“I’m a Perfectionist!”

With these words Paul* introduced himself—and his problem. The first part of his story painted a picture of success—academic degrees, job advancements, and community awards. However, Paul did not present the pride or show the smiles that would typically accompany his level of success. His description of several key accomplishments in a matter-of-fact manner with little if any joy in his presentation illustrated a long history of frustration and dissatisfaction. Paul’s sense of failure was intensified because his perfectionistic pattern was making life very difficult for his wife, Paige, and their two teenage sons. Recent comments from Paige fueled his fear that their relationship was traveling toward a major collision or breakdown. Outwardly, Paul’s life appeared to be the epitome of success; inwardly, he felt like a failure. His words conveyed the pain he suffered.  “I’ve never felt good enough no matter how hard I tried or how much I achieved. I always knew that I should have done better. All I have is a bunch of hollow victories. I’m exhausted and depressed, and I’m losing my family. I’m afraid that I’m stuck on this road forever.” 

Paul’s travels along the Perfectionism Highway seemed to be typical of individuals who struggle with a perfectionistic lifestyle. The very traits that promoted his success also prevented his satisfaction. Paradoxically, the traits were simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. His achievements were high—and so was the price tag. In the midst of his accomplishments Paul was constantly aware of the dark clouds overhead that traveled with him along the Perfectionism Highway. Unfortunately, Paul is not the only traveler on this highway. Many people struggle with and suffer from the perils of perfectionism. Some perfectionists consider their achievements to outweigh the downside of perfectionism, so they choose to continue in their perilous journey. However, many other perfectionists, like Paul, are exhausted and depressed from their never-good-enough lifestyle, and they are worried about the increased stress that their perfectionism places on family, friends, and colleagues. Understandably, they are looking for a safe exit from the Perfectionism Highway. Since perfectionism represents a threat to both individual health and relationship happiness let’s examine the pattern and explore some possibilities for safer travels along the roadway of life.

Identifying the Practice

Let’s begin by identifying the practice of perfectionism. The question “How do I know if I am traveling the Perfectionism Highway?” is an important one for us to consider. In many cases the identification of perfectionism is not hard at all, especially if the individual is deeply entrenched in the negative pattern. At other times the perfectionistic pattern can be confused with the symptoms of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, standards of excellence, or the self-centeredness of narcissism.

A person with OCD who obsesses about details, correctness, and organization has a preoccupation that could resemble perfectionism. An excessive amount of time and effort is often spent on a project to make sure it’s done “right.” Any mistake has to be corrected as soon as possible or the person’s anxiety increases dramatically. In OCD the compulsions and obsessions are usually intrusive and unwelcomed, but the individual believes that he must continue the pattern in order to prevent anxiety and to keep life running smoothly.

At times a person’s standards of excellence might resemble perfectionism. I once knew a man who struggled to distinguish between “excellence” and “perfectionism.” He reported that he had denied being a perfectionist in his young-adult years and had claimed instead to be in pursuit of excellence. Years later, after a period of personal growth gained through multiple losses, he acknowledged that what he had claimed to be “excellence” was probably a mild-to-moderate level of perfectionism. He discovered that sorting out the symptoms was no easy challenge. In perfectionism a person approaches life from a black-or-white perspective and believes that one mistake ruins everything. This 100% versus 0% approach is distinguished from the excellence approach that prefers the 100% but accepts human errors as undesirable but understandable. The person committed to excellence believes that a few mistakes do not represent a terrible tragedy or total failure. The perfectionist cannot feel satisfied with an effort if a mistake has been made; in contrast, a person striving for excellence can enjoy the positive accomplishment even if the ultimate goal is not reached. The perfectionist tends to be motivated and driven by fear in that he’s afraid that any mistake means a total loss. An individual with excellence is motivated by enthusiasm more so than by the fear of loss. The perfectionist has to earn his self-worth through his efforts and accomplishments, and any error or failure will automatically diminish or destroy his self-worth. In contrast, the person striving for excellence has a good sense of self-worth that is not primarily
dependent upon his accomplishments. He reaches for excellence because he already has a healthy level of self-worth. **
Perfectionism could also be confused with narcissism and its preoccupation with self-centered and self-serving activities. I recall one young man who was accused by his peers of being conceited. His response was interesting: “I stopped being conceited when I became perfect.” When I heard the interchange my first thought was that the fellow was just teasing. However, my opinion changed during the coming months as I spent more time around him. Without a doubt he seemed to be the most conceited person I had met up to that point in my life. Needless to say, my time around him was the least amount necessary. The question is “Was he a perfectionist or a narcissist—or both?”  Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate the similar symptoms seen in both lifestyles.
The practice of perfectionism is initiated and developed by several factors. Somewhere in his past the perfectionistic individual adopted a set of impossible standards for his personal performance. Essentially, each adopted standard is introduced with the word “should”:  “I should do (or be) such and such.” These personal beliefs or standards provide the underlying force that feeds and fuels the individual along the Perfectionism Highway. Furthermore, these standards are often reinforced by irrational scruples (that is, an oversensitive conscience) and by internal self-depreciation (“I’m never good enough”). The perfectionism pattern usually has its roots in negative childhood interaction with parents in that the child inherits unpleasable parents and is forced to live a “conditional love” lifestyle. Also, there could have been an excessive emphasis upon law and justice rather than mercy and tolerance. An unpredictable, chaotic lifestyle also could have reinforced the negative pattern. These and other possible factors work together to move the individual toward a full-blown perfectionistic mindset and lifestyle by the time full adulthood is reached.

Simply put, the ultimate goal of perfectionism is a perfect score of “10” on every attempted activity. Anything less than a “10” amounts to total failure and the perfectionist feels no satisfaction in his effort. Even if he gets a “10” the perfectionist might discount the accomplishment by saying “That’s what I should have done anyone so I have no right to celebrate.” Since positive self-worth is tied inherently to successful accomplishments, the perfectionistic pattern keeps a person’s self-worth in constant flux and jeopardy.

Investigating the Price

As stated earlier, the perils of perfectionism suggest a price tag that is extremely high.The cost is evident in two major arenas: personal health and relationship health. Let’s investigate the price tag in each arena.
Personal health . . .
In terms of personal health perfectionism is like a coin with two sides. The “upside” or positive side often includes many achievements of significant goals and awards for outstanding efforts. However, beneath the surface the “downside” of the coin is that the individual probably struggles with frustration and dissatisfaction. Physical and emotional exhaustion can accompany several predictable results of perfectionism. First, the impossible standards in the form of “should statements” tend to monopolize and tyrannize the person’s life. Secondly, the individual might have an over-sensitive conscience fed by irrational scruples.   Thirdly, a sense of imperfect service leads to a belief that “I’m always falling short.” Fourthly, internal self-depreciation says “I’m not good enough.” Fifthly, the commitment to legalistic bondage results in inescapable slavery. Sixthly, the inevitable suffering usually leads to either a break-down or a break-away. The constant tension caused by perfectionism invites a variety of physical health problems, including migraines, hypertension, coronaries, and strokes. Many perfectionists suffer from clinical depression and from frequent anxiety issues. Worry is a constant companion in one’s travel along the Perfectionism Highway. 

Procrastination is another potential price tag of perfectionism. To insure success the perfectionist has to make certain that every precaution is taken and every preparation is made before starting a project. He must have “every duck in a row” or else nothing will work. For many perfectionists the perfect time never comes and the project is delayed again and again. In his mind it’s always better not to start a project if there is no guarantee that it can be completed successfully. One of the procrastinator’s mottos seems to be “If you can’t succeed perfectly, it’s better not to start at all.”
Relationship health . . .

In addition to having personal health problems the perfectionist struggles in his relationships with other people when he holds them to the same rigid, impossible standards that he maintains for himself. As mentioned earlier, Paige (Paul’s wife) had grown weary from years of frustrating and futile efforts to appease and satisfy her husband’s standards. Paul’s assessment was correct in that his marriage was indeed in deep trouble. He was hoping that Paige would see the sincere and significant changes he was trying to make, and that she would choose to maintain their marriage relationship.

Like Paul, the typical perfectionist probably will have a hard time dealing with the mistakes of spouses, children, and other family members. He will respond to their mistakes with excessive disappointment, displeasure, and disapproval. He will express anger at their presumed lack of effort, particularly toward his children whose behavior is interpreted as an extension of his own ego. For him to be perfect, the children must always behave perfectly. Even his friends are not exempt from his rigid standards, and so they are in constant jeopardy of losing his approval. His family and friends are unlikely to receive compliments and nurturing from the perfectionist simply because their mistakes nullify their right for positive feedback. His all-or-nothing, black-or-white approach to life prevents him from appreciating a less-than-perfect effort in all of his relationships. His relationship partners will either refuse to comply and try to confront him about his unrealistic expectations, or else they will do everything possible to fulfill and satisfy his demands. Understandably, these friends and family members soon get weary with the “walking-on-eggshells” manner through which they relate to the perfectionist.  For them, the Perfectionism Highway is a hard road to travel!

Intervening for Progress

Because of the high price tag many perfectionists, like Paul, desire a different lifestyle and a better approach to personal and relationship health. That desire raises an important question:  “How can the perfectionist intervene in his unhealthy patterns so that progress toward a better lifestyle can be achieved?” Let’s consider briefly several helpful interventions that Paul decided to use that might also be helpful to other perfectionists.
Installing a Program . . .

As a result of his study Paul understood that overcoming perfectionism is a process that requires a new “software program” that he had to install within his mind. He realized that this program contains two specific components, both of which would enable him to exit the Perfectionism Highway onto a safer roadway. First, Paul tackled the process of interchanging perspectives in that he replaced “lies” with “truth.” He wrote down his past and current beliefs that promoted perfectionism and acknowledged that those beliefs were actually lies that kept him stuck in his unhealthy pattern. Then he constructed new beliefs that represented truth and reality. The goal was to reject the lies (or the “old beliefs”) and to accept the truth (or the “new beliefs.”) For example, Paul identified one old belief as “I have always believed that real success required perfect performance.” His new belief became “I now believe that personal success means that I do my reasonable best even if I make mistakes or fall short of my ultimate goal.” Paul developed similar new beliefs and wrote them down in a document format. He added a statement of acceptance and pledged his commitment by signing and dating the document. For the next ninety days Paul took a few minutes each morning to read his new beliefs aloud, followed by another commitment in that he signed and dated the document again. After ninety days of renewed commitment and repeated effort he was quite pleased with the growth generated by the new “software program” he had installed in his mind.

The second component of the mental software program dealt with the integration of an important principle:  “Trust in spiritual grace rather than personal goodness.” Interestingly, Paul grew up in a household in which his parents emphasized spirituality. From childhood he had been taught that he should be a good person and that he should always relate to other people in a positive manner. The “Golden Rule” was often quoted by his parents to encourage him to treat other people the way he wanted to be treated. Paul wanted to be good, but somehow he grew up believing that the desired goodness was contingent upon personal performance. If he could perform perfectly he would be good; if he made mistakes he would fail at goodness. Predictably, in spite of his best efforts Paul continued to make mistakes and to fall short of perfect performance. As a result of his shortcomings he believed that he was never good enough, and his sense of personal worth was in constant jeopardy. By the time Paul came to me he was hitting the brick wall of futility and failure. Thankfully, as he grew in his understanding of perfectionism he decided to adopt reliance upon spiritual grace rather than reliance upon personal goodness. He had been living a legalistic lifestyle in which he had to earn goodness through perfect performance. The integration of grace enabled Paul to escape his bondage to legalism and provided him with a new-found inner peace that he had always wanted but had never experienced. Paul also decided to start extending grace to people around him when they made mistakes. As a result of this extension of grace to others his relationships improved significantly. In particular, Paige noticed and appreciated her husband’s new attitude, and she slowly began to lower her defensive walls of self-protection. Through their joint efforts over time their marriage became healthier and happier.
Implementing Helpful Procedures . . .

In addition to using his new mental software program Paul decided to implement several procedures which he thought would encourage and enable continuing improvement. For one thing, he decided to import a new policy: “I can be flexible!” For many years he had gotten upset about and had fought battles over issues that now he concluded were just personal preferences rather than sacred principles. He was still committed to standing firm about his principles, but he was determined to be as flexible as possible about anything that was in reality just a personal preference. A beatitude he tried to follow was “Blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.” Paul’s commitment to flexibility was strengthened by his use of another procedure. He decided to invest in people through gift-giving. Rather than insist that other people agree with him about some issue or perform a task in precisely the way he preferred, Paul chose to “give” the issue or preference to them with “no strings attached.” His gift-giving allowed him to accommodate other people more fully without feeling frustrated or resentful toward them.

Another added procedure had to do with the issue of “process versus product.” Historically, Paul focused only on the product, the end result, reaching the desired destination. The journey itself (or the process) was ignored or minimized. His new focus allowed him to slow down in life and experience and enjoy the journey itself. In his words he wanted to take time along life’s travels to “stop and smell the roses.” A final procedure that Paul completed was something we jokingly referred to as a “pedestalectomy.” In other words, he decided to ignore the pedestal that had always been so important to him. Now he did not have to be on the pedestal of perfection. One specific statement reflected his new approach:  “I don’t always have to be the best.” He smiled as he added, “The good news is that I never have to worry about falling off my pedestal if I don’t climb up there in the first place!”

The mental software program and the practical procedures that Paul used from his Perfectionism Recovery Toolbox proved to be very effective for him as he learned how to exit safely from the Perfectionism Highway on which he had been traveling since childhood. Without doubt he will be tempted to return to his long-standing perfectionistic lifestyle, but his commitment is to work his recovery program consistently enough to enable him to travel on a better highway. Like Paul, other perfectionists can confront the negative pattern that threatens their health and happiness, and through the usage of resources and tools they can cultivate a new lifestyle that will add joy and satisfaction to their journey through life. The destination is changed from perfectionism to maturity. Thankfully, personal maturity achieves healthy excellence but allows for human error.
Concluding Thoughts . . .

Traveling with perfectionism is at best a perilous journey for the individual and for his relationships. The Perfectionism Highway is littered with lives that suffer from personal breakdowns and relationship breakups. The lifestyle may offer a few attractive benefits to its subscribers, but the overall impact causes collisions and collapses throughout life’s journey. The wise traveler will assess the price tag of perfectionism and will surely choose a better road on which to travel. The destination of the new highway is maturity—not perfectionism.

You could be a perfectionist who is searching for an exit from the Perfectionism Highway. If so, you’re making a wise choice that can bring deliverance from your inner prison and development of a new lifestyle conducive to personal and relationship health. In your efforts to overcome perfectionism you have access to many helpful resources, including self-help books and professional therapy. A licensed mental health therapist trained in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can serve as an important guide for you as you install your new mental anti-perfectionism software and as you implement practical procedures that will enable you to travel on a better highway in life. The transformation process will require a great deal of continuous and consistent work, but the effort will pay off for you as an individual and for your personal relationships.

I wish you well as you strive to overcome the perils of perfectionism. As always, I wish you the best in all of your relationship journeys.

*DISCLAIMER:  The names given in this article do not refer to specific individuals. Instead, they represent people everywhere who struggle with perfectionism.

**RESOURCE:  This material about perfectionism and excellence has been adapted from the following resource. 

         Burns, David (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook. New York:  Penguin Group. (pp. 174-176)

VIDEO:  To view a short television interview in which Dr. Baker discusses "Perfectionism" click on the image to the right orclick here.

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          Mental Health Blog #1314


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