Living with Perfectionism
August 25, 2021
Image: Quino Al, Unsplash
When I started middle school at age 11, I realized that I was a perfectionist and that, if I didn’t learn to keep my perfectionism in check, it would cause me tremendous stress and possibly take over my life. I found myself making lists of what I had to do, combined with unachievable daily plans timed to the minute. I was trying to survive on six hours of sleep a night and needed multiple alarm clocks to get myself out of bed in the morning. If those failed, my mother came and woke me with a cold washcloth.
My father was a perfectionist and I saw in him how perfectionism could lead to pointless effort and misery. Every day, with his eagle eye for mistakes (which I inherited), he would correct the newspaper with a red pen. I realized the futility of his effort: he never submitted any of those corrections or found any other constructive use for his editing skill. He was full of ideas about how things could be improved, but never managed to put them into action. He lost his job because he constantly criticized the management and his colleagues, expounding on how things could be done better rather than focusing on his own work. The job loss then drove him to alcoholism and a further diminished sense of self-worth.
I recognized that perfectionism is an addiction. I believe that it’s the original (or Ur-) addiction, underlying all other addictions. Our capacity to imagine an ideal world and ideal versions of ourselves can motivate us to learn and grow and to contribute to making the world better. But if we set ourselves the inherently unattainable goal of perfection, we will be perpetually confronted with our own inadequacy and failure, with the gap between our vision and reality.
Many perfectionists try to ease the pain of this gap with more striving and become workaholics, the most socially accepted addiction. Other efforts to distract from or deaden the pain of the gap may result in addictions ranging from the relatively harmless, e.g. exercising or shopping, to the seriously unhealthy and even destructive, e.g. substance abuse or eating disorders. Ultimately these addictive behaviors or “fixes” fail utterly to relieve the sense of emptiness and inadequacy and often intensify it.
Many of us perfectionists had a parent who seemed to love us conditionally, only when we were “good” or succeeded academically. We didn’t feel that we were inherently worthy of love; we had to earn our right to exist. This can lead people to feel inadequate or unworthy, resulting either in chronic self-berating or in self-pity, or both. We become our own harshest critics, and are often highly demanding and critical of others.
In my early 30s, when I was a manager, I realized, painfully, that I shared my father’s tendency to see the shortcomings of others. This hindered me from being a supportive and motivating leader. I chose self-employment instead, knowing that at least I would only be imposing my tough standards on myself.
Many perfectionists grow up in dysfunctional circumstances which provide little or no security and predictability. We learn early that we must do anything we can to try to control our world. For many of us, this becomes a fight for survival. Some perfectionists develop grit and determination as a result, but those traits can also be self-denying when our inner slave driver reproaches us for not succeeding at everything. And many perfectionists become control freaks with little or no innate trust in the world and other people.
Perfectionists are also prone to catastrophizing, judging something as “ruined” the moment there is a slight flaw or declaring the situation “a disaster” when a little thing goes wrong. We may feel overly responsible for or try to control things which we cannot, e.g., the weather, other people’s actions, the past and the future. This frequently leads to stress, anxiety and depression. In fixating on what’s missing in our lives or what’s not good, we often overlook or dismiss what we have and what is good, perpetuating our suffering.
As with other addictions, perfectionism can’t be cured or eliminated as it’s a part of who we are. We can however learn to manage it. We can focus on and cultivate our positive qualities. Perfectionists are hard-working, reliable, passionate, and conscientious. When kept within a healthy range, these are wonderful traits. And too much of any one of those traits can be maddening for us and those around us. I find it helpful to remove the pressure to be or to appear perfect by disclosing my perfectionism and asking for help. I remember first doing this as a student, when a friend rescued me from failing because of procrastination.
Procrastination is a common pitfall for perfectionists. I suffered from it most during my philosophy studies at Yale, where I chronically felt unworthy. Thinking I needed to read all the books on a topic before beginning to write a paper, and knowing how much time that would take, I would put off getting started. Very late one night before a deadline, a dear friend helped me to “write” my paper by typing my thoughts as I verbalized them. We came up with the mantra “Perfect is good. Done is better,” which I have used ever since.
So how else can we manage perfectionism? By bringing ourselves into the present moment, by choosing to focus on what is rather than what isn’t, by being grateful for what we have rather than resenting what we lack, what we can do rather than what we can’t, and by viewing our mistakes and failures as an opportunity to learn and grow. All of these techniques only work when we actively choose and apply them, one day at a time. No one else can do this for us. Only when we accept our fallibility, cultivate self-compassion so we can love ourselves as we are, and embrace life with its innate imperfection, can we make peace with reality.