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.

Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Follow Hey Sigmund on Instagram

All kids need the 'the right things' to thrive. The right people, the right motivation, the right encouragement. Out in the world, at school, or wherever they find themselves, kids and teens with anxiety don't need any extra support - they just need their share, but in a way that works for them. 

In a world that tends to turn towards the noise, it can be easy for the ones that tend to stand back and observe and think and take it all in, to feel as though they need to be different - but they don't. Kids and teens who are vulnerable to anxiety tend to have a different and wonderful way of looking at the world. They're compassionate, empathic, open-hearted, brave and intelligent. They're exactly the people the world needs. The last thing we want is for them to think they need to be anyone different to who they are.

#parenting #anxietysupport #childanxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #parent #heywarrior #heysigmund
Sometimes silence means 'I don't have anything to say.' Sometimes it means, 'I have plenty to say but I don't want to share it right here and right now.'

We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety are thoughtful, observant and insightful, and their wisdom will always have the potential to add something important to the world for all of us. Until they have a felt sense of safety though, we won’t see it.

This safety will only happen through relationship. This isn’t a child thing, or an anxiety thing. It’s a human thing. We’re all wired to feel safest when we’re connected to the people around us. For children it starts with the adult in the room.

We can pour all the resources we want into learning support, or behaviour management, but until children have a felt sense of safety and connection with the adult in the room, the ‘thinking brain’ won’t be available. This is the frontal cortex, and it’s the part of the brain needed for learning, deliberate decisions, thinking through consequences, rational thinking. During anxiety, it’s sent offline.

Anxiety is not about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. A child can have the safest, most loving, brilliant teacher, but until there is a felt sense of connection with that teacher (or another adult in the room), anxiety will interrupt learning, behaviour, and their capacity to show the very best of what they can do. And what they can do will often be surprising - insightful, important, beautiful things.

But relationships take time. Safety and trust take time. The teachers who take this time are the ones who will make the world feel safer for these children - all children, and change their world in important, enduring ways. This is when learning will happen. It’s when we’ll stop losing children who fly under the radar, or whose big behaviour takes them out of the classroom, or shifts the focus to the wrong things (behaviour, learning, avoidance, over relationships).

The antidote to anxiety is trust, and the greatest way to support learning and behaviour is with safe, warm, loving relationships. It’s just how it is, and there are no shortcuts.
In uncertain times, one thing that is certain is the profound power of you to help their world feel safe enough. You are everything to them and however scary the world feels, the safety of you will always feel bigger. 

When the world feels fragile, they will look to us for strength. When it feels unpredictable, they will look to us for calm. When they feel small, we can be their big. 

Our children are wired to feel safe when they are connected and close to us. That closeness doesn’t always have to mean physical proximity, but of course that will be their favourite. Our words can build their safe base, “I know this feels scary love, and I know we will be okay.” And our words can become their wings, “I can hear how worried you are, and I know you are brave enough. You were built for this my love. What can you do that would be brave right now?”

We might look for the right things to do or the right things to say to make things better for them, but the truth of it all is the answer has always been you. Your warmth, your validation, your presence, your calm, your courage. You have the greatest power to help them feel big enough. You don’t have to look for it or reach for it - it’s there, in you. Everything you need to help them feel safe enough and brave enough is in you. 

This doesn’t mean never feeling scared ourselves. It’s absolutely okay to feel whatever we feel. What it means is allowing it to be, and adding in what we can. Not getting over it, but adding into it - adding strength, calm, courage. So we feel both - anxious and strong, uncertain and determined, scared and safe ‘enough’. 

When our children see us move through our own anxiety, restlessness, or uncertainty with courage, it opens the way for them to do the same. When our hearts are brave enough and calm enough, our children will catch this, and when they do, their world will feel safe enough and they will feel big enough.
The temptation to lift our kiddos out of the way of anxiety can be spectacular. Here's the rub though - avoidance has a powerful way of teaching them that the only way to feel safe is to avoid. This makes sense, but it can shrink their world. 

We also don't want to go the other way, and meet their anxiety by telling them there's nothing to worry about. They won't believe it anyway. The option is to ride the wave with them. Breathe, be still, and stay in the moment so they can find their way there too. 

This is hard - an anxious brain will haul them into the future and try to buddy them up with plenty of 'what-ifs' - the raging fuel for anxiety. Let them know you get it, that you see them, and that you know they can do this. They won't buy it straight away, and that's okay. The brain learns from experience, so the more they are brave, the more they are brave - and we know they are brave.

 #parenting #positiveparenting #parenthood #parentingtips #childdevelopment #anxietyinchildren #neuronurtured #childanxiety #parentingadvice #heywarrior #anxietysupport #anxietyawareness #mindfulparenting #positiveparentingtips #parentingtip #neurodevelopment
To do this, we will often need to ‘go first’ with calm and courage. This will mean calming our own anxiety enough, so we can lead them towards things that are good for them, rather than supporting their avoidance of things that feel too big, but which are important or meaningful. 

The very thing that makes you a wonderful parent, can also get in the way of moving them through anxiety. As their parent, you were built to feel distress at their distress. This distress works to mobilise you to keep them safe. This is how it’s meant to work. The problem is that sometimes, anxiety can show up in our children when it there is no danger, and no need to protect. 

Of course sometimes there is a very real need to keep our children safe, and to support them in the retreat from danger. Sometimes though, the greatest things we can do for them is support their move towards the things that are important a or meaningful, but which feel too big in the moment. One of the things that makes anxiety so tough to deal with is that it can look the same whether it is in response to a threat, or in response to things that will flourish them. 

When anxiety happens in the absence of threat, it can move us to (over)protect them from the things that will be good for them (but which register as threat). I’ve done it so many times myself. We’re human, and the pull to move our children out of the way of the things that are causing their distress will be seismic. The key is knowing when the anxiety is in response to a real threat (and to hold them back from danger) and when it is in response to something important and meaningful (and to gently support them forward). The good news is that you were built to move towards through both - courage and safety. The key to strengthening them is knowing which one when - and we don’t have to get it right every time.♥️

Pin It on Pinterest