The Perfectionist

empty classroom with desks and school materials, open books on top
Amanda had always been mildly anxious about receiving good grades and taking tests.  She described herself as a perfectionist.  Her anxiety worsened when she began high school and felt that her grades began to really matter because colleges would be examining her 9th grade academic performance. 

By the time she started 11th grade, Amanda’s anxiety worsened such that she became nervous a few days before big tests, which affected her ability to focus while studying. Once she started taking her tests, Amanda was able to become calmer.

Amanda reported crying more frequently when she became overwhelmed with the amount of homework she had been assigned.  Part of the problem was that she was enrolled in 3 Advanced Placement classes.  Additionally, she was busy after school with her three times weekly dance classes, and weekly voice lessons.  She was referred to me for evaluation in the middle of her 11th grade year.

“What’s your grade point average?”

“Four point one,” she replied.

“I see it’s weighted for your AP classes,” I said.  “Besides making you nervous, does your anxiety affect you in any other way?”

“I study until 1 or 2, every night, because I want to make sure everything is done right.  So, I only sleep 5-6 hours at night. I’m very tired in the mornings.”

“Do you think you’re more stressed than your friends?”


“Why do you think that is?”

“I care more. I want to get my work done perfectly so that I can get the best grades and get into the best colleges.”

“Does the stress help you in any way?

“It makes me study harder.   I’m not as smart as my friends so I have to work extra hard to keep up.”

“Why do you say you’re not as smart?”

“My best friends get straight A’s and I have a few B’s.”

“I’m pretty sure that grades are not the best measure of intelligence,” I responded.  “And anyway, the key to doing well in life has little to do with being very smart.”

“What do you mean?”

“The key to doing well is an intention to do well, and perseverance,” I explained.  “Have you ever heard of a Bat Mitzvah?”

“Sure.  I went to my friend’s Bat Mitzvah 3 years ago.  She had a very big party.”

“Did you also go to the synagogue?”


“Did she have to read from the Bible in Hebrew?”


“So, preparation for becoming a Bat Mitzvah involves a lot of studying.  The students need to learn how to read Hebrew, chant the melodies, lead the service and deliver a sermon.  I remember one student I taught who could not carry a tune.  I had to sing each verse to her fifteen or twenty times before she could sing it passably.  She worked very hard for an entire year, and on the occasion of her Bat Mitzvah she was marvelous.   She chanted better than most of my students.  And she did much better than the kids I taught who were musical, but did not put in much effort,” I said, looking into her brown eyes.  “So you see, as long as you work hard you will do well.  And obviously you are a hard worker who has a great deal of motivation.  I’m very confident you will do great in life!”

Amanda smiled.  “Thank you.”

“You have nothing to thank me for.  I’m just stating the obvious.  Now, tell me how things will improve once you calm down with hypnosis.”

“I’m not sure.  I’m worried that if I become calmer I won’t study as hard, and then I will not do as well.”

“I agree that anxiety can be helpful,” I responded.  “It can keep you motivated to study in preparation for a test.  But if you have too much anxiety then it is unhelpful.  A key is to learn how to dial it down to a level at which you feel comfortable and the anxiety can still serve to motivate you.  You can learn to do that with hypnosis.”

“Got it.”

“Imagine I give you a precious glass vase and ask you to carry it across the room.  How would you do that without breaking it?

“I would carry it very carefully.”

“Would you hold it very tightly?”



“I wouldn’t want to break it.”

“Would you hold it very loosely, so you wouldn’t shatter it from pressure?”

“No.  Because then I might drop it.”

“Exactly.  You have to hold it just right.  You are like that glass vase.  And right now you are holding yourself too tightly.”

“I get it!” she said.

I added, “Your desire to be perfect is one of your greatest strengths, but it is also a source of weakness. Many years ago I learned that the source of one’s strength is the source of one’s weakness.  For example, when I was training to be a pediatrician, I loved to ask a lot of questions because I had many thoughts in my mind.  When I spent time in the out-patient clinic the doctors thought I was a great student because I asked all sorts of questions and appeared greatly interested.  However, when I spent time in the busy Intensive Care Unit and asked a lot of questions I was told to shut up already and go to work.  So you see, my tendency to ask questions was helpful in one setting and harmful in another.  A key to happiness is to put yourself in places where your tendencies are helpful.”

She nodded.

“In what kind of careers would perfection be helpful?”


“Sure, or maybe rocket science!  But in many careers you need to be able to tolerate being very good, but not perfect.  For example, perfection in dance is very hard to achieve.”


“One last thought before I start teaching you how to use hypnosis.  Do you think you try to be perfect in everything you do?”

“Of course.”

“Well, then you are preventing yourself from being the best you can be.”

“What do you mean?”

“It takes a lot of effort to complete perfect work.  Right?”


“So, if you are putting a lot of time and effort into everything you do, you have to limit the number of activities in which you participate.  There is not enough time to attempt to be perfect in many things.  If the goal is for you to be the best Amanda you can be, and to achieve the most you can achieve, then you need to learn to accept somewhat less than perfect for most of the things in which you are involved.  You can pick one or two areas in which you want to do your very best, but in the other aspects of your life you should accept very good as good enough.  In this way you can get a lot more done.”

“That kind of makes sense,” she said.

“I remember a colleague of mine who was a perfectionist,” I explained. “She always wanted to make the correct diagnosis.  She always complained to me that her patients were very hard to diagnose and treat, and that she had bad luck.  I didn’t know whether that was true, until she left my practice and I inherited all of her patients.  At first they were very complicated and difficult to manage.  I thought to myself, maybe she was right?  But after about half a year, they became as easy to treat as my other patients.  What happened?  She wanted to make sure she made the right diagnosis.  So, while she had a pretty good idea of the correct problem, she performed many extra medical tests just to make sure.  Now, when you perform a medical test there is always a small chance that you will get a false answer.  The test could say that something is wrong even when nothing is wrong.  If you run 100 tests on average 5 of them will give false answers.  If you get an abnormal result on a test you then have to do more tests.  Pretty soon it gets complicated.  That’s why her patients were so complicated. 

“My approach was very different.  I saw the same types of patients as she did, and chose a diagnosis that I thought was most likely.  I treated the patients for the diagnoses I thought were correct and most of the time they got better.  A few patients did not improve, and in those cases I did extra tests.  But most of the time this was unnecessary, because I was pretty good at making the correct diagnosis the first time.”

“Right,” said Amanda.

“I remember something else about this colleague,” I reminisced.  “In medicine we have to write articles to publish in journals as part of our jobs.  She worked on one article for 10 years to get it to be perfect.  She did a great job.  Her article was wonderful, and better than anything that I had ever written.  However, during the same 10 years, I wrote and published dozens of articles.  They were far from perfect, but they were pretty good.  And because I wrote a lot of articles many people got to read and learn from them.  So, I think I had a much greater impact on medical progress because I was not a perfectionist.”

“I understand.”

“Great!”  I said.  “So now we will talk about how hypnosis can help you calm yourself, and allow you to dial down your desire to be perfect just the right amount.”

As with everything that she did, Amanda learned how to apply hypnosis techniques quickly and well.  Within 3 months she felt much calmer and in greater control of her life.  By allowing herself to stop studying earlier in the evening she was able to sleep an extra hour each night, which helped her feel more awake and less anxious.  She ended up being admitted to an Ivy League university.