Perfectionism: A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing

Perfectionism: A Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Perfectionism is often applauded in our society and I get it. I am someone who is steeped in the art of achievement and accomplishment.  I speak that language, intimately, and I have been in the vice grip that is the pursuit of perfection at various times throughout my journey and in various domains of my being.  The pursuit of perfection can take on many different roles and styles of expression. Additionally, gender influences the expression of perfection in our society.  In my practice, I have become more skilled at identifying the different and unique ways that men and women express this behavior.

For a lot of women it’s a physical epidemic that is acted out upon our bodies. We drive ourselves to look a certain way, fit a certain size, conform to the norms of a society that still judges women very much through currency of beauty and desirability. Motherhood is also ripe with opportunities to unleash our pursuit for being the perfect mom. When we inevitably fall short of this fictitious goal, we are riddled with guilt. It’s at the root of the disease to please; the instinct to say yes to everything for fear of letting anyone down.

For men, perfection is translated into a pursuit for power, in all the dubious ways that tends to be expressed. I often find the seeds of perfectionism expressed through excessive focus on sex.  In this expression, sex becomes a metaphor for virulence and power and therefore psychologically and emotionally fused with a sense of masculinity and conquest.  There are, of course, the more obvious masculine expressions as well, such as the accumulation of material acquisitions, usually monetarily based, etc.  In my experience working intimately with men, when you get below the surface, all of these behaviors orbit in and around the expression of power, which is how men translate the pursuit of perfection.

Sometimes perfectionism reveals itself in more obvious ways. I hear people describe themselves as a perfectionist or needing things to be perfect.  Sometimes I hear people reference it in relation to their homes or their clothes or the way their cars need to be kept. From a diagnostic standpoint, when oppressive, these rigid standards of cleanliness, order, and organization are referred to as Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD).  OCPD should not be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which involves repetitive thoughts (obsessions) and behaviors or rituals (compulsions) in order to avoid the anxiety that something catastrophic will happen if the ritual is disrupted.  Both OCPD and OCD are related to and act in defense of anxiety (and feelings in general). In other words, the uncomfortable feelings, be it anxiety or otherwise, are significantly reduced in response to the ritual (OCD) or our home being excessively tidy or orderly (OCPD).

From a therapeutic standpoint, we could stay at the surface level and poke around the behavioral aspects of perfectionism, but that doesn’t really tell us all that much. The core emotional intersection that fuels the behavior of perfectionism is most often related to shame. Often it doesn’t surface for many years, decades even, only after all the accomplishments, the conquests, the monetary victories, and the aesthetic achievements have been dominated and conquered, and yet a sense of emptiness remains.

People often land in my office after decades of achievement and still a discomfort, a lack of fulfillment, and an emotional hollowness prevails. It is then that we begin to contemplate that perfectionism is a form of shame. It’s rouse designed to help you avoid your feelings of inadequacy, shame and vulnerability. It’s the scar tissue of developmental traumas that we act out upon ourselves in an effort to prove our worthiness. The pursuit of perfection or power keeps us from having to feel our most intimate and often emotionally disorienting feelings.

Some of you reading this are probably thinking, if I stop being a perfectionist my career will suffer, I’ll make less money, I’ll have less drive.  But that’s not true. Achievement and drive stand apart from the shame based pursuit of perfection. Perfection is a never ending loop of internal dialogue that has many people trapped in a cycle of striving for something that is unattainable, disappointed that they don’t reach their goals, and then full of shame and self-hatred that they have fallen short.  Or, it’s the engine behind your drive to achieve and yet you find that despite your success at accomplishing “goals”, you still reckon with an inability to regulate your feelings in an authentic and integrated manner. It’s the root cause behind the pattern of constant “busy-ness” or over scheduling that often plagues a lot of my patients. This vicious cycle can continue in multiple domains of your life until you make the conscious effort and strides to step outside of the habit and addiction of perfection. After all, being perfect/good/pretty/etc. is just another cage.

How these messages get imprinted on us differs from person to person. Every injury has its own narrative, its own tale to tell. But everyone gets injured in ways both big and small.  The trauma of everyday living takes its toll on all of us in ways both obvious and furtive. Additionally, each of us has our own unique temperament, genetic proclivities, family dynamics, and cultural pressures that interact with and influences how we absorb, process, and translate our experiences. All of these factors have to be explored in order to truly begin to piece together a narrative that can help you better understand your own unique developmental, emotional, and neurologic “inflection points”. Inflection points is how I talk to my patients about the aspects, dynamics, and contributing influences that served to shape who they are currently, how they orient and integrate their sense of self, and how they orbit inter-personally. I urge you to explore your relationship with perfectionism as one of the many ways in which you are avoiding your feelings associated with shame, vulnerability, and worthiness.

I want to be clear; often these messages of perfection weren’t explicit. Most parents don’t say to their kids “I won’t love you unless you are perfect.”  Some do and those injuries run deep. Some trauma is profound and explicit. But most of the time it is unintentional, it’s not first degree in the legal sense of the word.  There is no intent to harm.  But harm occurs nonetheless. Even those of us that have read all the books and educated ourselves on progressive parenting techniques, even those of us who have the best of intentions, convey messages of perfectionism to our kids through our own deeds and actions. 

Through how we treat our self.

Through the way we manage our physical bodies. 

Through the endless hours we spend working or accumulating wealth and power.

Through the messages we give around achievement, affluence, and success.

For good and ill, our children absorb these messages through the observational eyes of a developing mind and brain, and then they build emotional scaffolding and an interior architecture upon these dynamics, assumptions, and modeling patterns. These are the subtle ways that shame becomes an orbiting pull in the life of a developing psyche’. These are the dynamics that a skilled clinician will help you elucidate within your own narrative in the process of insight-oriented therapy. These are root causes to your emotional discontentment versus treating the symptoms or surface level behavioral manifestations (in this case perfectionism). Remember, in my world, behavior is the low hanging fruit of the emotional world.  We are looking to highlight intergenerational and neurobiological patterns of attachment.     

Here’s the good news:

You don’t have to be owned by these dynamics any more.  The only requirement is that you feel your feelings instead of engaging in the well-worn neural pathway that feeds the pursuit of perfection. You have to go deep inside and allow yourself to feel, admit, and explore the origins of the shame complex (the inflection points that we will uncover through the therapeutic process). Then we can unpack it, line up all the content, go through it one by one, and let you grieve the hurt.  I can bare witness.  I can ride in the sidecar.  But you have to do the work. Together, we will uncover the dynamics that shaped and sculpted the hidden messages of your developmental trajectory.

How do you take steps to do this?

The first step is to work with a skilled clinician to identify and metabolize past traumas, patterns, and neurobiological habits that have fed this destructive pursuit of perfection. Begin the process of identifying those behaviors that are fueled by a need to appear perfect or powerful.  Just observe them. Attempt to refrain form judging the behaviors. Remember, it isn’t personal. It’s just how it works with humans. Injuries happen. Just begin to observe yours, instead of identifying the pursuit of perfect as a “strength” or “character virtue.” This false belief not only perpetuates the cycle of shame when you do not achieve an internal sense of contentment by achieving the goal, or you fail to achieve an impossible expression of perfection, but it also serves to strengthen the neurobiological pattern that fuels the behavior. By continuing to identify with these faulty perfection patterns, you make that neurologic connection stronger and stronger. A qualified clinician will be capable of helping you work through these past dynamics and traumas that have shaped you in ways that no longer serve your developmental interests. Even in adulthood we are in an active state of development.  Growth continues throughout the lifespan and thus change is possible at any point on the arch of development. Some of my most rewarding therapeutic relationships have been with people who are dying or on the back nine of life. Turns out, old dogs are uniquely primed to learn new tricks after all. 

I have said this before, but it bears repeating, it is the role of the therapist to initiate insights, to ask the right questions and weave the narrative tapestry in such a way that makes sense to the patient.  The therapeutic relationship fosters the space for insight. Insight is the first ingredient required for unconscious patterns to begin to surface. Previously, when these dynamics were unconscious they operated outside of your awareness, but with considerable influence. In my experience, both as a human and a clinician, it’s the aspects and elements of our psyche’ that lie outside of our awareness that hold the most influence over our behavior and interpersonal dynamics.  

The change part of the equation is entirely up to you. There is no magic trick, no pill you can take. You have to just be willing to feel the feelings, as hard as they might be, and then, over time, make different choices.  Remember, we make good habits the same way we make bad ones: we just keep doing the behavior and eventually it becomes  “second nature”, it becomes a rote habit.  For good or ill.  It isn’t a complicated process.  But it is hard.  So the question becomes, how hard are you willing to work?

Second, I would encourage you to begin a daily mindfulness practice, focused on regulation of the central nervous system. You can read more about how I approach this type of intervention within my clinical practice here and here.  I’m already well over my 2000 word attention span for most people willing to read a blog, so I will spare you the science on mindfulness. Suffice it to say, there is ample research out there that quantifies how much a daily practice helps in the pursuit to tweak and re-wire our neurobiology.

Third, take opportunities to observe your internal dialogue and how you communicate with yourself around achievement, success, perfection, etc.  Explore your values around your physical appearance. Be honest with yourself around how hard you drive yourself physically and emotionally. Explore why you are so busy all the time.  If you are someone who is constantly on the go, be curious about what you might be avoiding.  

Finally, remember the 300 rule.  As any good baseball fan already knows, a top hitter in baseball gets a base hit .300 times up at bat or 30% of the time.  And, by the way, those are the top hitters. I encourage my patient’s to view life this way, especially those who orbit around concerns related to shame and perfection.  When you first start out with these types of techniques, which are by design subtle, you cannot expect yourself to be a top hitter. These are not grand gestures of change or upheaval; they are subtle shifts in your interior state of being with yourself. In other words, go easy on yourself.  Just start swinging the bat, observe your mind, suspend critique, and hope you get a base hit every once in a while.

[irp posts=”6291″ name=”Dealing With Anxiety: Exploring the Patterns that Fuel the Anxious Process (by Dr Sarah Sarkis)”]


About the Author: Dr Sarah Sarkis

Dr Sarah SarkisSarah is a licensed psychologist living in Honolulu, Hawaii. Originally hailing from Boston Mass, she has a private practice where she works with adults in long-term insight oriented therapy. She works from an existential psychology vantage point where she encourages her patients to “stay present even in the storm.”  She believes herself to be an explorer of the psyche and she will encourage you to be curious about the journey rather than the destination.  She emphasizes collaboration, partnership, and personal empowerment.

She approaches psychological wellness from a holistic and integrative perspective. Her therapeutic style is based on an integrative approach to wellness, where she blends her strong psychodynamic and insight oriented training with more traditionally behavioral and/or mind/body techniques to help clients foster insight, change and growth. She has studied extensively the use of mindfulness, functional medicine, hormones, and how food, medicine and mood are interconnected.  Her influences include Dr.’s Hyman, Benson, Kabat-Zinn and Gordon, as well as Tara Brach, Brene’ Brown, Irvin Yalom and Bruce Springsteen to name only a few.

Please visit her website at Dr SarahSarkis.com and check out her blog, The Padded Room.

7 Comments

Andressa

Awesome article! She said it was too long for a blog post but I feel it wasn’t long enough, haha! The subject is indeed complex.

I have been a perfectionist all my life. The first time I heard the word, I was around 6 or 7 years-old, and I overheard my teacher telling my parents that I was a perfectionist. So you get a picture of it.

I don’t remember when exactly it happened, but I learned early that perfectionism is a two-edged sword. Yes, it is good to always try to be your best. You end up getting amazing results. But you often get hurt in the process. When people see my beautiful handwriting, for example, they have no idea of the countless hours I spent doing calligraphy, until my wrist hurt.

Sometime last year, I began to get conscious about the character flaws all that perfectionism hides. One thing that I noticed is that I get frustrated easily when I don’t get to learn something fast enough and to do it well. I have an above-average IQ, so I can learn anything in theory pretty fast. But I’m not that good with things that require practice, such as swimming or dancing. That drives me crazy and it has made me give up on many things in life with the excuse that “If I can’t do it well, I’d rather not do it at all”.

And I often isolate myself in fear that others will laugh at me if I make mistakes. I love being applauded for the things I do well, but I can’t bear being laughed at when I fail. If it happens, I spend a long time reminding it obsessively, blaming myself and punishing myself inside. It’s awful.

So yeah, perfectionism might look like a great thing for outsides but it’s not. The price you gotta pay is high.

Still, it is something I wouldn’t give up on. I like doing things aiming at perfection and through the years, I’ve found ways of dealing with it for the most part. I’m an artist. I love drawing, painting, doing origami, and my favorite — writing. I’ve learned to embrace my flaws in those activities as traits of my personal style. I always said that the best thing about art is that it isn’t perfect, and I’ve learned to accept that about my own. I’m trying to do the same in other aspects of my life, and I think I have been progressing nicely.

Phew! Sorry for this essay-long comment, haha! It’s just that the article resonated deeply with me. Thank you for sharing, Dr. Sarkis!

Reply
Gail Reed

Being a perfectionist has wasted much of my life . It is ruining my life !. The time I spend keeping my home & myself as close to perfect as possible Sadens me when I see others out early & enjoying their lives. As I age the time it takes me to put on my false face & dress is taking longer & longer . I can’t make early morning meetings because of the anxiety it causes me , that I can be ready in time .
I suffer depression & anxiety & panic disorder .
I envy those who can leave home without a full face of make up , it’s made harder for me because I am Fair skinned, with almost white eyebrows & lashes & no visible lipline .. YES I am a very sad woman ..?

Reply
Elise

Gail Reed. You are an awesome women doing things the best way you’ve known until now. Identifying with what’s written in this article is the starting point to start changing the behaviour that no longer serves you. What’s done is done ! now and tomorrow can be a blank canvas to start new behaviours, your new normal. I will be trying to create new patterns for myself too.

Reply
jo

It is so liberating to give up being a high achiever,
and just be a 30%!!!
As my daughter says to me,
“Mom I don’t have to be perfect – just awesome!”
Its so great to just enjoy being alive, and passionate.
the greatest words are “ok, I’ll try this bit by bit”…
and I also love “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”…Jack Canfield I think.

Reply
sam

I created my own shame of not ever being good enough. I will stop all goals if I didn’t start them PERFECTLY from dieting, work goals, passions, laundry and even doing the dishes. What makes a good laundry for me is so very different to others.

I tried so very hard not to be my mum and I perfected the exact opposite.

Good article.

Reply
Sue F

A great article! I’ve read a lot of material over the years on shame and it’s roots are in childhood for me. The one thing I always keep in the back of my mind is that “it was never my fault”. Lots of self care and education have really helped me. “It’s the scar tissue of developmental traumas that we act out upon ourselves in an effort to prove our worthiness”. Love that bit. But I can now work on myself for me.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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