ARE YOU A PERFECTIONIST?
Perhaps you have a need to line-up your food boxes according to size, or arrange your closet by color, fabric, and space between the hangers, or alphabetize your cans of soup? Wait a minute… if you are now thinking, “That’s a great idea!” OMG… keep reading!
Do you obsess about your looks, house, or work? Do you truly think that your standards of perfection help keep you striving? Do you ever notice you seem to be always anxious and/or cranky?
It’s time to re-evaluate your perfection obsession – let’s add some common sense!
Dr. Mitchell Perry
The Perfection Obsession: A Set-Up for a Let Down
Many people have standards, values, and guiding principles by which they live. For these individuals, standards and values are helpful guidelines for living; on the other hand, sometimes these standards become too rigid and strict. In some cases, the standard expectations of excellence are so high that the individual becomes obsessed with having to be perfect. This is called the “Perfection Obsession.”
I have encountered countless people, both personally and professionally, who are obsessed with being perfect. In moderation, striving for excellence is a terrific basic governing value. Yet, many of us take “having to be perfect” to the extreme, and later develop psychological, physiological, and interpersonal disorders which often result in emotional prison.
I often find multi-dimensional origins to the perfection obsession. When suffering from perfection obsession, people frequently cultivate an unshakable irrational belief system in addition to rigid behavior patterns. Dr. Albert Ellis presents the perfection obsession as another one of his eleven irrational ideas that contributes strongly to mental illness and emotional disorders. He describes this irrational obsession as “the idea that one must be thorough, competent and achieving in all possible respects, and if perchance this is not achieved, there is something terribly wrong.” As you can see, when we become firmly entrenched in this kind of thinking, we become anxious, irritated, depressed, or hostile if we’re exposed as being imperfect.
Sometimes people who are afflicted with perfection obsession have grown up in a double-bind family environment. A double-bind family environment is a “damned if you do/damned if you don’t,” or “Catch 22” situation. For example, suppose a child is continually told the following two conflicting messages by his parents or other authority figures:
“You’ll never amount to anything unless you achieve.”
“Whatever you achieve will never be good enough.”
If this sounds familiar, you have three options:
To keep achieving in hopes of reaching perfection some day, or
To become so miserable and defeated that it leads to severe depression.
Go crazy – (dip into the prozac).
Most people with the perfection obsession choose the first option. The perfection obsession can manifest itself in a variety of ways. Some of the behavior patterns are familiar — those of a workaholic, a narcissist, a compulsive cleaner, a neat nick, over-achiever, and an ultimate authority on every subject.
Workaholics constantly work to the point of masochism. Most are working to compensate for intense feelings of inadequacy; in this case, a fear of being less than perfect. By committing their time and energy to work and by excluding other people, they feel safer – that is to say, it is less likely that other people will discover they are in fact imperfect.
Other people can become “perfect” narcissists – obsessed with their appearance, making sure they look perfectly neat, coifed, clean, groomed, pressed, smoothed, sprayed, made-up, tanned, physically shaped, and coordinated. The risk here is that “perfect” people might avoid potentially fun or educational activities that would expose them as being imperfect. As a result, the “perfect” person may seldom relax for fear of having an imperfect physical image. This narcissistic condition has become greatly amplified in the past two decades. An example is the movie “Perfect” which portrays a woman’s obsession with exercise to create the flawless body. Another example is the addiction with plastic surgery – as a result of a distorted view of your physical self, often referred to as body dysformia.
Many people are concerned about cleanliness and orderliness at home and work. The neat-nick, however, is obsessed with cleanliness and orderliness. This person will spend hours cleaning every nook and cranny in the kitchen, will work for days making the office files letter perfect, or will devote the entire weekend to scrubbing the back porch and driveway. The compulsive neat-nick’s behavior ensures the maintenance of control. The neat nick fears losing control because that would mean revealing personal imperfections.
Still other people can become obsessed with perfection in their thinking, dialogue, and knowledge. Have you ever dealt with someone who has an opinion and an answer for everything? These people like to be the ultimate authority. They will oftentimes read voraciously and store vast amounts of knowledge and will likely get quite anxious if the answer fails to immediately come to mind or if memory fails for even a moment. Professional people, in particular, can become obsessed with perfection in their chosen field. The idea of saying “I don’t know” is unthinkable. Instead there is a recorded message playing internally that says, “unless I am a perfect, flawless professional, other people will lose respect for me.” An additional problem that arises from this erroneous thinking is that other people begin to expect perfection from professionals who promote infallibility. This leads to a tough bind. I wonder if there would be less medical malpractice litigation if some physicians were less obsessed with projecting perfection, and if the public could allow them to be fallible and human?
The difficult part of being obsessed with perfection is the continual anxiety about making mistakes and exposing humanness, fallibility and imperfection. The obsessive person thinks, “if I make a mistake, I will lose respect,” and “if I’m imperfect, I’m vulnerable and out of control.” Notice how often we tell ourselves those lines? This belief system states that anything less than perfect would be received with disapproval in other people’s eyes – an extension of the childhood double-bind scenario.
IN REALITY, THE CONTRARY IS TRUE. We actually like people less for their perfections because perfection tends to scare and intimidate us. If we encounter someone who appears perfect, we are immediately reminded of our own imperfections, which can make us feel uncomfortable and inadequate. In addition, we find it difficult to identify with someone who is perfect. We are able to relax only when we encounter someone who, while having high standards, also lets his or her imperfections and “human qualities” show through. The more human a person is, the more we are able to feel comfortable and identify with this person.
Take a look at Oprah Winfrey, she is fabulously successful, loved and admired by millions of people — and she has always been willing to expose her failings and soft underbelly. Do you suppose she is so admired because she is willing to be imperfect?
The perfection obsession is oriented toward reactive thinking and is motivated by the potential consequences of failing to do something. “Perfect” people are unable to relax because they are always making an effort to be perfect – reacting to the fear of the potential consequence of appearing imperfect, flawed, and out of control. This constant reactive obsession results in anxiety, dogmatism, and lowered creative potential and performance. If we are unable to relax, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to grow; therefore, learning and progress are halted.
What can you do?
Ask yourself this question: “What is the worst that can happen if I am less than perfect?” Really consider this question because chances are, the answer is hardly fatal.
Practice saying, “I don’t know” when in fact you find yourself without an answer. People will be quite accepting of your limitations.
Consider leaving the house (or a small portion of it) messy for one day. It is interesting to see that your house, friends, and you too, will survive, and as a result, the obsession decreases.
List all of your standards on paper and consider the standards that are unreasonable. Then, rewrite and adjust them to more reasonable standards. The anxiety automatically diminishes.
Now ask yourself:
What am I noticing about myself and my perfection obsession?
What are my options to alter these behaviors?
What am I learning about these options?
What will I now do differently?