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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 argu