The Perfectionist's Bind

For the first time, a few months back, I heard Jane Savage (an intelligent, successful, and effective health coach in New York’s Hudson Valley) playfully refer to herself as “a recovering perfectionist.” The term struck me, as I was surprised I’d never heard it before, and as I finished up the stretches and cool-down portion of her class, it got me thinking.

What a strange concept… to think that perfectionism would be something to recover from. And yet, as a therapist, having seen so much of the pressures and frustrations that go along with perfectionist thinking and behavior in my clients (and even myself), I have to agree that it couldn’t be more true. I’d just never heard it summed up so well like that in Jane’s informal self-diagnosis.

For those less familiar with the true struggle of a perfectionist mind, simply think of it as an inability, or in some cases, a refusal, to be human. Of course, like anything else, some forms of this inability/refusal are more severe than others and can be managed accordingly. For instance, there are certainly “functioning perfectionists” just as there are “functioning alcoholics.” I don’t know what Jane would consider to be her “severity level” and in no way intend to imply that her understanding of, or relation to, perfectionism in her above comment reflects any of my thoughts here. She simply and unintentionally ignited my desire to look deeper on the subject.

So how does a human refuse or struggle to be human? Well, first think about some of what goes along with being a human. By nature, a human is ultimately bound by instinctual drives to be selfish, lazy, jealous, and fearful. Despite the many efforts a human can make to break free from these instincts, it is difficult to deny the powerful influence they continue to have on the decisions we make on a daily basis. In many ways, this is not accepted by the perfectionist and instead, human nature is not only viewed as something ugly, but as also something to be corrected. In the perfectionist mind, human nature becomes much too literally-synonymous with human weakness. Something to be overcome.

It is with this that the perfectionist sets out on a mission. The mission to fix, correct, and succeed unfailingly, all without succumbing to the hideous status quo… determined to somehow out-spin the spinning of a terribly-flawed world. It is often in this panic-stricken determination that the perfectionist mind becomes blind to its own errors. Like how its urge to encourage better grades from a child means becoming intolerant of and even angry at any grade that’s not an A; Or its need to have every argument with a spouse flow smoothly and calmly without raised voices and hurt feelings in order to feel the relationship is healthy; When sex can’t happen unless the diet is on perfect point and the time of day and mood is “right;” Or when starting a family can’t happen until the world is “a better place.”

In each and every one of these examples, it is the perfectionist’s attempt to promote or maintain perfectionism that actually results in the worst errors of all: The child that never feels good enough; The spouse who shuts down or completely erupts from being emotionally stifled; The sexual frustration of self and other when genuine moments of intimacy are repeatedly plagued with unrealistic needs and rules; The lost opportunity to raise a family.

And it is this that becomes the perfectionist’s bind. The catastrophic realization that perfectionism itself is an imperfection. That a life built on toiling, working, and striving to be better than the mistakes and weaknesses inherent in our being only turns out to be a violent and disillusioning self-attack. A self-attack of judgment, disgust, hatred, and disapproval that, to make matters worse, never stops at the self. Instead, it isn’t long before such harsh criticism is turned toward others in perhaps a less, but still destructive manner as their innocent behaviors intensify the unbearable “humanness” of each moment.

Consider the instinctual options for humans who are faced with a threat: “Fight or flight.” Well, from a perfectionist standpoint, this instinct is, in a way, skewed to more of a “fix or resist” impulse. This is not to say that when faced with an angry lion the perfectionist would stick around to calm its nerves, yet, in a lesser version of this, a perfectionist might have a difficult time taking needed space from an argument without “proper” closure and resolve… likely risking the intensification of the argument and threat of more serious relationship damage. And only THEN, when the attempt to “fix” the argument is deemed no longer possible as it grows even “human-er” with angry words, tears, and slammed doors, is when it comes time to “resist,” not by separating temporarily, but by ending the inaccurately-perceived, permanently-broken relationship for good.

And that’s where the phrase “all or nothing” is born. Sadly, the most severe kind of perfectionist can’t even get married. No way. Too many uncontrollable red flags waving wildly in warning of the threats ahead without any secure promises for consistent goodnight kisses and seamless compromise. The relationship is never “ready yet.” The perfectionist mind waits, and waits, and waits, just a little bit longer, desperately maximizing the chance to tally up as many perfectly-met needs, perfectly-argued arguments, and perfectly-consistent compromises in order to make the perfectly-calculated conclusion that the relationship is strong enough to withstand the “forever.” I’m sure we can all imagine how this turns out.

Perfectionism is its own worst enemy; the equivalent of a dog constantly chasing (and biting) its own tail. So if the constant aim to fix problems is the problem, what is a perfectionist to do? The perfectionist can only learn to accept and embrace perfectionism as, yes, no more than an inspired human reaction to one of the very despicable instincts it originally set out to resist. Fear. The fear of losing something important, fear of not gaining something important, and fear of experiencing the same or worse hurt observed in others’ mistakes and failings. In accepting and embracing this, the perfectionist mind stops trying to run from itself in desperate search of solutions to these unavoidable human outcomes and can finally learn to self-soothe with compassion. By staying in one place, this much healthier place, the mind can slow down enough to find the natural beauty existing in the human self and others, instead of just blurred chaos.

So if the mission is perfection, one does not have to abandon it completely. Instead, one can make it a mission to become perfectly imperfect, vowing to accept the self as being and needing no more than to be human. Simply accepting and allowing tears to fall without a constant need for wiping. Realizing that strictly riding along on the ups, downs, twists, turns, swirls, twirls of the human experience is, in fact, much less traumatic than analyzing it.. and living to prevent it. None of us are able to stop the ride because none of us are meant to. The recovering perfectionist gets this. The recovering perfectionist is finally ready to just let it all happen and soak it all in.