By David Joel Miller
Is your perfectionism out of control?
Perfectionism, that constant striving to do everything just right, has been connected with high accomplishment. Parents often believe the way to get the most out of their children is to push them for ever-increasing goals. Parents may feel their role is to point out their child’s failings to inspire them to do better.
People who aim for perfection, set higher goals and may achieve grander things than those who have lower expectations. Does perfectionism really inspire more effort and accomplishment? Or does perfectionism have a dark side?
Perfectionism’s dark side.
Perfectionism has been linked to high worry, fear of failure, eating disorders, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and an increased risk of suicide. Perfectionists can suffer unmercifully and they can make those around them miserable also.
Perfectionism, Learned or Genetic?
In this conversation about perfectionism, I am talking about the learned variety. Anything which is learned can be unlearned. There are those whose perfectionist tendencies are a part of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Those disorders appear to have a physical or genetic basis in addition to any learned component. If you have OCD or OCPD medication and therapy may be helpful in managing your disorder so can other recovery methods.
Perfectionism has mixed results.
Why does this striving for perfection sometimes result in champions and other times in learned hopelessness and failure? The key lies in how the perfectionist was raised and in how they are raising themselves. What were the messages the perfectionist received in childhood from whatever source and how have they gone on to adopt those “need to be perfect” themes.
One way in which setting high standards goes wrong and results in unhealthy perfectionism is when caregivers set high standards but are at the same time disapproving of the child. If the parent’s approval of the child is contingent on success, the only way a child can get that parents love is to always be perfect and win at everything.
After receiving this message for a while the perfectionist internalizes the message “I am what I accomplish, if I don’t do everything perfectly I am no good.” Not only do they believe this message but they repeatedly retell themselves this story.
No matter how hard this child tries it is never enough, a little league championship should have been a World Series win and gold medal should have been the most Gold Medals ever. The target keeps changing and the child internalizes this belief that they will never be good enough and that their self-worth is dependent on never making a mistake.
Homes that produce unhealthy perfectionists are high in control, the parent is in charge of most everything, but they are low in warmth and affection. To win is to be loved. To lose is to face rejection. Perfectionists go on to love or reject themselves based on their successes and failures.
Parental acceptance in children and presumably self-acceptance in adulthood appear to be the best antidotes to perfectionism, self-doubt and excessive worry about mistakes.
If you didn’t get acceptance in childhood, or didn’t get as much as you feel you need, begin today to accept yourself. Whatever you do is good enough. This is tough medicine for the perfectionist to swallow. Something about that constant struggle to be perfect reduces anxiety and seems protective at the time, until the perfectionist fails at something.
If how you feel about yourself or how others feel about you is dependent not on effort but upon results you are in for a rough ride. Smooth out the road ahead by cutting yourself some slack.
Self-esteem for perfectionists fluctuates widely. When they achieve their goals they feel good about themselves and when the fall short they are overly negative and pessimistic. You should not base your self-esteem on what you win or lose. You are not a better person for being a perfectionist and may in fact be a pain to be around.
Parents who over control children and do not allow their child to develop a sense of self-control do not prevent the child from making mistakes. These parents prevent their child from learning how to make choices.
If that happened to you, stop making the same mistake with yourself and start accepting that most things in life do not need to be perfect. The time used to make one thing perfect is time taken away from other things you should do, like being present with your children and not passing the perfectionist disorder on to them.
If you are plagued by perfectionism and it has made you or those around you miserable are you ready to seek help for your perfectionism?
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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books