One of the saddest conditions I work with as a psychologist is perfectionism. At it’s core perfectionism is about setting standards for oneself that are impossible to meet.People who suffer from it tend to be anxious, depressed, irritable, impatient with others and chronically dis-satisfied. Perfectionism can truly strip any joy from life, turning it in to a never ending quest at which one is continuously defeated.
THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERFECTIONISM AND STRIVING TO ACHIEVE
Many people seek excellence. We can be motivated about different areas of our life. For one person it is about making money for another it is career success and recognition. Other areas where people strive is in their efforts to be an exceptional parent, an outstanding student or to excel at a sport. For many people appearance is a major focus. For those with eating disorders it is focused on weight.
The critical difference lies in how the person handles a failure to meet their expectations. Disappointment, sorrow and renewed motivation are all normal responses to failing to meet ones goals. Perfectionists experience setbacks as overwhelming disasters. The perfectionist lives with a chronic sense of never being good enough. Even in the face of success they will find an area that didn’t meet their own standards. Confront a perfectionist with their behavior and they will always respond, “I just wanted to make sure I got it right” or “I just like my house to be neat” or “I want my son to get in to a good college.” It is the intensity of their anger and disappointment in themselves or others that separates the achievement oriented person from the perfectionist.
DISTRESS AND PERFECTIONISM
Think of the people you know who experience chronic dissatisfaction with their performance. Their grades are never good enough, they didn’t do well enough on their work project or they are never thin or beautiful enough. Perfectionists are the workaholics who can never stop working. They are on their computers while on vacation, they stay late at the office or are up late working at home. Why do they constantly strive so hard? Not because they truly experience a sense of success or satisfaction, or not the satisfaction that should endure for a job well done. A perfectionist is never satisfied, rarely able to experience the joy of a job well done. They always feel there is just more to do. Even when they receive accolades and admiration from others, they are quick with the “buts”…”but that doesn’t mean they will keep me in my job”, “but I got a B on an exam last month”, “but the other mothers go to gymnastics every week with their child”, “but I ate a cheeseburger on Wednesday and I gained a pound.”
The perfectionist tends to be grim and fearful. They always feel they are losing because their standards are so excessive. Pride and joy in their actions are not what drive them though they may experience it at times (and will be quick to refer to those times if you question them about their perfectionism). No, what drives them is a never ending sense of fear that what they are doing is not enough, is not good enough; that failure and disaster lurk just ahead.
Perfectionism is a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). The person is obsessed with their own excessive internal standards and they feel compelled to always do more than whatever they do. Perfectionism is a type of anxiety disorder and as such can greatly diminish a person’s quality of life.
LIVING WITH A PERFECTIONIST
Perfectionism interferes greatly with relationships. The children of perfectionists receive a great deal of criticism if their school work is not good enough or their room isn’t neat enough. If the parent’s perfectionism is in the form of pushing themself to be a super parent the impact comes when the child doesn’t sufficiently appreciate the sacrifices the parent makes, the cost of the purchased good or service or the time the parent has taken away from their own life. Resentment and anger at the child can occur which is more harmful than any benefit derived from the time, gift or activity the parent offered.
If the perfectionist is part of a couple, the partner will feel like they are living with someone who is always stressed, always preoccupied, difficult to please. Friction and conflict are common. The partner may feel like a failure because they are unable to reassure and comfort the perfectionist when the perfectionist is disappointed about their efforts.
Perfectionism can be difficult to find solutions for because the nature of perfectionism doesn’t allow the person to admit that a problem exists. Admitting a problem causes them to face their sense of failure-their greatest fear.
HELP FOR PERFECTIONISM
There is excellent treatment available for perfectionism. It is a type of anxiety that can be very successfully treated with cognitive behavior therapy. SSRI medications are also often dramatically effective. The problem is getting someone in the door-to admit there is a problem and seeking help. It can be accomplished with persistence and patience. More in specifics in my next article.