Perfectionism vs. Realism

A Coaching Power Tool

Perfectionism vs. Realism Amy Morton_Coaching_Tool

At its root, perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous. It’s about fear. Fear of making a mistake. Fear of disappointing others. Fear of failure. Fear of success. -Michael Law

Have you ever seen something from two different angles and seen something entirely different? Our perspective can influence us in profound ways; through the use of a power tool we can understand why perception is so important and, though we cannot always change our circumstances, we must consciously work to create new and alternative perspectives to achieve better results.

I have worked with expats in the corporate world for 10 years and have seen the struggles that the expat spouse, in particular, has had to overcome to adapt to their new life abroad. Helping these individuals reframe from the disempowered perfectionist perspective to the more empowering realistic perspective has been both fundamental and transformational for expats building a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life while on assignment.

Perfectionism vs. Realism Examples and Definition

Perfectionism (noun)

Defined as: the fact of liking to do things perfectly and not being satisfied with anything less. (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2021)

The majority of people would consider high standards and strive for excellence a positive thing; proving an individual’s good work ethic and pushing them to reach their peak level of performance. Perfectionism however embodies a tendency to set standards so high that they either cannot be met or are only met with great difficulty. They get frustrated for failing to meet their unrealistic high expectations and wanting their work to be 100% perfect, 100% of the time.  “Perfectionists tend to believe that anything short of perfection is horrible and that even minor imperfections will lead to catastrophe.”(Anxiety Canada, n.d.)

Individuals with perfectionism are often self-critical and have the understanding that they should never make mistakes; if a mistake was to be made, they would be a failure and an imperfect being. Rather than learning from mistakes and gaining confidence, perfectionists hide their errors which then inhibits their ability to learn from them. Over time this becomes debilitating as the individuals believe that they are not as capable as others, encouraging feelings of depression, frustration, anxiety, and anger.

Perfectionism vs. Realism 1In the perfection mindset, once we set ourselves a goal we believe we will be happy when we have achieved it, indicating that we are not permitting ourselves to be content in the interim. A perfectionist mindset often embodies the limiting belief that once they are perfect, everything else in their life will fall into place.

Common traits of a perfectionist include the following thinking patterns:

  • Black and White.“If I need to ask advice about the local area from other expats, then I am weak.”
  • “If I make a mistake in front of my husband’s colleagues then I will need to return to my home country.”
  • Probability Overestimation.“I haven’t worked for 15 years being an expat spouse, no one is ever going to want to employ me again.”
  • Should statements. “I should never make mistakes.”, “I should know the local area by now.”

In my experience, perfectionism seems to be a trait that both expat men and women have in common. Expats are typically high achieving Type A personalities, they would not be hired for their demanding overseas assignments if they were not. High achieving individuals often partner with similar high achieving personalities, thus the non-working spouse also tends to have perfectionist tendencies.

Realism (noun)

Defined as: a way of seeing, accepting, and dealing with situations as they are without being influenced by your emotions or false hopes. (Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 2021)

Mistakes are inevitable throughout life; it is our reaction to them that affects us in either a negative or positive way. Defining our reality through either an optimistic or pessimistic lens is a choice that we all get to make over and over again each day. The perspective of how we approach the world colors every interaction and experience we have. Realists are practical and pragmatic; they tend to express an awareness of things as they are.

“Realism is the true perfection of what we must strive for in all aspects of our life”.  (Perfectionism vs. Realism – Fund for Education Abroad, n.d.). We cannot change what happened in the past but there is a chance to redeem ourselves in the future. By enabling a realistic viewpoint to situations and decisions, individuals can empower themselves to realize their goals.

International Coach Federation (ICF) defines coaching as “a thought-provoking and creative partnership that inspires clients to maximize their personal and professional potential, often unlocking previously untapped sources of imagination, productivity and leadership”. Coaching has the potential to take the client beyond what they believe they are capable of achieving by exploring and making them aware of the hidden potential within them.

Expats often don’t approach a major transition of moving their life abroad with realistic expectations. Many expats with perfectionism often cope with their fear of making mistakes through procrastination. They feel that putting off doing a task is easier than spending hours trying to meet their ‘perfect’ standards. Expats, for example, might put off learning the local language for fear of not understanding it ‘perfectly’ or are overwhelmed by how much work needs to be put in that they are struggling to find a  starting point. Instead of expecting to be fluent within a short time frame, a coach can assist them with creating realistic schedules and prioritization.

The below coaching process can be applied to assist expats in helping themselves live a more realistic, happier, and more fulfilling life overseas.

  1. Uncover expat intention and goal. Common expat goals include learning a new skill such as the host country’s language, career transition, and development, overcoming culture shock and expat blues and
  2. Design a realistic plan
  3. Identify roadblocks
  4. Build confidence.
  5. Reward yourself.

Coaches can partner with their clients to reframe their perspective of perfectionism to realism by exploring their underlying beliefs or assumptions which are at the root of perfectionist tendencies. Once the client’s values and beliefs have been explored, coaches can then utilize powerful questioning to create a mindset shift before empowering clients to instill trust and confidence in themselves.

Perfectionists tend to thrive on regular achievements and so it is imperative to work with the client to set small, realistic, and achievable goals together with action steps. Partnering with the client on goal setting is imperative in providing clarity around what the client wants to achieve and how to move forward. The goal needs to be crystal clear and the client must have identified some form of measure which ensures the client knows that they have reached their goal. The client can then measure their progress regularly, forming the basis of motivation.

Clients should be encouraged to focus on a realistic journey and continuous improvement rather than simply the destination, where they can acknowledge and value themselves for how far they have come.  Acknowledgment of a client’s progress and small realistic wins, particularly for perfectionists, can reduce overwhelm and significantly encourage them to move forward.

As adults with perfectionism are often highly critical of themselves, one of the most effective ways to overcome this is to replace self-criticism with more realistic thoughts such as nobody is perfect, all you can do is your best, making a mistake does not mean you are a failure, it’s okay not to be liked by everyone, etc.

Questions I often ask expats to help reframe their perspective from perfectionism to realism:

  • What do you want?
  • What does this extra pressure/expectation do for you?
  • What is the importance for you to achieve/be praised/’make it’?
  • Who are you trying to impress?
  • What are you trying to prove?
  • Who are you comparing yourself to?
  • How is comparing yourself to others serving you?
  • How are you measuring your success?
  • How do you want to be measuring your success?
  • How might a close friend view this situation?
  • What might you tell a close friend who is having similar thoughts?
  • What would happen if you lowered your standards?

The following questions can be raised if the perfectionist expat is caught up with worrying about little details:

  • Does it matter?
  • What is the worst that could happen?
  • Will this still matter tomorrow? How about next month? Next year?

This power tool demonstrates that perfectionism is an imaginary ideal that needs to be removed from a client’s thinking process and replaced by a realistic mindset. The coaching application is necessary for this change in perspective; continuing to identify what the client has learned may assist the individual in becoming more aware of their progress. This ongoing process of reflection is essential for the client to be reminded of how far they have come rather than being continually focussed on the future.

As discussed previously in this paper, empowering the expat to acknowledge their progress towards realistic goals rather than feeling guilty for not achieving unrealistic perfection will enable the shift from the perfectionist to the realistic mindset.

As much as you’d like to be, you’re not perfect…Instead of fearing mistakes, remind yourself that there’s plenty to learn from them. If nothing else, you’ll learn that a mistake doesn’t mean the end of the world. In fact, it might be the beginning of a new one. Law, M, n.d.)


When Perfect Isn’t Good Enough: Strategies for Coping with Perfectionism by M. M. Antony & R. P. Swinson (New Harbinger Publications)
Never Good Enough: How to Use Perfectionism to Your Advantage Without Letting It Ruin Your Life by M.R. Basco (Simon & Schuster)
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Available at
Law, M. and Collins, A., n.d. Getting to know ArcGIS desktop. n.d. n.d. Perfectionism vs. Realism – Fund for Education Abroad. n.d. International Coaching Federation.

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