The Role of Perfectionism in Chronic Insomnia

Mar 07, 2021

"Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order.” – Anne Wilson Schaef

My love affair with perfectionism began at a very young age. 

I think I was about seven when I made my first list. In fact, I remember crumpling up the paper and starting a completely new list because the list itself wasn’t perfect. 

The drive to be good at anything I did was relentless. I now know that the goal of perfection is the lowest standard of all because it’s an impossible standard to achieve. It leads to a lot of disappointment and quite frankly, a fairly miserable life.

My need to be good at everything led me to do only the things that I felt were a sure bet. If I couldn’t do it really, really well, I wasn’t interested. What was the point?

Go big or go home was my motto.

Obviously, this led to a rather fun-less existence, say nothing about a strung-out nervous system. Over the years, it became harder and harder to find joy.

The Cost of Perfectionism

Chronic insomnia can be a result of perfectionism but there are other consequences as well. Here are just a few:

Can’t Enjoy the Process of Growing and Striving

Being hyper-focused on results and nothing else means perfectionists can’t enjoy the journey. High achievers on the other hand can enjoy the process of chasing a goal as much, or even more than reaching the goal itself. When I enrolled in a master’s program in Holistic Health, I was knee-deep in health issues. I had no idea what I wanted from the education, I just knew I had to be there. It was the right move at the time. Not having an end -result allowed me to open my mind to many possibilities, and ultimately led to the most enjoyable learning experience of my life.

Depression as a Result of Unmet Goals

Perfectionists often become depressed when they don’t achieve their goals. They are very good at the “What if?” game and they spend an excessive amount of time beating themselves up when their own expectations go unmet. Extremely high standards tend to stress perfectionists endlessly and they will often endure an incredible amount of discomfort to reach them.

Intense Procrastination

You would think that perfectionists wouldn’t be prone to procrastination, but the opposite is actually true. This is because perfectionists tend to wait for the “exact right moment” to work on their goals. They only want to start when they know for sure they can deliver their “best” work. (Ask me how I know this.) This of course leads to actually doing nothing because a perfect state of “readiness” rarely exists.

Unfortunately, this relentless and paralyzing cycle leads to greater feelings of failure and disappointment.

Fear of Failure and Low Self-Esteem

Failure is a very scary prospect for the perfectionist. Because they put so much stock in results and have an irrational belief that all things must be perfect, they have a hard time adjusting their expectations. Failures become fatal. Mistakes seem like the end of the world because mistakes will reveal the truth – that the perfectionist isn’t always perfect.

The all-or-nothing approach of the perfectionist means they either do everything well, or they don’t do it at all. Anything in between is a no-go.

There’s No Such Thing as Perfect Sleep

Studies show a link between perfectionism and chronic insomnia. However, not every perfectionist develops chronic insomnia and not every person with chronic insomnia is a perfectionist. Here are a few reasons why perfectionists may struggle with sleep.

1. The harder you “try” to sleep, the harder it is. Trust me, once a perfectionist sets their sights on a result, they’re like a dog with a bone. I approached insomnia guns a-blazing - I was determined to CONQUER insomnia if it was the last thing I did! All this did was fuel insomnia and create a perpetual loop of stress.

2.  There simply is no sleep “ideal.”
We’re pretty much bombarded with information about what we need for sleep. Studies pop up daily that reinforce the fear that if we don’t sleep properly, we’re probably going to die a hideous death. Now, these can be valuable messages for folks that really could pay more attention to getting better sleep, but for people with insomnia, paying MORE attention to sleep is the last thing they need!

Remember, perfectionists tend to think in black and white, all-or-nothing terms, so if they think that in order to have a good night of sleep you must sleep eight hours, anything less than that can feel unacceptable. Or, if you don’t sleep soundly through the whole night, you won’t feel rested. If sleep isn't good, it's bad. So bad sleep starts to feel like a failure. 

The truth is sleep is very individual. What works for one may not for another, and vice-versa. Sleep ideals just create performance anxiety and add an extra layer of pressure around sleep.

3. Too imperfect to sleep.
Perfectionism may predispose people to experience hyperarousal more easily, more intensely, or for a longer time in response to stressful life events. As a consequence of perceived shortcomings, perfectionistic individuals are liable to experience emotions such as regret, shame, and guilt, especially at bedtime. The resulting state of emotional arousal then interferes with sleep.

The True Origins of Perfectionism

In my opinion, perfectionism is the ultimate survival mechanism. Every behavior is about not getting into trouble, not getting it wrong, and not rocking the boat.

It’s a survival mechanism for people who believe they’re not good enough, not smart enough, and not special enough. Perfectionism becomes a repellant against criticism.

As a result of childhood trauma (real or perceived) the survival brain will adapt in ways that ease painful emotions. The initial trigger can be almost anything: a tremendous amount of uncertainty in childhood; harsh criticism from a parent, teacher or caregiver; comparison or envy of another sibling, or a painful rejection.

Nick Wignall says of perfectionism resulting from an abusive parent:

“This habit of striving for perfection becomes strengthened because on some level it works. On the one hand, it may actually prevent harm, as in the case of the child who obsessively plans for every possible contingency regarding their abusive parent.”

For me personally, I can say that the effort to be perfect was preferable to the sting of any kind of criticism. For most of my life, I took criticism personally, perceiving it as a reflection of who I really am. Criticism meant I wasn’t good enough.

Subconsciously, my mind believed that perfectionism would somehow make me acceptable to other people. If I created beauty on the outside, they would be able to see who I am on the inside. The truth is, underneath all of that, I just wanted to belong.

“Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” Brené Brown

I would also use perfectionism as a way to evade distressing emotions. Being hyper-focused and productive was a way for me to avoid something more painful. I was in the habit of trying to make my feelings go away via perfectionistic behaviors.

Perfectionism and Self-Compassion

To the outside world, it may appear like perfectionists really have their act together. And in some cases, perfectionistic traits can be quite beneficial, especially in a society that values productivity.

But ultimately, perfectionism is a self-defeating way to move through the world. Making and admitting mistakes is a necessary part of growing, learning, and being human. Unconsciously avoiding mistakes at any cost makes it harder to reach our own goals.

Self-compassion is the antidote to perfectionism because it allows us to become both mindful and understanding of our imperfections, failures, and mistakes while remaining non-judgmental of the suffering we experience as a result of these things. Finding acceptance and understanding from within, rather than outside sources alleviates some of the pressure we put on ourselves and makes us better equipped to handle our emotions when failure or rejection does occur.

Treat yourself the same way you would treat a friend or loved one during a difficult time.

Living with Imperfection

Chronic illness taught me how to make friends with imperfection pretty quick. For one thing, I had my ass handed to me on a near daily basis trying everything under the sun to get my health back. But I also learned the value of surrender, acceptance, and not attaching to an outcome.

During my master’s program, after achieving some level of health, I had a very wise research professor remind me (often) that:

“Done is better than perfect.”

Those five little words felt revolutionary to me! It was like I finally got permission to just breathe. I can't even tell you how many times I've whispered that quote to myself as I journey through the world of online business.  

These days, while I still strive for excellence, I mostly spend a lot of time having no idea what I’m doing. As an online educator and sleep coach (with zero background in tech), I’ve had to wade through an enormous amount of technological discomfort. My first blog took me at least 40 hours.

I’m also happy to report that I’m getting more and more comfortable engaging in things that I am truly horrible at. Doing stuff just for the joy of it (whether I’m good at it or not) feels fun and liberating. Every time I do something I'm scared to do because I know it isn't going to be so great, especially at first, I feel a sense of confidence.

"Embrace the suck" is my new motto.

A Love Note to the Perfectionist with Insomnia

If you’ve made it this far into my blog, you’re likely struggling with chronic insomnia.

And boy, do I understand your struggle.

I know that you’ve done everything imaginable to sleep. I know you feel almost desperate for rest and you’re wondering what on earth is wrong with your brain. I know deep down you’re terrified this problem might never go away. And I know the profound impact insomnia is having on your life.

I know all this because I experienced it, too.

Here’s the thing about sleep…

Sleep is about letting go instead of holding on. It’s about allowing instead of controlling. It’s about trusting instead of trying.

Sleep happens in the absence of effort.

For the perfectionist, this is a hard pill to swallow because our identity is built on effort.

But when you grasp this concept and trust that your body knows exactly what it’s doing, sleep will come.

In support,

Beth Kendall MA, FNTP

Holistic Sleep Coach

Visit me on The Holistic Sleep Coach Facebook page where I offer loads of sleep tips and neuroplasticity love.

Health Disclaimer: The information and other content provided in this blog, or in any linked materials, are not intended and should not be construed as medical advice, nor is the information a substitute for professional medical expertise or treatment.

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