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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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