MindLAB Neuroscience Neuroscience-based Life Coaching logo featuring a polygonal brain icon.

The Dark Side of Perfectionism: How the Pursuit of Greatness Can Lead to Insecurity and Decreased Performance

a woman pointing at a row of paper clips

The Pressure to Be Great

To strive for greatness is not an unworthy goal, but the desire to be great can be a slippery slope. While all of us have a right to live our lives in pursuit of our dreams, the pressure we now put on ourselves to be special or great can lead to insecurity, narcissism, and an actual decrease in our performance and abilities. New studies of perfectionism reveal a darker side to this typically positive-seeming quality. Most likely because of their high levels of stress and anxiety, perfectionists are 51 percent more likely to die at an earlier age. Other studies show that in some cases perfectionism can contribute to suicide risk.

The Neuroscience Behind Perfectionism

Perfectionism can take its toll on our quality of life as well as what we’re able to accomplish. Recent research revealed that it can lead to burnout at work and school. Burnout is marked by extreme stress, chronic fatigue, and increasingly poor performance, which counters the idea that perfectionism will naturally result in more success. This is because the constant pressure to perform activates the brain’s stress response, releasing cortisol and adrenaline, which can lead to chronic fatigue and decreased cognitive function. The default mode network (DMN) in the brain, responsible for introspection and self-reflection, can also contribute to perfectionism by fueling negative self-talk and self-doubt.

Can Neuroscience Help Us Understand the Roots of Perfectionism?

Neuroscience can provide valuable insights into the roots of perfectionism. Research suggests that the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), and the prefrontal cortex (PFC) are key regions involved in the regulation of emotional experiences, including love and attachment. The VTA is responsible for the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter involved in reward and pleasure processing. The NAcc is involved in the processing of reward and motivation, while the PFC is involved in executive function, decision-making, and emotional regulation. Understanding these neural mechanisms can help us develop strategies to manage perfectionism and promote emotional well-being.

The Impact on Children

Growing up in an increasingly competitive world, young people are feeling high levels of stress and a pressure to be the “best” or to be “special” in some way that distinguishes them from the rest. Recent studies have shown overly ambitious parents can lead their children to feel intense anxiety and hinder their children’s performance. This focus on accomplishment can have disabling, even dangerous, consequences. Parents who excessively drive or push their kids to “succeed” don’t realize the anxiety and self-doubt they’re likely imposing on them. Children can develop the belief that they are unworthy, undeserving, or failures if they do not live up to perceived parental expectations. One study showed that 70 percent of young men who had died by suicide had felt “exceedingly high” demands from their parents.

The Consequences of Overpraising

On the flip side, kids who are overpraised or overindulged can have heightened levels of narcissism or entitlement, an increase in insecurity, and lower levels of motivation and functioning. If a parent is constantly telling their child how special they are, this can lead kids to feel just the opposite, like they’re a fraud or can’t live up to their parents’ definitions. Countless students are entering college and seeking help because the stress of having to do things on their own is overwhelming. Therefore, in many ways, an inflated sense of self can be as crippling as low self-esteem, and typically, the same feelings of uncertainty and worthlessness lie at the surface of both.

A man cutting grass with scissors
Striving for perfectionism is akin to life on a hamster wheel.

The Critical Inner Voice

Children often pick up harmful attitudes their parents or caretakers had toward them and toward themselves. The “critical inner voice is a term used to describe a destructive thought process we form out of these harmful attitudes. Throughout our lives, this “voice” fuels our feelings of insecurity and a pressure to perform. We may wind up feeling like we’re never enough or as if we’re fooling the people who like and respect us. This “voice” drives our desire to achieve perfection in various areas of our lives. Yet, no matter what we achieve, it never seems to quiet. We may feel driven all the time but never like we’re there. Even once we achieve our ultimate goal, we’re likely to feel empty, because the feeling of self-acceptance or love is still elusive.

Recognizing and Naming Your Inner Critic

Recognizing and naming your inner critic can be a powerful tool in managing imposter syndrome. The inner critic is the negative, self-critical voice that fuels feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. By acknowledging and naming this voice, individuals can begin to separate themselves from it and recognize that it is not a reflection of their true abilities or worth.

Ways to Help You Name Your Inner Critic

  • Distance and Perspective: Naming the inner critic creates distance between the individual and the negative voice, allowing them to view it as a separate entity.
  • Reduced Self-Identification: It helps to separate the individual from these thoughts and feelings, promoting a more objective view.
  • Increased Self-Awareness: Recognizing and naming the inner critic increases self-awareness, allowing individuals to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Improved Emotional Regulation: It can help individuals better regulate their emotions, particularly those related to anxiety, fear, and self-doubt.
  • Enhanced Resilience: By acknowledging that the inner critic is not always accurate, individuals can develop a more realistic and positive self-image, which can help them bounce back from difficulties.

Countering the Trends

For parents, there are ways to counter these trends. For example, we can strive to see our kids for who they really are, teach them to do things for themselves, praise effort over performance, and encourage them to do what lights them up. We can also lead by example, fostering our own sense of self-compassion (which focuses on self-acceptance) as opposed to self-esteem (which focuses on performance). We can pursue the things we are passionate about and work hard toward our own goals. There’s a balance we can strike of nurturing and offering the right kind of praise to kids, while encouraging independence, enthusiasm, and hard work.


Of course, no parent can be perfect, but that’s not the point nor is it the goal. Insecurity and our sense of self is something we all struggle with to varying degrees. Yet, at any point in life, we can all take steps to conquer our inner critic and become more self-accepting.

#Perfectionism, #Insecurity, #SelfAcceptance, #ParentingTips, #MentalHealth, #Burnout, #Anxiety, #SelfEsteem, #Narcissism, #PersonalGrowth

Share this post

Picture of Dr. Sydney Ceruto

Dr. Sydney Ceruto

A Pioneer in Neuroscience-Based Coaching

As the founder of MindLAB Neuroscience, Dr. Sydney Ceruto has been a leading force in integrating neuroscience into coaching and counseling for over two decades. With three master's degrees in psychology and two PhDs in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience, she is widely considered a top expert in her field.

Harnessing the power of neuroscience-based coaching, Dr. Ceruto's innovative approach focuses on neuroscience, neuroplasticity, and neural pathway rewiring to foster lasting positive change in mental health.

Dr. Ceruto holds esteemed memberships in the Forbes Executive Council, Positive Performance Alliance, Wharton Executive Education Program, the International Society of Female Professionals, and executive writing positions for Alternatives Watch, Brainz Magazine, and TED: Ideas Worth Spreading.

Dr. Ceruto's accomplishments include:

  • The 2022 CREA Award.
  • A lead research position at NYU Steinhardt.
  • Volunteer work with Covenant House and the National Alliance for Mental Health (NAMI).

Her science-backed method of Neural Rewiring has successfully guided thousands of clients toward happier, more productive, and more resilient lives.