If you need to be perfect and the thought of alphabetizing your cans of soup gets you all tingly and excited, then go ahead and obsess about order.
On the other hand, you might want to attach some Common Sense to your perfection obsession.
Happy Turkey Day!
Dr. Mitchell Perry
THE PERFECTION OBSESSION
Many people have standards, values, and guiding principles by which they live. For these individuals, standards and values are helpful guidelines for living; however, 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.
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 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 less than perfect.
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 always be insufficient.”
As you can see, the child has only two options:
- To keep achieving in hopes of reaching perfection someday, or
- To become so miserable, inadequate, and defeated that it leads to severe depression.
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-nik, a compulsive organizer, and/or an ultimate authority on every subject.
Workaholics often 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 that 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. Sometimes they become obsessed with and addicted to plastic surgery to further their perfection needs.
Many people are concerned about cleanliness and orderliness at home and work. The neat-nik, 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-nik’s behavior ensures the maintenance of control. The neat nik 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 often times 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 then allow them to be fallible and human? Further, physicians can learn to better manage patient’s expectations so the patients realize the outcome of an operation might be less than perfect. Finally, malpractice lawsuits are likely to be less when the physician apologizes for making mistakes.
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.
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 about this?
- 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 you in fact 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. 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?
Church Ladies With Typewriters
They’re Back! Those wonderful Church Bulletins! Thank God for the church ladies with typewriters. These sentences actually appeared in church bulletins or were announced at church services:
The Fasting & Prayer Conference includes meals.
Scouts are saving aluminum cans, bottles and other items to be recycled. Proceeds will be used to cripple children.
The sermon this morning: ‘Jesus Walks on the Water.’ The sermon tonight: ‘Searching for Jesus.’
Ladies, don’t forget the rummage sale. It’s a chance to get rid of those things not worth keeping around the house. Bring your husbands.
Don’t let worry kill you off – let the Church help.
Miss Charlene Mason sang ‘I will not pass this way again,’ giving obvious pleasure to the congregation.
For those of you who have children and don’t know it, we have a nursery downstairs.
Next Thursday there will be try-outs for the choir. They need all the help they can get.
Irving Benson and Jessie Carter were married on October 24 in the church. So ends a friendship that began in their school days.
A bean supper will be held on Tuesday evening in the church hall. Music will follow.
At the evening service tonight, the sermon topic will be ‘What Is Hell?’ Come early and listen to our choir practice.
Eight new choir robes are currently needed due to the addition of several new members and to the deterioration of some older ones.
Please place your donation in the envelope along with the deceased person you want remembered.
The church will host an evening of fine dining, super entertainment and gracious hostility.
Pot-luck supper Sunday at 5:00 PM – prayer and medication to follow.
The ladies of the Church have cast off clothing of every kind. They may be seen in the basement on Friday afternoon.
This evening at 7 PM there will be a hymn singing in the park across from the Church. Bring a blanket and come prepared to sin.
The pastor would appreciate it if the ladies of the Congregation would lend him their electric girdles for the pancake breakfast next Sunday.
Low Self Esteem Support Group will meet Thursday at 7 PM. Please use the back door.
The eighth-graders will be presenting Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the Church basement Friday at 7 PM. The congregation is invited to attend this tragedy.
Weight Watchers will meet at 7 PM at the First Presbyterian Church. Please use large double door at the side entrance.
And this one just about sums them all up
The Associate Minister unveiled the church’s new campaign slogan last Sunday:
‘I Upped My Pledge – Up Yours.’
At your service,
Dr. Mitchell Perry
JM Perry Learning