“What a perfectionist!” We often use this statement to single out those who demand and achieve excellence. Yet true perfectionists are trapped in an unenviable web of contradictions. They appear to pursue excellence but constantly dodge the perception of failure. They seem programmed for success, but their goals elude them. They want praise but reject it as unfounded or insincere. And although we tend to put them on pedestals, perfectionists often cause misery to themselves and to the people they live and work with.
How can you recognize perfectionism in yourself or someone else? Above all, it is exhausting both to be a perfectionist and to be with one. They are dominated by a nagging, sadistic inner voice that is critical and judgmental. They fear making errors and they need to feel in perfect control. So, perfectionists live with constant anxiety, thinking that nothing they do is good enough.
The typical perfectionist makes lists upon lists. List-making can itself become a goal. Perfectionists also focus on technicalities, always seeing some minor “imperfect” detail rather than the overall success of a project. Nothing is ever right: a new chair is marred by a loose thread, prices are too high, a game should have been played better, reports cards are inadequate, gifts are flawed, or clothes fit poorly. There is no respite from the criticism and tension.
Perfectionists do not like to spend money or time, particularly on themselves. They do not like risks. They avoid change, they tend to worry and ruminate. On vacation, they would be uncomfortable stopping impulsively overnight. Instead of relaxing and making new discoveries, they would insist on following each step of the itinerary.
Perfectionistic behavior can hurt colleagues, but it is particularly damaging in loving relationships. Since closeness implies vulnerability, perfectionists often project an image of arrogance and tend to avoid meaningful friendships. Fearing that every decision is irrevocable, they feel mistrustful and emotionally guarded. Intimacy and long-term commitments are very difficult.
The stress of perfectionism can create physical ills. Anorexia, for example, is a life-threatening embodiment of the perfectionist’s belief that “nothing is ever good enough.” Also aches and pains result from the constant tension as do various gastro-intestinal problems. The condition may be non-specific, so a physician cannot diagnose any physical disease, but the misery of the patient will continue as long as the perfectionistic behavior persists.
Perfectionism can start early in life. Children may learn the behavior in a perfectionistic household where praise tends to be scarce. Or it can begin in a home that is simply too chaotic to meet their emotional needs. Children do not understand that they are not responsible for the turmoil caused by a parent’s alcoholism or the anger surrounding a divorce. Instead they convince themselves: “If I work harder, I can make things better. Then I’ll please my parents and make them pay attention to me.”
Although they may deny needing help, perfectionists usually need and benefit from psychological counseling. A therapist will attempt to help the client recognize the negative characteristics of perfectionism, understand its unhealthy effects, and find bearable ways to change. At first, perfectionists might suspicious of treatment since the therapist does not offer an ideal solution or promise to understand their situation “perfectly.” A perfectionist may also fear that any change in behavior could lead to failure or that the therapist will be critical.
Perfectionists can learn to develop realistic priorities and see that perceived failures are not shameful. They can modify their reactions to people and events, reducing impatience and alleviating stress. They can learn that letting go does not mean becoming sloppy or worthless. Moreover, a qualified therapist can help the patient see the ripple effect of perfectionistic behavior.
In treatment, recognition is the first successful step and comes as the perfectionist separates fact from illusion. Two types of psychotherapy may lead to this stage. Cognitive therapy helps perfectionists change their way of thinking, undoing, or unlearning traits that perpetuate it. Alternatively, in psychodynamic therapy, the therapist helps the patient explore the origins of perfectionistic behavior. In the process, they discover together the positive aspects of the patient’s personality.
Therapy will not create a complete metamorphosis. Perfectionist parents may never become more patient with themselves, but they can learn to change their attitude toward their children. They can begin to demonstrate affection without linking it to specific achievements. Without this support, children do not recognize their strengths. They become their own most unforgiving critics and may perpetuate the perfectionistic pattern.
For everyone’s sake, it is important for perfectionists to acknowledge the anxiety that motivates their behavior. Then they can take the first step. They can learn to appreciate themselves more than any product they can achieve. With less fear of making a mistake or being seen as a failure, the perfectionist can escape the tangling web and learn to make their lives worthwhile.
Marta Aizenman has a doctorate in counseling. She is the director of the Cook College Counseling Center at Rutgers University and also has a private practice.
(If you are looking for a therapist and would like a referral, you can find help through a friend or through your family physician.
You may also call the referral service at the New Jersey Psychological Association: 1-800-281-6572.)