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Perfectionism

Definition:

Perfectionism - The maladaptive practice of holding oneself or others to an unrealistic, unattainable or unsustainable standard of organization, order, or accomplishment in one particular area of living, while sometimes neglecting common standards of organization, order or accomplishment in other areas of living.

Description:

Perfectionism in its Adaptive form is often seen as a compliment in reference to diligence and the pursuit of excellence. But the Maladaptive (or neurotic) form is a destructive, dysfunctional type of persistent perfectionism which is ultimately damaging both to the perfectionist and to those closest to them.

Perfectionists Often:

  • Strive for flawlessness and exactness where those qualities cannot be attained.
  • Intentionally set goals they know are almost impossible to reach.
  • Have unrealistically high standards for themselves and for others.
  • Feel frustrated when they fail to meet their goals.
  • Blame themselves (or others) when things go wrong even if not directly involved in or responsible for a given situation.
  • Experience deep dissatisfaction with their own performance, (or that of other people.
  • Procrastinate. Perfectionists fear they won't be able to complete the task at hand perfectly, so they attempt to put it off as long as possible. In this way, procrastination contributes to chronic tardiness, missing deadlines, and even hoarding.

The Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale (MPS), devised by  Hewitt & Flett (1991), and published  in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology 100 (1): 98–101, doi:10.1037/0021-843X.100.1.98PMID 2005279  is a 45-item gauge which identifies and rates three aspects of Maladaptive Perfectionism.

In Self-Oriented Perfectionism, the individual has unreasonable expectations and standards for his/her own person that lead to a perfectionistic behaviors.  For example: being fixated on achieving an ideal physical appearance, which leads to compulsively working out or developing an addiction to plastic surgery.  Or: obsessively editing a writing assignment or tweaking a resume so that one fails to meet important deadlines.

Other-Orientated Perfectionism is having unreasonable expectations and standards for others. Examples include the “Tiger Mother” who pushes her child to excel academically, artistically and/or athletically to the detriment of the child’s social development and emotional growth.  The father who is unable to accept any physical or cognitive limitations in his offspring and pushes the child into an endless cycle of trying (and failing) to please his parent. Or: The manager who monitors and assesses every step of the business process, refuses to delegate any responsibility to his subordinates or co-workers, then blames them when an important account is lost.

Socially Prescribed Perfectionism is the development of perfectionist behaviors resulting from the belief that society expects the individual to be perfect.  The behaviors stem from a fear of failure or a desire to avoid embarrassment, shame and guilt. In athletes, dancers, models, actors, and many teenagers and young adults, body-image dissatisfaction and avoidance of social situations that focus on weight and physical appearance has been associated with Socially Prescribed Perfectionism.  This can in turn lead to eating disorders, substance abuse, shame-based acting out and other body dysmorphia sensitivities. 

Additional Examples of Dysfunctional Perfectionism:

  • A woman rejects the possibility of friendship with a person in whom she detects a minor character flaw.
  • A man decides to sell his house and move because he discovers it needs a basic repair.
  • A woman is unwilling to compromise with a family member over a minor detail of a planned social event to the extent that she becomes hostile and combative.
  • A customer repeatedly returns identical items to a store for an exchange claiming a flaw that nobody else can detect.
  • A man cannot sleep unless objects in the house are arranged in a particular way.
  • A woman discards her entire wardrobe after detecting a garment in her closet on which she detects an unpleasant aroma or blemish.
  • A mother repeatedly takes her child to the doctor with exaggerated claims of illness or symptoms. (Also see Munchausen by Proxy Syndrome)

What it feels like:

Maladaptive perfectionists often  feel unyielding pressure to meet their own high standards, which creates cognitive dissonance when they are unable to achieve their own irrational expectations.

Living with a perfectionist can be frightening and frustrating experience because vast quantities of valuable resources such as time, money, social goodwill and friendships seem to be squandered on seemingly meaningless or trivial details. It can be frustrating when no amount of discussion, logical argument or reasoning seems to get through to the perfectionist.

Perfectionism is a manifestation of a common personality disorder trait known as Dissociation - where feelings create facts. Logical arguments often do not convince a person who dissociates because logical arguments do not change the way they feel and the way they feel is accepted as the way things really are.

Perfectionism is also sometimes a manifestation of Projection - where the confusing feelings and chaos which exist in the mind of a person who suffers from a personality disorder that they are unable to control are projected out into the tangible world around them where they can feel they have some sense of control.

Coping with Perfectionism:

It's important to understand that many cases of dysfunctional perfectionism are a manifestation of OCD, depression, or a personality disorder, and therefore it is typically not possible to talk someone out of perfectionism just as it is not possible to talk someone out of having a mental illness..

What NOT To Do:

  • Don't try to use logic or reason to talk someone who suffers from a personality disorder out of their perfectionism. This is a recipe for a circular conversation.
  • Don't share a joint checking account or other valuable resource with someone who has a habit of spending large sums of money in vain attempts to make themselves feel better.
  • Don't thought police a person who has a personality disorder just because you don't agree with their conclusions. It's OK to validate their feelings while at the same time disagreeing with their facts or conclusions.
  • Don't assume personal responsibility for fixing a perfectionist. You will frustrate yourself and the person you are trying to help.
  • Don't give in to pressure to conform to a standard that is dangerous, unrealistic or unattainable. State your decisions one time, calmly and firmly and maintain your boundaries.
  • Don't apologize for being yourself
  • Don't isolate yourself or succumb to the pressure to become isolated.
  • Don't allow a perfectionist to hurt or abuse children. Seek legal or professional help if necessary.

What TO Do:

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle for yourself and your children.
  • Maintain your outside interests and recreation.
  • Spend some time every day away from the attentions and the observations of a perfectionist.
  • Be yourself regardless of how much approval or disapproval you get from a personality disordered individual.
  • Get support from others who understand personality disorders and understand what you are going through.
  • Seek professional help for advice on confronting a perfectionist.

For More Information & Support...

If you suspect you may have a family member or loved-one who suffers from a personality disorder, we encourage you to learn all you can and surround yourself with support as you learn how to cope.

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