Perfectionism

Aleksandra Bubera

Interview with Suzana Bijelić, journalist, published in “Blic” Daily Papers in May 2011.

What is perfectionism?

  • Perfectionism is a feature that can be regarded both as a positive and a negative trait.

In clinical practice this trait is regarded as negative, as in clinical terms perfectionism means that a person[1] accepts oneself only if he has met cruel imperatives. This means that he believes that he is OK (and/or valuable enough) if and only if he is perfect. The following logical presumption ensues from this: if I’m not perfect, I am not worthy enough, or in worse scenarios I am not worthy at all, and in the worst case, if I’m not perfect, I should not even live.

The root is in the Life Script – a life plan developed at unconscious level from the second to the seventh year of age that consists of various Script messages, conclusions and decisions that do not match reality, but a child adopts them as realistic due to underdeveloped process of thinking and objective dependence on parents. Script imperatives (cruel drivers, imperatives, or in professional terms: drivers) are in fact parental messages by which the child’s right to life or the right to love is extremely conditioned.

Therefore, when he fails to meet the requirement of being perfect, the feeling of inferiority is triggered (he feels less worthy than others) or self-contempt (he feels unworthy at all) or self-hatred (he deems to have deserved to die).

It is clear that no one can be able to fulfil the requirement of being perfect at all times. Especially as the condition “Be Perfect” may apply to overall functioning, which is a worse case, or to some areas in his life only (work, physical appearance, intellect, performance, etc.).

What needs to be distinguished from perfectionism as conditioning self-worth and the right to exist is an autonomous aspiration for excellence in achievements, which is inherent in humans. The difference is that a perfectionist will deem that he is not OK if he does not do something perfectly, while he who strives for extraordinary results autonomously, detaches oneself from his behaviour, which means that regardless of whether he has succeeded or failed in his aspirations for extraordinary achievement, he knows that he is OK, a worthy person, with a full right to life and a sense of personal values, with or without top-level achievements. Also, this person knows that perfection does not exist, thus he will not criticize himself if he does not achieve perfection, and will also evaluate himself as a person who deserves to live and be important and loved.

What is a perfectionist characterized by? Can a perfectionist be recognized at first glance?

  • Perfectionists like to finish their work perfectly, that is why they need much time to achieve that as they work slowly, work in detail and with care. They like to be precise. Before they show their work, they check it several times and we can rely on their work. Sometimes they are late, they exceed deadlines because they need more time for polishing and final check.

Within a group, they tend to keep the work for themselves as they think that no one will do it as perfectly as they can. These are typically persons who are proactive in resolving issues and who are proactive in interactions with other people, they resolve “one-to-one” situations better than issues involving bigger groups of people.

These persons tend to be proportionate and “in tune”, both in physical terms and in choosing outfit. The problem is usually in the fact that it is difficult for them to enjoy what they have achieved, because they can hardly allow themselves to have fun and relax, because they are overly responsible and conscientious. For example, while other people would simply enjoy dancing, a perfectionist would strive to dance the steps out perfectly, counting in himself “one, two, three, two, two, three…”

They are often tense, they are their own worst critics. They expect the same perfection from other people, and they can also criticize others as they criticize themselves, although, in practice, most of them are much more critical of themselves than of others.

They are not familiar with the concept of “being good enough” – their formula is as follows: imperfect = bad.

As regards thinking, feeling and behaviour, a perfectionist will usually choose thinking, while having a problem with feelings.

These are people who are reliable, good workers and often pillars of society.

How does a person become a perfectionist in a negative sense? What kind of role do parents have in this, who tend to achieve their unaccomplished goals through their children’s actions?

  • The reason for sending such messages can be dysfunctionality of the parents, but in most cases it is a good intent, with the lack of information on proper upbringing.

Most parents have a strong desire that their child makes extraordinary achievements.

In this case, in order to ensure that a child accepts his values, a parent links them either with an indirect, and sometimes a direct threat to life itself, or with rejection, because he does not know otherwise. A child faces the same issue here because it is dependent on his parents and his survival is indeed objectively conditioned by their presence and love, the child believes that the ordered value is the real necessity (such as food and water), because, if it is not fulfilled, the child will be rejected and/or die.

Since many parents do not know how to separate “being” from behaviour, and since a small child cannot separate itself from its behaviour, it practically means that the child believes that the following applies:

I have done something bad = I am bad

Imperfect=bad

Out of which the formula is deducted:

Imperfectly done =>done badly =>I am bad

There are usually two methods by which a person adopts such beliefs:

  1. A parent reiterates the child in various situations that it has the right to exist only if it is perfect or that the child will be loved (accepted) only if it is perfect.
  2. A child misunderstands that parents condition its existence and value with the idea of perfection.

In any case, a child deducts that it is so much important to be perfect and it perceives the idea of perfection as a matter of life and death, and when it grows up, without having revised this wrong conclusion, as an adult person he/she constantly tries to be perfect in order to have the right to live and feel worthy.

Is perfectionism actually a psychological problem?

  • Yes. Although psychotherapy considers an imperative as a pathological driver, people influenced by it think the opposite. They are proud of their perfectionism.

It is important to understand that such people when they were children were loved only when they had fulfilled the imperative of being perfect, that on such basis they had developed the expectation that other people would accept or respect them only if they were perfect, and that they respect themselves only if they are perfect. That’s why these people put perfectionism at the forefront when they are presented because they regard perfectionism as their value. Such a person introduces himself/herself as: “You know, I’m a perfectionist…”

What kind of health problems can the aspiration to perfection result in? Certain forms of perfectionism are said to cause emotional and physical problems, resulting in depression, even in suicide.

  • Knowing all above presented, that is, that a person actually extremely conditions his/her right to personal value, and/or life with perfection, it is clear that if a person fails to fulfil this condition, a feeling of inferiority, self-contempt, unworthiness or potentially self-hatred will appear.

Depression actually involves a bad image of oneself, and therefore one of the above feelings. A person is depressed when he deems that he is worth of contempt only, or that he is unworthy, and if he deems that he deserves to die because of not having fulfilled the required condition, a suicide becomes a potential outcome.

That is why in psychotherapy it is always important to start from the image of oneself, what it is like, and whether a person conditions his worthiness and existence with anything particular. For this reason, in practical work it is important that a therapist should start from the problem that a person seeks help with. Only when a client has realized that there is a strong link between his/her problem and his/her perfectionism, does he/she become ready to deal with perfectionism as with a problem, not as something that is regarded as a value and something he/she should be proud of.

Further, according to Freud, perfectionism would be classified in the so-called “anal” personality traits, which would therefore have to do with the functioning of the digestive tract in a wider sense. Thus in mild cases, it can lead to disrupted functions, like constipation or diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting in situations when a person is unable to fulfil the criterion of perfection. If these situations occur frequently and with perfectionists they do, they may result in predispositions for various diseases such as stomach ulcer, peptic ulcer and some diseases triggered by stress, although their precise cause is unknown, such as, for example, ulcerative colitis.

Since a perfectionist works under high pressure, it can also lead to the tendency to blood pressure disorders, hypertension and its effects on the heart and blood vessels. This does not mean that perfectionism is the cause of these diseases, but that with other numerous factors it can make the person more susceptible to these diseases.

Does a great desire to succeed and excel slow down a perfectionist in success achievement?

  • Yes. Because when these obligations are related to the right to life, then they function as real needs and as the conditions that a person has to fulfil in order not to die, which brings a person into a situation to constantly work under great pressure, and paradoxically to make more mistakes, which perfectionists are very bothered by.

Therefore a person must “be perfect” in order to avoid a disaster (unworthiness or death).

Every human being has the right to exist and the right to personal value as these are basic human rights, and that is why it is a disaster if we deprive ourselves of it or revoke it, or if someone else does this.

On the one hand, a person has learned to enhance his motivation in this way, and on the other hand, he fails to recognize that in reality it is not a real disaster or a real necessity.

In order to be efficient, we need to distinguish when we need to do things well enough, very well, in an excellent or in a perfect manner. For example, it’s good to have a surgeon who strives for excellence because he will better operate on a patient. However, in emergency case, for example during an accident, when things have to be done quickly in order to save lives, a surgeon-perfectionist could dwell on details for too long while the patient, for example, might bleed out.

So, if we were to do everything perfectly, we could do very few things because we would not have enough time.

For perfectionists it is important to get information about Pareto principle on efficiency or optimal results. Pareto was an economist after whom this rule was named, because he first used the 20-80 ratio. In the actual case, this would mean that a perfectionist invests 80 percent of the time to do 20 percent of things, leaving him only 20 percent of the time to do all the other 80 percent. Which means that a perfectionist is generally inefficient, although the things he has completed are perfectly completed.

Could you explain in more details the relation between this “weakness” and the incidence of social phobia since the smallest mistake looks as a disaster and irreparable damage to a perfectionist?

  • A social phobia is a fear to talk to others because a person deems that it would be a disaster if he made a mistake. That is, a person thinks that it is okay to say something only if it is perfectly true and beautifully worded.

Of course, a requirement for perfection is here as a condition that a person must fulfil in order to feel worthy. Since it is almost impossible to fulfil these requirements, a person usually chooses not to talk at all and when forced to do so in front of others, he has symptoms of fear of a possible disaster in terms of blushing, increased heart rate, headache, dizziness, sweating, sometimes even the urge to urinate or feeling of sick.

These persons need help them to distinguish between the feelings of worthiness and need for perfection, as well as to allow themselves to make mistakes, and before that they need to learn that a mistake is not a disaster, but an opportunity for learning and acquisition of knowledge.

Hardworking bosses are perfectionists, isn’t that right?

  • Perfectionists are their nice subordinates who are also perfectionists, and they do not like associates who are not perfectionists. Perfectionists are appreciated, respected and praised, and are very critical of people who are not perfectionists, because they consider them superficial and irresponsible, as well as insufficiently precise and reliable.

When is perfectionism healthy and when does it represent an unhealthy pursuit of great achievements?

  • Perfectionism is always unhealthy. An autonomous desire to excel, but not to be perfect is healthy, SOMETIMES in CERTAIN activities and fields of life, when it’s really important to do things in an excellent manner, which are the situations that occur rarely in a life of an average person.

It is important that we differentiate between the situations in which an exceptional “performance” other than “good enough” performance is required.

It is also important to emphasize the distinction between excellence and perfection. Excellent means that something is “extraordinary” and that it’s so good that it’s not usual, and which is so different than anything else that nothing can be done more, because it is of top quality and final. And if we think little better, the perfection in nature actually does not exist.

Perfectionism is a trait that is often attributed to talented people. It is that they themselves when they are at their best complain of not being at their best. They cannot rejoice in success … Why?

  • A perfectionist has the wrong logic: “either I did something perfect (and therefore I’m worthy) or I did something bad (so I’m unworthy)”. They do not accept that something can be temporary, good, good enough, very good, excellent, extraordinary, but only the categories of being either “perfect” or “bad”. But perfection does not exist, so they often evaluate their achievement as bad, when it’s not perfect.

[1] Refers to all genders (he, she, it)

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