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.

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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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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