Goodbye, Little Miss Perfect

Perfectionism can take its toll on your health. Find out why occasional failure is important and how you can learn to accept the errors of your ways.
by Sallie Brady
Nobody’s perfect, right? Not if you’re a perfectionist. Perfectionists spend their lives chasing an impossible ideal and punishing themselves — and often others — when things miss the impossibly high standard that they think must be attained. Contemporary society praises those who strive for excellence, but there’s a distinction between someone who can accept mistakes, disorder, and failure along the way and the perfectionist who is disabled by a blip.

“A perfectionist is someone who never feels like she is quite good enough,” says Carole Oliver, a Montclair-based psychotherapist and adjunct professor at Montclair State University, whose Center for Action Coaching and Counseling runs private and group workshops to overcome perfectionism.

Psychologists agree that perfectionism is a personality trait, not a personality disorder, meaning the American Psychiatric Association does not include it in its reference bible of mental health disorders, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). While principally environmental, experts say perfectionism can also be genetic. Perfectionists frequently fault overly demanding parents for their disorder — parents who focus on the one B in a report card of As. These children then learn to constantly self-evaluate and self-criticize, attaching self-worth to accomplishments and shame to mistakes. As a result, they begin to avoid situations that might contain risk — creative endeavors, learning a new sport, first-time travel opportunities, or entrepreneurial ventures.

Are you a perfectionist? There are different degrees of perfectionism, but some identifiable symptoms. Ironically, experts say that perfectionists are as much as 20 percent less productive than their colleagues. They work long hours, frequently repeating tasks in a quest for perfection, which means a lower work output. They are also notorious procrastinators. Not completing a project means never having to face that it wasn’t created “perfectly.” They tend to think rigidly and negatively, avoiding creative activities because they involve risk. Perfectionists can be overly sensitive and tend to lose perspective. While some perfectionists might just impose those standards in one area of their lives, like work, most apply it to everything: the need to be the perfect mother, wife, friend, daughter. Perfectionists are frequently found in careers that require constant practice, such as dancing or athletics. Many Olympians, professional athletes, and ballet dancers exhibit perfectionist traits.

While the personality trait of perfectionism can exist on its own, therapists say people with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) frequently suffer from perfectionism as well. OCD is an anxiety disorder, not a thought disorder, and is a psychiatric diagnosis found in the DSM-IV. In patients with OCD, perfectionism manifests itself by obsessive checking of work or performance for errors and a compulsive repetition of a task. Studies comparing patients without OCD with patients diagnosed with OCD show that patients with OCD have elevated scores on indicators such as quest for total perfectionism, concern over mistakes, and doubts about action.

Be it in patients with or without OCD, perfectionism can also lead to anxiety and depression, but it can be treated with cognitive behavioral therapy, explains Naomi Weinshenker, M.D., a psychiatrist in Clifton, who has studied anxiety disorders. “The first step is awareness. Then you have to try to change the way you talk to yourself. You have to start putting some positive messages in along with the negative ones.”

But changing a lifelong pattern of thinking is not easy, which is why Weinshenker says therapy is often needed. Oliver uses psychodrama sessions to treat perfectionism, in which she and her patient role-play and the perfectionist can see the extremeness of her or his own behavior. Therapists also recommend that perfectionists deliberately allow themselves to “fail.” When perfectionists see that the result isn’t the end of the world, it helps to improve their way of thinking.

Oliver says there are some simple things that perfectionists can do to start remedying their condition. “I literally have my patients pat themselves on the back,” she says. “I also tell people to surround themselves with energy-givers, not energy-drainers — people, places, and things that boost your energy. Start trying to live in the moment.” And in doing so, you might be surprised how perfect each moment can be — without worrying about it.

Stop Your Perfectionist Tendencies

By Sherri Kauderer, clinical psychologist, Englewood and New York City
People who strive for perfection have stringent criteria by which they evaluate themselves. When they fall short, they view themselves — rather than the task — as a failure. They often fear and rely too much on t he judgments of others, rather than being comfortable with who they are.

People who seek perfection are often afraid to take risks, lest it not turn out well.
The taking of risks builds character as a person learns that at times failing is a part of life. Try out for the school play, an athletic team, or a difficult class, or to ask someone out for a date. Even if you don’t succeed, you will learn an important life lesson that you can survive disappointment and grow from the experience.

One learns it is better to have tried and lost than not to have tried at all. The alternative of not trying is to stifle and limit oneself and the possibilities for growth and development. In the words of the poet Robert Browning, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for.” It is important to have a goal to strive for but we shouldn’t be distraught when we fail to attain our goals. The idea is to keep trying.

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