Perfectionism is the great paralyzer

Perfectionism is one of the main causes of procrastination. It’s viewed as a commendable trait, but for most it’s a handicap that holds them back far more than they realize.


Perfectionism is the great paralyzer in many people’s lives, and one of the main causes of procrastination.

Winston Churchill famously once commented on this after reading a proposal for landing craft improvements that was submitted to him by one of his generals. He wrote on the report:

‘The maxim “Nothing avails but perfection” may be spelt P-A-R-A-L-Y-S-I-S.’

How birth order comes into it

The interesting thing I have discovered is that perfectionism affects first-born and only children far more than others. Psychologists believe that this is because parents are inexperienced and over-anxious with their first baby and try to be the perfect parents. The baby intuitively picks this up and tries to be the perfect baby to please them. This then gets perpetuated into childhood and adult life. Dr Kevin Leman, author of The Birth Order Book, believes that first-born traits also apply to children who have a gap of five years or more between them and their next oldest sibling, because it is as if the parents start a new family.

The important thing to realize about this is that most people regard perfectionism as a “good” trait because perfectionists also tend to be reliable, conscientious high achievers. But when you see the self-sabotaging, paralyzing effect of this, it puts a completely different spin on it.

Perfectionism is not a commendable virtue to cultivate – in most people it is a birth-order handicap that needs to be overcome!

How striving to do your best is different to perfectionism

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m a great believer in the Japanese principle of Kaizen, which is about striving for continuous improvement. That attitude will take a person far, and is essential to unlocking the innate talents we are born with. Not everyone can be an astronaut (although it’s interesting to discover that 100% of American astronauts who have gone into space were either first-born or the eldest son in their family!), but taking a Kaizen approach to whatever it is that you do will allow you to take pride in your work and develop the soul qualities that lie at the core of a happy and fulfilling life. This gentle striving to improve a little each day is very different to the stressful torment of over-achievers who feel that even their best is never good enough.

It’s said that the ideal relationship is for a first-born to marry a last-born, because the first-born will be sensible and make sure stuff gets done, and the last-born just wants to have fun and will teach the first-born how to relax and enjoy life. The recipe for a happy, productive life for each person lies somewhere between the two, and will put perfectionism in its rightful place – out to graze until it comes to its senses.

The importance of nurturing innate talents

On the topic of innate talents, there is much that we can learn from Bali’s unique spiritual culture, where I lived for two decades of my adult life. In every family compound there is a stone shrine called sanggah taksu, which translates to “the seat of divine talents”. Offerings are made at this shrine every day to nurture the blossoming and development of each family member’s talents, which is seen as the way they can fulfill their divine path here on Earth and contribute the most to their community by doing the things they do best.

It would be too romantic to assume that all Balinese are lucky enough to be able to earn their living this way. It’s a Third World culture and many live at survival level, never knowing where their next meal is coming from. But the quest for each person to develop their own unique talents lies at the heart of Balinese spiritual and social values, and it is actively encouraged and supported. It’s very heart-warming to see, and many do follow their calling and earn money doing what they love to do.

By contrast, in western societies, children have bright aspirations for what they want to be when they grow up, but so many people end up in jobs they don’t like, never finding a way to express the innate talents they were born with. To quote another famous pundit (Benjamin Franklin): ‘Most people die at 25 and aren’t buried until they’re 75.’ Now, if that isn’t an incentive to dump perfectionism and get on with whatever you really want to do, I don’t know what is!

And why the photo of dogs in wellies at the top of this blog?

It may not be the “perfect” photo to go with this article. But hey, it makes me smile, and that’s good enough for me!

Copyright © Clear Space Living Ltd, 2021

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About Karen Kingston

Karen Kingston is a leading expert in clutter clearing, space clearing, feng shui, and healthy homes. Her two international bestselling books have combined sales of over three million copies in 26 languages and have established themselves as "must-read" classics in their fields. Her best-known title, Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui, is now in its fifth edition. She is best known for her perspective-changing insights and practical solutions that enable more conscious navigation of 21st-century living.
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9 Responses to Perfectionism is the great paralyzer

  1. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” (ascribed to Voltaire) I often say to my children. It is so true.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing you interesting and helpful insights. I have just realized how much my perfectionism stops me from actually DOING things and keep MOVING. How many times I just did not start out of fear of not being capable of doing well enough…

    and I am a first born…Right now I am highly motivated to drop this habit and just tell me…come on, do it, it is always better doing something “unperfectly” than never doing it at all. THANK YOU

  3. Love the article. As the first born of parents who were a first born and an only child, I was hit with the perfectionist wand! I appreciate all your insights and the gentle nudge to loosen expectations of myself. I have always wanted to be an artist, but being raised with the idea that if you do anything you must be the very best, I never gave myself a chance to be an artist. Yesterday my (second born) daughter said to me, “Mom you don’t have to sell your art, you don’t have to have NY gallery shows. Just do it for the love of it. You are an artist, you always have been.” What a wonderful gift she has given me, encouragement/permission to do something for love and not accolades!

  4. How interesting…I see a bit of paralysis with my first born because of his perfectionism and we are trying to correct it…I see a lot of me in him and I was the middle but the only girl with a lot more responsibilities (at least in my eyes) My middle one is so much more laid back (because his older brother takes care of everything)…let’s hope we get it right with our latest addition. I love the idea of the sanggah taksu and will incorporate it into our nest immediately to remind us to strive in improving in a healthier way. What types of offerings are typical for the shrine?

  5. I’m a middle born perfectionist, usually with my head in the clouds. I am married to a last born who is hard working and practical.

    Both of us procrastinate about our creative work because we grew up in an environment that promoted ‘getting a real job’ over the persuit of ‘pipe dreams’.

    We are encouraging our children to get their creative careers underway before they leave highschool so that they can hit the ground running.

    I will never tell my children to go get a back up career just in case. (My parent’s generation still think that there is such a thing as a stable job.) Although it might sound like practical advice, for my partner and I, it split our focus and our energy in two directions, undermined our confidence, took the wind out of our sails and generally let us know that the people around us didn’t have faith in our talents.

  6. I had never heard about first borns tending to be perfectionists or the recipe of a first born and a last born marrying. I am a first born married to another first born. Wow it can get pretty serious. My best friend is a first born married to a last born and they do tend to have a lot of fun. Very interesting article. Thank you!

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