The Dangers of being a Perfectionist
Perfectionism…. Is This You?
I’ve noticed a strong pattern emerging among clients presenting with a wide variety of anxiety, compulsions, addictions and severe phobias. The vast majority of clients I see in my practice display the signs of being ‘Perfectionists’. It sounds like such a great thing to be doesn’t it? Striving for the best is one thing, but rigidly seeking and demanding ‘perfection’ when such as thing does not actually exist, is most definitely something else entirely.
The definition is.. (Source: Oxford English) ‘A refusal to accept any standard short of perfection…a doctrine holding that perfection is attainable’
Is this particular issue on the increase perhaps due to growing pressures and expectations upon us all, or is the stigma of ‘mental health’ finally fading. Perhaps more people who have kept quiet and suffered for many years now feel more able to comfortably seek support? Whatever the reasons, perfectionist living is not living at all, the unreal, distorted beliefs which lie behind it, the learned behaviours that follow and the unending low self-esteem, undoubtedly make for a most difficult way of living life for many.
While some apparent perfectionist traits can be very helpful, (eg. hard working, intelligent, diligent, often highly successful, caring and compassionate), these are usually far outweighed by the more damaging downsides which inevitably start to dominate the life of a perfectionist. Over time, they grow, like a virus and can take over, (obsessive, over-controlling, uber-critical, self-berating, highly negative, low self-worth, anxiety, catastrophising, paranoia are just a few ….).
Clients I see each week report the most painful, tortuous, tormented and self-punishing feelings which they endure each day. Believe it or not, it is a learned thinking style and is usually seeded many years earlier. It is a particularly dark filter through which to see the world and any ability to retain a balanced view becomes reduced. As symptoms increase it becomes harder to cope, which then maintains and indeed strengthens the disorder.
Any small mistakes are viewed as personal flaws and defects. It tends to originally arise as a defence mechanism during childhood to protect us from the threat of ‘raised eyebrows’ or the perceived disapproval of others. All of the coping strategies for perfectionists involve avoidance techniques– running away (anxiety), shutting down (depression), distractions (addictions, phobias, obsessions). It is a negative orientation, to anticipate the worst, expect the unexpected, pre-empt every possible crisis to avert any possibility of failure. Unfortunately it has the opposite effect over the long term and becomes toxic with an almost cast-iron guarantee for an unhappy existence filled with a growing list of symptoms, all of them avoidance or distractions away from the actual cause of these disturbing feelings and thoughts.
Just as it has been learned, usually transmitted from parents / adults to children, it can also be unlearned, with a conscious awareness, with practice and greater understanding. It is not who you are, it does not need to define you. It is a habit, a learned way of thinking. We can look at the distorted belief systems which lie beneath it to re-align and re-interpret aspects which are off-balance and start to see ourselves and situations through a different lens, a less threatening filter.
‘I’m not a perfectionist, I just have high standards!’ is the normal initial response I hear from clients. But by its very nature perfectionist thinking is a distorted view of everything and remains, unconscious, unacknowledged and is therefore not apparent, because it can be out of our awareness. Perfectionists often report ‘never ever feeling content’ with their lot despite often being highly successful individuals with the world seemingly lying at their feet. Nothing is ever good enough.
A key characteristic is low self-esteem and low self-worth, hence the need to continuously over-prove themselves worthwhile by setting largely unachievable and usually unquantifiable goals. They have little self-belief and tend to only process negative thoughts, especially about themselves, which unfortunately perpetuates their low self esteem. Their inner critic or inner voice is ruthless and cruel. The upshot is a daily self-inflicted barrage of unkind thoughts and brutal criticism, the result of which wouldn’t leave anyone feeling good. If perfectionists spoke to their friends the way they talk to themselves, they wouldn’t have any friends.
Perfectionism is often formed from feeling powerless and out of control, usually emerging from childhood. They then over-compensate and try to over-control everything around them in a bid to re-capture an illusion of power. Phobias, obsessive behaviours, addictions often follow, anxiety in various forms is always present, as they second guess every situation a million times over, planning and over-planning every possibility and eventuality. A catastrophic fear of failure underlies all of this and it is an emotionally scary and exhausting way to live. It’s like living in your own disaster movie much of the time.
There is much evidence that counselling and in particular, positive psychology can help enormously to change learned patterns of thinking and behaviour like this. Understanding and changing just one aspect can start to make a difference eg. when people are kinder to themselves, learn to manage their thinking, they are likely to do more, to achieve more, to feel good and be more in control of their lives.
Understanding it, seeing it, consciously taking a look at it within a safe and supportive environment, with a professional counsellor, is a good place to start. Change the perfectionist filter, get a better balance in your life and see the world from a realistic and ultimately simpler perspective. You can undo perfectionist thinking and re-learn a far easier, positive way of living life.
Louise Leadbetter – counsellor, psychotherapist and psychological coach