Stalking the Wild Perfectionist

Man with bonsai treeI have been trying to finish a blog post on perfectionism for a month and a half now. Trouble is, it is never good enough.

This is one of the salient features of perfectionism, a disease that many of us struggle with in isolation. If we look around, we might notice that we are not alone in this suffering, but one feature of this dreaded disorder is a peculiar kind of narcissism that insists we are the only ones, or at least the worst one.

The call of the wild perfectionist goes something like this: What will they think? Wait, I just need to tweak it a little more. You know, if you just do it like this…

Perfectionists drive themselves and others crazy. We stop ourselves from completing things, maybe even from starting them, because they are not good enough. We berate ourselves without mercy for the slightest infraction (How could I not know her favorite color was burgundy? How could I buy her that green scarf instead? What was I thinking? She’ll never think of me as her friend again!).

We come across as critical to those around us, even as we frame it as being “helpful.” I had to have a long talk with a dear friend once about her micromanaging tendencies. The last straw was when she stood behind me (perfectionists tend to stand behind others and look over their shoulders, giving helpful advice, even though nobody on the entire planet likes being advised this way) as I lit the candles on her son’s birthday cake and offered her (presumably better) methodology. I was in my 40s at the time and had actually been at the candle-lighting gig for many years, so I probably knew what I was doing. Plus, timing is everything, right? I was in the middle of lighting birthday cake candles. I don’t know about you, but my experience of this activity is that the candle-lighter is concentrating and in a hurry because the kid is waiting for the cake and the people are waiting to sing and some of the candles are melting and burning down too fast and there’s a little wax dripped on the frosting and…really? This is the time for you to tell me you’ve got a better way to do what I’m doing?

Perfectionists rarely intend to be critical. In fact, most of us would say we harbor a fear of being seen as critical. What we are really doing is trying to help, we say. What we think is, if we know a better way of doing things, we are really morally bound to share it with others, aren’t we? (Um, NO.) Perfectionists are generally quite smart, often fairly anxious people. Usually they come from families where intelligence is prized and nothing is ever good enough. That B+ should have been an A. An A should have been an A+. Making the honor roll? Why not at the top of the class? Conversely, or perversely, if we are at the top of the class, then there is a flaw in the system.

When I started graduate school in my late 30s, I was very nervous about grades. I had been a high school dropout, and in college I took only pass-fail after my first semester, because of anxiety about grades. (Never mind that I was a National Merit Scholar when I dropped out of high school. Anxiety is not logical, no matter how badly it wants to convince us that it is.) When I called my father at the end of my first term in grad school to tell him excitedly that I got all As, he said, “Huh, I guess they don’t grade very hard there.”

I was crushed, I was angry, but most of all, I was enlightened. I recognized the cold, hard truth that in fact there was never going to be any way to earn my father’s respect and admiration. He was never going to give it to me, no matter what. And I began (it is a lifelong process of course) to let go of my need to please him. I began to stop basing my well-being on his opinion. Eventually I grew to claim my own opinion as a better gauge of how I was doing.

That’s when the real trouble began. Because everything I knew about how to evaluate myself came from my father. I traded the external dad for the internal one, and this one was truly relentless. My inner perfectionist had really come into her own.

To be continued…

© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Ker Cleary, LPC, therapist in Eugene, Oregon

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lyndsey, MA,LAMFT

    Lyndsey, MA,LAMFT

    June 21st, 2012 at 9:41 AM

    I really enjoyed this blog! Especially the piece about how it is related to anxiety. I often see this play out with clients that have generalized anxiety in that there is this general fear that things will not go right. I also think this blog really speaks to the client and any client suffering from this could relate. Thanks for sharing!

  • Janna

    Janna

    June 21st, 2012 at 10:59 AM

    The wild perfectionist eh? Well, that pretty much is me in a nutshell. But unlike you, until now I have never really given any thought to what caused me to this way. I guess for me it started not with my father but my mother, and never feeling like anything I ever did was going to live up to her standards and ideals. And now that I am grown and have moved away from home and don’t have to be around her as much (whew!) I have gone and turned on myself (uhoh). I seriously feel like I am just picking up where she left off in that I am always seeking a way to be perfect, and even though rationally I know that perfection is never a possibility, I just can’t let ujp on myself. It is that fear of failure and disappointing other people that drives me o the brink of near insanity! I would like to break the chain, but there is so much fear in me of letting others and myself down that I am afraid to stop striving toward that goal.

  • Fallon

    Fallon

    June 21st, 2012 at 3:02 PM

    It’s funny how things that we never think of from our past having that much of an impact on us can jump out and yell Surprise! just when you least expect it to. I, too had demanding parents, but I think that there overinvolvement led to the opposite life path fro me in that I became very slack, didn’t care about anything that I did because I knew it would never live up to what they imagined it would be. Funny how the very same experience can lead to two totally different life journeys.

  • FR

    FR

    June 22nd, 2012 at 12:10 AM

    Strange how we always let others views and opinions and even their perceived responses affect our behavior and actions.
    Its not really a healthy trend now is it! We have go to do things for ourselves and not for others or to please others. It may sound a little rude but that’s the truth!

  • brooke

    brooke

    June 22nd, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Now I see myself doing the same thing to my daughter. I know I say things that make her feel bad, and I regret them as soon as they leave my mouth, but it’s like my mom gets in there and she comes out in my voice!

  • Lizz

    Lizz

    June 23rd, 2012 at 6:25 AM

    I am going to take the opposite approach on this one. What’s so wrong with wanting to do your best and expecting others to do the same? I am of the feeling that we have gotten too slack and that we don’t expect enough from ourselves and from others anymore. We give ourselves and others a free pass, and that has made us pretty darn inferior to other societies as a result. There is nothing wrong with giving your kids a little push to get them to do their best; that’s what we all wat for our children, right? And the best example that we could set for them is to let them see us trying to achieve the same. I’m sorry but I’m kind of tired of all the slacking off and see nothing wrong with seeking a little perfection in life.

  • lindley

    lindley

    June 23rd, 2012 at 9:15 AM

    gave up long ago trying to be all things for all people
    it is more important to be all things for me

  • Ker

    Ker

    June 23rd, 2012 at 6:56 PM

    Lyndsey, I agree, I see it in many clients. I think it is epidemic in this country these days.

    Janna – Sometimes a little experimenting can help, with awareness and fact-checking to balance out the fear. For me, the fact that it took so long for me to write this blog post was very stressful, because I felt I was letting Good Therapy down, being a bad blogger, irresponsible, etc. The truth is that GT sent me one reminder that my post was overdue, and that was it. And judging by the comments, the perfectionism I was struggling with that became the theme of this post really resonates for a lot of people. So, when I fact check what I find out is that A.) GT didn’t want to punish me and they don’t seem to mind too much that I was a month late in posting and B.) my struggle was what made this a meaningful post, NOT BEING PERFECT, BEING IMPERFECT.

    Really, we all relate so much better with each other as humans, and humans aren’t perfect. So try in very small ways to let yourself be “good enough” rather than perfect, and then fact check the outcome. What I have noticed is that I get a lot more positive regard for being good enough than from trying to be perfect.

    Fallon, exactly, it can have the effect of Seligman’s Learned Helplessness where the dogs just lay down and stopped even trying to escape (the electric shocks) because there was nowhere to go. Just as anxiety and depression are two sides of the same coin, overstriving and slacking can be two sides of the response to perfectionism from our early caretakers. I find in myself I can manifest both the hopelessness and striving aspects, sometimes around the same venture!

    FR – In my experience, when we find our authentic selves and let that guide our actions, it is not selfish or rude, it ends up being better for everyone.

    Brooke – Yes, of course we perpetuate the cycle; we can’t help it. But you have an advantage in your awareness of it, which is the first step to changing it. If you can have some compassion for yourself for speaking in a way you don’t want to speak, then you will find you can begin to relax a bit and when you are more relaxed, you will find you have more space to choose your words more carefully. It doesn’t help to punish ourselves for simply repeating the patterns we were given as children.

    We can also do something differently in the moment, when we have said the hurtful thing and recognized it – we can own it. We can apologize and make a commitment to work on it. NOT to be perfect and never do it again! We are likely to slip up even with the best intentions. But imagine what it would have been like for you if your mom had said “Oh, dear, I didn’t mean to say that to you. I am so sorry, I see that it hurt you. I am trying to work on this habit of speaking to you like that, you don’t deserve it but I can’t always control it, please forgive me and know that I am trying to outgrow this!” That would be very different indeed.

    Lizz – I understand what you are saying. I think part of what you are describing is actually the outcome of the perfectionist illness, that people give up rather than try when there is no hope of success. There is a huge difference between striving for measurable goals and experiencing the reward of accomplishment and trying to meet an impossible standard that keeps changing no matter what you do. The example of my father’s response to my 4.0 GPA was to put me down, not to celebrate my actual accomplishment, which I think is what you are advocating instead…

    Lindley, good for you!

    Thanks everyone for your comments, much appreciated. Keep em coming!

  • lindley

    lindley

    June 24th, 2012 at 8:27 AM

    @ Ker- thanks so much for taking the time to read and respond to all of the comments. I don’t always see that happening so I think I can speak for everyone who just appreciates that we are finally being heard!

  • Ker

    Ker

    June 24th, 2012 at 3:12 PM

    Thanks, Lindley!

  • sumitra

    sumitra

    June 24th, 2012 at 7:30 PM

    A Native American elder once taught me that in every craft – whether it be beadwork, pottery, a weaving, a basket – or whatever – it is customary to make at least one visible mistake. To strive for perfection in one’s work is a form of arrogance, for only the Creator is perfect.

    What a relief!

  • Julisa

    Julisa

    June 25th, 2012 at 4:32 AM

    sumitra- that lesson in itself is perfection- thatnks for sharing that

  • Tom

    Tom

    June 30th, 2012 at 5:10 AM

    Wow! Ker, I hope you do continue this piece!

    I remember as an elementary aged child asking mom, “Did the Army make Dad this way?” I knew the source. I would break the chain of parents’ sins visited upon the children when it came to raising my own. Now that our kids are grown up I look back and can see I bent the link, but it didn’t break. Sheer mortal strength and a touch of perfectionist’s arrogance didn’t cut the metal. Ker- my jaw dropped at the part where it says, “To be continued…”

    “I traded the external dad for the internal one, and this one was truly relentless.”

    And….? I can’t wait! (Thank you!)

  • Ker

    Ker

    June 30th, 2012 at 9:28 AM

    Tom, I do intend to continue the piece, thanks for the encouragement! Of course it is a lifelong process, isn’t it, to unravel that which we took in so early and which doesn’t truly serve anyone any more.

    Bravo for bending the link. It may be the most that can be done in one generation. Bending weakens, and allows your kids to pick up the task. In this way I believe we heal both forwards and backwards in the lineage. Too much abrupt change can alienate and create other problems…Some people do need to separate completely from the family they started out in, for a while or for a lifetime, but then the separation must be addressed.

    It’s always something!

    Whatever you did to bend the link also imbued your kids with the tools to continue the process. That is a significant contribution. And “…a touch of the perfectionist’s arrogance” seems to actually strengthen the metal, but we work with what tools we have, don’t we?

    Thanks for your comments and for bending the link and moving things in a different direction for your kids.

  • Holistic Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy - Los Angeles

    Holistic Hypnosis & Hypnotherapy - Los Angeles

    March 24th, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    To echo you. Some years ago I realized I was not going to get my fathers admiration, affirmation, recognition, respect etc. I had the insight this was due to his need to feel a sense of superiority, especially to me, his eldest son, in order to escape his own sense of inferiority. I think he thought, that if he pushed me down, I would look up to him and give him those positives. Also the usual benefit of withholding from a child accrued, the child remains attached by his unmet needs, assuaging any anxiety regarding separation.

    I also realized he had crippled me in order to keep me around to take care of him in his old age. This is an intergenerational pattern from farming and rural peasant poverty insecurity consciousness that he transmitted. (The eldest son stays around, takes over the farm/family business etc.) I have seen this in an immigrant family son I am working with. The subconscious is so economical, killing many birds with one stone.

    He maintained this up to the end. I had not been on the same continent for 25 years. He called me a couple of days before he died, at 93 years old, exactly as cold and hard as ever. He denied me until virtually his last breath!

  • chris60

    chris60

    April 19th, 2014 at 8:47 PM

    The odd thing is that demanding parents actually help you to excel if you find a skill that matches your preference and abilities. As a teacher, I find it less fair to heap praise on students for poor work than to push a strong student to value the strengths but to also learn from his or her mistakes. Too much praise or self-indulgence may lead to a false sense of self-esteem and entitlement just as riding a child into the ground with constant criticism can cause anxiety and misery. Guess it is hard to find the happy medium. If anyone rides me too hard I tend to pull back or withdraw. Remember the saying “A willing horse is worked”, and be willing to say no if some petty tyrant wants to ride you into the ground. Funny how those who will ride on your goodwill and capabilities will also complain that “you don’t care” when you refuse to over-cater to their gross demands.

    Ultimately, near enough is not always good enough. How would you feel if the surgeon left the scissors in your gut after performing an operation or forgot a couple of sutures? Get real. There is room in this world for perfectionists or expectations of proper service. Don’t go sloppy at the expense of somebody else having to rush in and fix your mistake or do the hard work while you feel entitled to the credit. No one likes to be nit-picked; but we don’t like to have to cover for gross incompetence either.

    Acknowledge the good with the bad instead of catering for some one’s fragile ego and feeling obliged to heap on praise and compliments that are skewed. We do many people a disservice by being afraid to voice disapproval for fear of being seen as “mean” or “negative”. The smart people learn to discern between helpful valid criticism and attempts to attack your character with false or constant demands to improve what isn’t actually broken. Narcissists can’t stand criticism and yet appear determined to pile it on to control their sense or appearance of perfection in a world of lesser mortals. Ask yourself if the comment is for your own good. If so, accept it graciously as a way to improve your work instead of being arrogant and refusing to listen to sage advice.

  • Levi

    Levi

    April 25th, 2017 at 5:12 PM

    Hi,
    Great article! You really said that amazingly well! The way you analyzed and explained it is brilliant!

    I feel like you were writing about me. I can relate to everything you said and what you are going through. I am 31 and lived about 30 years like that, heck maybe even all 31. I have awoken more and more, and broke free from needing validation from my dad though, or anyone really. What has really opened my eyes is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. He enables me to be aware of these things but still be able to love him. More importantly the Bible is a guidebook, a set of instructions for life and how to live it. It is a life path given to you from the God who created you, The Father who loves you perfectly, who loves your father perfectly.

    Thanks again and God Bless!

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