February’s Theme: Perfectionism

It is a new month at Ruly and this month will focus on a demon to productivity and happiness . . . perfectionism.  Perfectionism in small doses can be a good thing, pushing us to achieve and innovate.  But perfectionism unchecked can be paralyzing, slowing down the decision making process and resulting in procrastination and a general sense of constant disappointment and unhappiness.  This month we will define perfectionism, explore the positive and negative aspects of perfectionism and compile coping strategies to overcome perfectionist paralysis.

Nearly every high achieving person I know has at least some perfectionist tendencies.  It is far too simple to say, “Don’t be a perfectionist.”  as there are some circumstances where we demand perfection.   Commercial airline pilots and surgeons, for example, are essentially required to be perfect as society has no tolerance for errors in these professions.  Olympic athletes too are judged on their adherence to perfectionist standards.  Ironically, we desire a perfect level of perfectionism—enough to be high achieving and detail oriented but not so much that we are paralyzed by the fear of making a wrong decision or mistake.

What does it mean to be a perfectionist?  From a strict psychological definition, perfectionism at its extreme limits is called “obsessive-compulsive personality disorder”!  The Mayo Clinic indicates it is part of “Class C” of personality disorders primarily motivated by anxiety and fear.

In general, having a personality disorder means you have a rigid and potentially self-destructive or self-denigrating pattern of thinking and behaving no matter what the situation. This leads to distress in your life or impairment of your ability to go about routine functions at work, school or social situations. In some cases, you may not realize that you have a personality disorder because your way of thinking and behaving seems natural to you, and you may blame others for your circumstances.

–“Personality Disorders,” Mayo Clinic

Why do some people become perfectionists?  Perfectionist tendencies are thought to be a combination of inherited genes and life circumstances.  Since personality forms in childhood, evaluating perfectionism often requires analysis of a person’s childhood.  Traumatic childhood events can result in a child developing perfectionist tendencies as a coping strategy.  This thought certainly strikes fear into my heart as a parent as the last thing I want to do is permanently damage my children in some way. Yet it is also true that some parents are so worried about providing the “perfect” environment for their children that they become perfectionist parents and also pass that on to their children!

You cannot avoid perfectionism entirely but you can understand it, recognize it in your own life and learn how to cope with it.    Perfectionism is widely acknowledged to have three primary motivations.

“[T]here are 3 types of perfectionistic hunger:

  1. approval/validation hunger,
  2. reflection/attention hunger,
  3. control/certainty hunger.”

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D., “3 Types of Perfectionistic Hunger.”

Another way to think of these classes is who/what is expected to be perfect.  If you only expect yourself to be perfect, you have approval/validation hunger.  If you expect everyone else (your spouse, children, parents, etc.) to be perfect, you have reflection/attention hunger and if you expect everything to be perfect all the time, you have control/certainty hunger.  In the case of the pilot, surgeon and Olympic athlete, approval/validation hunger is likely the root of their professional perfectionism.

The self-help coping strategies for perfectionism sound a lot like general life coping strategies (eat well, get plenty of rest, reduce your stress, have positive relationships, etc.).  Interestingly, however, “Try to stay organized.” is also on the list.  How does organization help perfectionists?  At one level, we might think of organization as feeding perfectionist tendencies by allowing perfectionists to control every aspect of their lives.  It is interesting to reflect on the opposite approach that a highly ordered environment might help a perfectionist cope with life by reducing the need for decision making on routine matters so that the perfectionist brain will focus only on the areas that require intense thinking.

On Wednesday, I will issue the Ruly Challenge for the month.  Please check back then.  In the meantime, please feel free to share in the comments your own thoughts on perfectionism or any questions about perfectionism you would like to see addressed this month.

P.S.  The pictures on the blog lately are from the perfectionist amaryllis plant on my dining room table.  I found amaryllis bulb planting kits on sale after Christmas and bought two of them for my daughter to plant.  One of the bulbs put out several long green leaves and is not doing much of interest at the moment whereas the other sent out only one perfect stem which has opened into these four gorgeous blooms.    It is definitely an overachieving plant!  Perhaps the other bulb has developed an inferiority complex.