CPPNJ - The Center for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy of New Jersey

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Are you a perfectionist?

I know a woman who feels she must get everything right. Margaret agonizes over work projects, convinced she will never please her boss. She spends a fortune buying the best of everything, yet still questions her choices. She throws parties and has a miserable time trying to assure that everyone is having fun. No matter what she accomplishes, how much time she spends in the gym, how carefully she prepares a meal, it's never quite enough. Margaret is smart, successful and popular.

She's also unhappy.

She is not alone. We live in a society that teaches us to do more, be more, have more -- now. Perfection is just around the corner, so if your life isn't exactly the way you want, you must be doing something wrong. Just look at the current Republican presidential race, in which candidates are embraced then discarded if they take a single position that doesn't jibe perfectly with right-wing expectations. As the old advertising slogan asks, "Who says you can't have it all?"

Well, anyone with a modicum of common sense. And yet, sometimes without even realizing it, people labor under the false belief that if they just try hard enough, they can always get things precisely right. What a burden! Perfectionists tend to be insecure and overly critical -- certainly of themselves, but also of others. (Some perfectionists, however, are not equal-opportunity critics -- they hold themselves up to impossible standards, while giving everyone else a free pass.)

In truth, perfectionism exists on a spectrum. To one degree or another, we all sometimes demand just a little too much of ourselves, at least in certain areas. Up to a point, this can be healthy. A little perfectionism sets high standards that force us to grow. The problem is when taken to an extreme -- when it becomes the person's predominant way of functioning.

Except for fleeting moments, perfection is impossible to achieve. No one (and no thing) can be absolutely perfect. We all have flaws and anything we do could probably always be improved upon. An accurate self-assessment allows us to accept our imperfections and to decide what might be worth striving for.

True perfectionists have a hard time doing this. Deep down, they are convinced there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and so all the praise and success in the world isn't enough. Since they drive themselves, they may, like Margaret, accomplish a great deal, but they take little pleasure in their accomplishments, much less in the process of getting there. Sometimes, they can be self-destructive; since they are always ready to fail based on excessive internal demands, they may procrastinate or miss deadlines obsessing over details. Ironically, they then prove their fear -- that they are somehow fundamentally flawed.

Perfectionists can come across as controlling -- of themselves, of situations, and of others -- since they fear being out of control. They torment themselves into knots of second- guessing, often suffering from anxiety, depression and difficulty sleeping. They have a hard time seeing beyond the black-and-white extremes of absolute success or abysmal failure.

It can be challenging to work with a perfectionist in psychotherapy. They want lots of tasks, guidelines, answers and homework. Even when they do gain an important new insight, they may quickly ask, "Okay, so now how do I fix that?", without taking a moment to even consider the complexity of what they have just learned.

Since they can be impatient about the time the process takes, and the fact there are no easy answers, psychoanalysis initially can be challenging. Starting sessions can sometimes feel torturous, since they believe they must come up with the one most important thing to say in order for the session to have value.

Yet the same analytic process of taking pleasure in finding unknown aspects of oneself in spontaneous interaction with the therapist can be precisely what the doctor ordered. In demanding perfection from themselves and/or the therapist, they unwittingly sweep the analyst into their world. Without realizing it, the therapist may feel the need to be brilliant, despairing that they are failing the patient when really they are feeling precisely what it is like to be that individual. If the analyst can take a step back and realize this, she can find some way to interest the patient in just why things must be done perfectly, what the costs are, and the possible alternatives.

These alternatives include accepting oneself as we are, even as we continuously push for further growth, to test the limits of our potentials. Perfection is a necessary -- even healthy -- illusion. It is the demand that everything be perfect that truly makes a person miserable.

-- Eric Sherman, LCSW

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