The imperfections of perfectionism

What is perfectionism? Some people mistakenly believe that being a perfectionist means that you are doing everything perfectly;  That somehow if you are a perfectionist, your life is in perfect order and you have risen above the rest of the slobs drowning in a sea of laundry and unpaid bills.  These people would be surprised to know many perfectionists have messy houses, are unemployed and are miserable.  Why? Perfectionism stems from an inner belief that everything that I do needs to be done perfectly.  My house must be clean at all times, I must have perfect performance at my job, my hair must look perfect.  This might not seem like an actual problem.  Most of us strive to put our best foot forward in most areas of our lives.  We want the approval of others and to feel good about our accomplishments.  The trouble begins for perfectionists when they fall short.  Failure to do something at a perceived "perfect" level causes a perfectionist anxiety and distress.  Perfectionists don't see that there are shades of gray on the black and white scale of success and failure.  They will react in one of two ways;  One, they will continue to achieve the success they are seeking, to the detriment of other areas of their life. Or two, they will completely give up and avoid all tasks related to this failure. In my practice, I have treated many individuals struggling with perfectionism, who had no idea that it was an underlying cause of many stressors they were experiencing.  In fact, often when I suggested this idea to them, they laughed it off.  The idea that their imperfections stem from their perfectionism seems ludacris, especially considering some of the issues they are facing.

Let's take Lucy for example (of course all names and identifying information is changed for the purpose of this article).  Lucy is a 40 year mother of three who is experiencing severe anxiety and panic attacks.  She reports that her highest levels of anxiety occur when she first gets to work and also when she first returns home after work.  When I asked her to think about why those specific times were most stressful, she indicated that at both of those times she feels completely overwhelmed by the thought of all the things that she isn't going to accomplish.  During those times of day, she is reviewing all of the actions that are not going to be completed perfectly.  She knows she probably won't be able to finish all of her reports before the end of the workday and she also knows that there is no way that she is going to be able to feed her family, do all the laundry and have her house clean before going to bed at night.  And directly after that thought, she thinks about how she is going to have to wake up and go through the same thing tomorrow! You can imagine how suffocating these thoughts are to someone who responds to imperfection with anxiety.

There are yet others who have felt failure at every turn and therefore lived in a world closed to new experiences.  They see every new friend as someone who might betray them, every new hobby a source of messy imperfections.  They may also give up on the daily activites that we are all required to do, as a result of not being able to do them perfectly.  A perfectionist may stop cleaning his home because he is unable to keep everything in place at all times.  He may stop cooking because he knows the recipe might not turn out the way he planned.  The irony is that someone who is perceived as messy, dirty and lazy actually could have become that way in an attempt to be the exact opposite!

So what can we do to combat perfectionism? The first step is to identify its source.  Is your main motivation to be perfect a result of wanting to please others, please yourself or both?  What are the areas of your life that you value most and feel the strongest need to perform? Having this information and self awareness is key in learning ways to reduce your stress.  In Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, clients learn that their underlying beliefs lead to feelings and actions.  You may come to realize that you believe that being flawed will make others dislike you. You may believe that having a messy home means that you are a lazy person.  You may believe that struggling to learn a skill means that you are stupid. Learning to change these beliefs will help you accept yourself, flaws and all.  You can learn to speak kindly to yourself. Often perfectionists tell themselves things that they would never dream of telling someone else, for fear of hurting others.

So next time someone tells you that you are a perfectionist, don't take it as a compliment.  Remember, even perfectionists are human beings (even if they don't seem like it to the rest of the dirty laundry, chipped nail polish, late for work crowd).