Pitfalls of perfection

Maullika Sharma, Jan 13 2018, 14:37 IST
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Many people feel great about being perfectionists. And why not? After all they are striving to do something perfectly, how can that possibly be a bad thing! Well the truth is that besides driving themselves and everyone else up a wall, perfectionism is really driven by fear, anxiety and a need for control. It is a facade to cover up one's deeper insecurities. Let's take a deeper look at this.

Perfectionists have unrealistic expectations from themselves. They focus on results - often unattainable ones - and are only satisfied if those results are achieved a 100%. They take no pride in the effort they make to achieve those results, and are highly self-critical if their goals are not met. Pushed towards their goals by the fear of failure, rather than pulled towards them by a healthy desire to achieve, perfectionists are their own worst enemies. Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order! Here are the different ways in which this self-abuse gets manifested:

* Perfectionists may be so driven to meet their goals that they feel guilty about any leisure activity.

* Their need to make the 'perfect' choice, which makes even a simple decision difficult.

* They may get derailed if things don't go as per plan.

* They may be so intent on finding the 'perfect' romantic partner that they are unable to commit to long-term relationships.

* They get angry at their "laziness", unaware that the real reason they are unable to do something is because their obsession to do them flawlessly makes the tasks appear impossibly large.

* Perfectionists are driven by the mantra that if they try their best, they can perform flawlessly and be the ideal person in every situation.

If they make mistakes they would not be seen as competent as they "should" be. By being perfect, they can ensure their own security as they don't give others a reason to criticise or reject them. They truly believe their worth depends on how good they are, and how well they perform.

All in the head

In their book Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets out of Control, Allan Mallinger and Jeannette Dewyze take a peek into the way perfectionists think. They say their thoughts go something like this: If I can't do it perfectly, what's the point? I should excel at everything I do. If I goof up some thing's wrong with me. People shouldn't criticise me. I always have to stay ahead of others. Every detail of a job should be perfect. Things should be done right the first time.

There is only one right way to do things. I'd better not make a mistake or people will think I'm no good. I'm a wonderful person if I do well; I am a lousy person if I do poorly. If I can't do everything right, I'm not good enough; I'm stupid; I'm unlikeable. Clearly everything is judged as black or white. Greys are unacceptable. Just writing these thoughts down is exhausting for me, imagine having to think them every day.

This makes perfectionists over commit themselves. They have a hard time making choices. They always need to be in control. They compete fiercely and get carried away with the details. They never seem satisfied with their work or that of others'. They procrastinate. They arrive late because one more thing had to be done. They constantly keep themselves busy with something. They frequently criticise others, but refuse to hear self-criticism. Perfectionists pay more attention to negative comments than positive ones, and call themselves "stupid" when they do something imperfectly. The self-abuse is endless.

Excellence vs perfection

Now, that's a lot of emotional baggage to carry around. Naturally it has its consequences. There could be several reasons why a person develops perfectionistic traits, but the causes are not important. The important thing is to recognise them, and get the help needed to not let them hold one back from achieving their potential.

Perfection is often justified as the pursuit of excellence. But there is a fundamental difference.

* The pursuit of excellence is about openness to being wrong and taking risks. Perfection is about having to be right and is driven by fear.

* The pursuit of excellence is driven by confidence and is a journey. Perfectionism is driven by doubt and is a destination.

* The pursuit of excellence involves spontaneity and getting into the 'flow' (to use the term of Mihály Csíkszentmihályi), while perfectionism causes pressure and seeks the need to control.

* A perfectionist sets standards beyond reach and reason. One striving for excellence sets high standards, which are just beyond reach.

* A perfectionist will throws a fit if the editor of the book tampered with the copy, but one striving for excellence will notice the way the editor improved the copy!

* Perfectionists constantly struggle under the weight of a massive inner rule book and an overarching sense of duty, responsibility and fairness. They believe in the myth that ultimate control is possible - as they try to control themselves, others and life's events.

Self-control may take different forms - students not allowing themselves to take a break; those on a diet being obsessive about it, not necessarily because they think one slip up will matter but because they may think they have lost control. To them, no action is an isolated step and so everything has major ramifications.

They love to control others and want them to do things their way, never considering how this dictatorial attitude makes others feel. Yet they want others to view them as kind and non-judgemental. Putting on this image of being perfect becomes difficult when in reality they recognise their flaws. And if someone criticises them, the realisation that others have seen their flaws becomes anxiety-provoking.

Perfectionism is often at the root cause of procrastination. Perfectionists fear they won't be able to complete the task perfectly, so they try to put it off as long as possible. The vast majority of college students are perfectionists and have trouble getting their work done. The reality is that any task looks larger than life if it has to be done flawlessly. Under this pressure, some perfectionists actually miss their deadlines, while others meet them, but at a terrible personal cost.

Perfectionists are sensitive to demands placed on them, either real or imagined. They tend to hear of demands in an exaggerated way. Even if they want to do something, like taking care of a parent, they think they "should" do it and it becomes a demand - removing the joy from it. They are also resistant to demands by others as they experience a loss of control.

Perfectionists are self-reliant, but may guard their autonomy too fiercely. Intimacy can be extremely challenging for them as they fear being 'found out'. To trust requires a leap of faith, and that is hard, as is dependency. They prefer to stand alone and stay emotionally reserved and secretive.

Being systematic

Perfectionists are systematic thinkers who sort and analyse all information about whatever is happening, rather than experience it. They strive to remember all the data they have acquired and have an amazing memory for facts and trivia.

This not only brings intellectual mastery, but also wins the respect and admiration of others, so it has real practical value. However, when combined with rigidity, it can blind one to valuable new ideas. They can worry about physical concerns, day-to-day activities, money, loved ones - actually just about anything.

Those seeking perfection have trouble discarding things and always have some rationalisation for it. Or they may be excessively clean about every surface and restrict disorderliness to one area of their lives, like one cupboard. In many cases, the ironic underlying cause for the mess is perfectionism, as cleaning up requires scrubbing every surface, removing every molecule of dust. And that can be stressful.

Perfectionism often drives a compulsive need to work as it provides protection from things that they actually fear - like intimacy, pressure of other demands, one's emotions. Work also gives a sense of control. But the costs of workaholism are high. It poisons personal relationships. Children feel short-changed, spouses feel neglected, friendships get forgotten, leisure gets deprived and productivity declines.

So if you recognise yourself in any of these traits, don't lose heart, because you can get help. And get help you must! Reach out to a counsellor. It is worth the time, the effort and the money. If it lets you live a more unshackled life, why not?

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