVID-19, every person brings their unique fingerprint to how they cope with this tumultuous time. If you harbored some perfectionistic tendencies pre-coronavirus, the current circumstances are all too ripe for a full-on takeover by perfectionism due to the illusion of control that it can provide in a time of uncertainty.

While perfectionism offers distraction and a fleeting sense of comfort, it also comes with the sabotaging downsides of an overly harsh inner critic, limitingly rigid standards, and distorting all-or-nothing thinking. During a time of overwhelming disruption and restriction, perfectionism puts people in an even smaller box.

A common narrative that has been circulating over the past few weeks is the notion of wanting to “take advantage” of this time—optimize and get the most out of it. And sure, while for many people this time might mean having a break from work, their commute, and/or other commitments, much significant psychological work has replaced the regular routine—the psychological work of adjusting to a major stressor that has profound implications. We would be doing ourselves a disservice if we underestimated the impact that this has on our psyches while pushing through at full speed.

The thing about an adjustment response is that we don’t get to choose how we respond when we are overwhelmed: we feel what we feel when we feel it. So if you are experiencing anxiety, sadness, anger, exhaustion, all of it is okay. Make room for it, and don’t fight it. It means that you are human, and that you are not leaning on denial too much to get you through this process.

In my practice, I have been talking with a lot of patients about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This is a five-tier model of human needs portrayed in the shape of a pyramid, and the needs at the base of the pyramid need to be met before we can attend to the ones closer to the top. They are the foundation of our well-being. From bottom to top, Maslow’s Hierarchy covers physiological well-being, physical safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization. The COVID-19 pandemic poses a threat to some of our most basic needs: health and safety. So if those are the primary things soaking up your bandwidth right now, that is exactly where you should be.

Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons
Source: Factoryjoe / CC BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

This is not the time to self-actualize into a superhuman being (not a thing), a full-time employee/stay at home parent/home school teacher extraordinaire (also not a thing), or an Olympic athlete who has also mastered five new hobbies and reorganized every square inch of their home.

The focus right now should not be on productivity, but on psychological coping, survival, and authenticity. And there is no one right way for this to look, so if you find a way that works for you and gets you through this, then you are doing it right. You are doing enough.

While your inner perfectionist's voice may be extra loud and reaching for the wheel right now, this is the time to tell it to shut it and take a back seat.

Suggestions for further reading:


McLeod, S. (2020, March 20). Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. Retrieved from

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