January 15, 2012

Perfectionism or What’s Wrong with Being Too Good?

One of the most challenging issues I confront in people who seek my help is perfectionism. These are people with very high standards who continually work to meet their goals-admirable qualities most would agree. When it is extreme, however, the relentless pursuit of achievement can lead to a great deal of misery for the individual and for the people in their lives.

Do you know someone like this? They are up late at night finishing a project for work or doing housework. They are pushing their kids relentlessly (and that’s the key word) to do better at sports, homework, managing their appearance or cleaning their room. With themselves the most frequent focus is on an inability to accept setbacks or “failure” when the definition for failure is very low. They are hard on themselves if they are sad or upset. A frequent complaint is, “I shouldn’t be whining” when they have very legitimate causes for feeling blue. It’s a difficulty perceiving when they need to slow down, to get to sleep, to see a doctor for a problem when it won’t go away because they don’t allow time for taking care of themselves. The response when loved ones try to intervene is, ” I CAN’T…I HAVE TO finish this or get this done first”. Everything comes before what those around them see as the more important priority.  Because they are so stressed by their internal demands they often fail to get things done thereby worsening the cycle.  Even when they do a good job with something they rarely experience a sense of satisfaction because they are intensely self-critical and will always find flaws in their accomplishments.

Physical appearance is a common focus for women with eating disorders as a high risk.  Teenagers who are prone to perfectionism can easily fall in to the trap of focusing on their bodies because they can have the greatest control over their own bodies when much of the rest of their lives is under the control of parents and teachers.  Eating disorders are an epidemic in our culture where advertising, movies and TV all push women to have the appearance that few achieve.  The images we see of magnificent celebrities are of people who are paid very high for their exceptional beauty and even they must work relentlessly with dieting, physical workouts, makeup artists, hairdressers and image consultants to achieve what the public gets to see.

Few of us have the natural gifts, the amount of time and the financial resources to achieve the images those who are famous for their beauty present to their public.  Eating disorders and, their frequent complement compulsive exercise, are on the rise among men also  as images of “washboard abs” and extraordinary physiques are more in the public eye.  Look at the difference in old and new movies.  The male movie stars of previous eras-Clark Gable, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, etc may have nice figures but when their shirts are off they look like ordinary, if reasonably fit, men.  Today’s male stars go in to training for months before a film spending untold hours in gyms with trainers to create massive sculpted bodies that were rarely seen before the mid 1990’s and that men who are not celebrities, who have jobs or families, do not have the time or stamina or money to achieve.  Physical appearance then, can be a common indication of perfectionism.  It can lead to excessive spending on clothing, makeup, hair, gym memberships and trainers or salon treatments that may be well beyond the budget of the person pursuing personal attractiveness at the expense of other essential priorities.

How else does perfectionism show up?  Compulsive housekeeping is another common area of trouble.  These people are often tyrants to their families demanding that their standards be met.  In theory, we all might enjoy a cleaner, neater home environment but no spouse has the right to dictate how the other will live.  For example, just because you think the bed should be made every day doesn’t mean it “has” to be done or that the other person is obligated to meet your expectations.   Conflict and family discord is common in these families because the perfectionist is either always angry at others for not meeting their housekeeping standards or working excessively to do it all themselves while being upset and resentful of the others in the home.  Many people tell me of truly abusive perfectionist parents who woke them at extremely early hours on weekends to do hours of housework on a weekly basis-moving furniture, scrubbing corners, etc.

Being a perfectionist is having a slave driver in your head always telling you to do more and better, never allowing you to feel good enough.  It can be an enormously stressful and unhappy way to live.  I frequently see depression or anxiety disorders as a result of this perfectionism.  Perfectionism can be treated successfully.  Psychology and psychiatry have excellent resources to bring this life destroying problem under control.  Perfectionists are,however, often the last to seek or accept treatment because needing help is perceived as a sign of weakness or failure.  This is the true tragedy of this problem.  Perfectionism is very treatable condition that often goes on for a lifetime because the distorted thinking does not allow the perfectionist to accept the need for help.

Are you a perfectionist?  Do you live with or care about someone who meets this description?  Recognizing and understanding the problem is the first step on the road to change and real change is truly possible.

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