The Dangerous Allure of Perfection
There is no crime in wanting a good life or good love life. It is normal to want the best. From this facet of human nature arises an emotional trap that ensnares many good people and complicates many love relationships. People who are emotionally compelled to achieve perfect results are called perfectionists. Perfectionism, a condition stubborn to healing, is an emotional imbalance which strongly interferes with romantic satisfaction. An amazing paradox is formed when good intentions consistently produce bad results.
At first impression, the label “perfectionism” sounds like it may be positive. When a student gets a perfect “100” on a test the accomplishment is celebrated…and why not? When any challenging task is attempted and the results are superior and flawless, it is a good thing. But for perfectionists, achieving perfect results are inflexibly expected of themselves in everything they do and all the time. For the perfectionist any performance that does not produce perfect results is seen as a failure. In their world only two outcomes exist: perfection or failure. It is a rigged game in which failure painfully seems to occur most of the time. For the perfectionist whose being is only validated by perfect outcomes his or her being seems to be repetitively confirmed a failure. Because the world is not a perfect place, the perfectionist is emotionally set-up for continuous torture.
The critical eye of the perfectionist scrutinizes the romantic partner as readily as every other endeavor. The human partner, from the perfectionist’s perspective, repeatedly fails; his or her short-comings blanch the love out the partner’s loving gestures by judging everything and comparing it to imagined perfection. A perfectionist is likely to critically point out the ways in which other’s efforts fail to be perfect. Love, instead of being received and appreciated, is diluted by judgement and rejected as imperfect and insufficient. Some perfectionists try to be the perfect partner or perfect lover. The results, however, are enacted more like a performance than a loving presence which feels easy, natural and comfortable.
From the partner’s perspective the perfectionist is impossible to please. A perfectionist can be highly specific in his or needs, desires and preferences; only the exact thing, done the right way, in the precise amount, in the right size, color and kind will do. Hence the chances of satisfying his or her very narrow conditions are extremely low. Loving the perfectionist can just seem too hard. He or she is too highly calibrated. The partner may feel constantly a disappointment in the perfectionist’s eyes, whose unrealistic, inhuman goals of perfection imprison the partner as much as the perfectionist. Judgement and use of critical tendencies always blocks love.
Perfectionism is an anxiety-based emotional condition usually occurring in conjunction with other anxiety-based disorders such as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder. At its core lies an unconscious fear of inadequacy. The dynamic in perfectionism is the struggle to experience oneself as good enough. In the developmental years an individual, his or her feelings and needs were frequently criticized, dismissed or invalidated. As a result he or she neither experienced the possibility of acceptance nor the availability of praise for accomplishments. In an attempt to succeed at being acceptable, the perfectionist developed a strategy to avoid criticism by eliminating all risk of being found at fault. Performing perfectly provided the optimal way to reduce the risk of exposure to hurtful criticism. An automatic devotion to achieving perfection or perfect performance produces inflexible choices which may at times be obsessive and compulsive.
Typically highly intelligent, and dedicated to hard work, the perfectionist routinely achieves excellence in all that is attempted. Of the many paradoxes that rule in the world of perfectionism one of them is that the perfectionist gains little or no satisfaction from his or her accomplishments. Instead he or she views him or herself as only marginally successful, despite abundant evidence of significant achievements. For the individual saddled with perfectionistic tendencies, excellence is a failure and only perfection is acceptable. Chronic disappointment results from unrealistic expectations, one facet of the perfectionist’s make-up that causes this kind of individual to be among the most chronically miserable. Little will please the perfectionist. Little can make them happy, while they produce achievements most only dream about. Typically trying to love or be loved by a perfectionist is distressing.
The goal of perfection, either regarding self, performance or achievements creates a bind in which self-acceptance is unobtainable. People who hold tightly onto that goal, and the people who love them, stay jailed in a box into which love cannot shine. The way out of the perfectionistic trap arrives through acceptance of the concept of “good enough,” a general level of sufficiency that allows for functionality. To the perfectionist good enough looks a lot like failure, but in actuality good enough can be very efficient while also possessing the magic that is gained from allowing life to be what it is. Trying to be perfect, which sounds great in theory, rejects our natural human possession of limits and imperfections. Paradoxically, perfect love does not include perfection… it embraces such virtues as forgiveness and acceptance, which allow for the natural state of imperfection. Andrew Aaron, LICSW