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Today we take a look at perfectionism. In our modern, media-driven world there are everyday offers to seduce us. Advertising focuses on the achievement of the ‘perfect’ body, the perfect house, the perfect life. These are, of course, illusions. So what does it mean to be a perfectionist? Ironically, it is not about being perfect, as this is never really possible but rather it is about setting extremely high, maybe even unachievable standards for yourself and going to huge lengths to try to meet them. The perfectionist believes these standards are achievable and consequently judges his self-worth on whether he achieves his goals or not, which, almost inevitably he doesn’t.

Ironically, lots of people who are high achievers are perfectionistic and there are times when being this way facilitates excellence in many walks of life. However the perfectionist is never happy with his efforts and spends a lot of time mulling over the tiniest of mistakes, affecting his mood and sense of self-worth. It is rumoured that Michelangelo strove for perfection in painting the ceiling in the Sistine chapel. It is said that he was never quite happy with it even though it is recognised as a masterpiece. So we understand there are some benefits to being perfectionistic in terms of achievement and doing things well but there is a difference in the healthy pursuit of excellence and the unhealthy striving for perfection which comes at a cost. It becomes a very stressful way to live as one struggles to maintain the perfectionistic cycle and attain the ideal.

So what motivates the perfectionist to be the way he is and how does he come to place such demands on himself? Many theorists believe that it is as a result of having hypercritical parents, for whom whatever you achieved was never good enough. The child going forward into adulthood internalises the voice of the parent and he becomes his own worst critic. He develops all or nothing thinking, where the end goal is all that matters and the process of getting there is irrelevant in terms of measuring achievement. For this individual the fear of disapproval, criticism or making a mistake are fears to be avoided at all costs. These he equates with failure and worthlessness. Self-worth becomes dependent on the achievement of high standards.

In our work as therapists we also see that perfectionism can be a way of ‘balancing up’ negative feelings of guilt or shame associated with childhood abuse. The child who is abused can often be left feeling ‘bad’ or ashamed of the abuse and can develop perfectionistic behaviours in order to compensate. When self-esteem is low, perfectionistic behaviour can temporarily raise feelings of self-worth but this are only dashed again as the negative cycle continues. We can go to great lengths however to try to do a perfect job and gain the approval of another.

Sometimes the ideal we are trying to achieve is so high that we know it is unattainable. This can lead to a sort of giving up. Then we can feel guilty and re-double our efforts only to fail and give up again. Another paradoxical aspect of this is the fear of success. We are familiar with the notion of a fear of failure which can drive us on. But we find too that we can be overcome with a fear of what responsibility or leaderships might await us if we should succeed and we can scupper our efforts in fear of this. In any event, the origins of these things and their manifestations in our every day lives can be explored in therapy as we seek to relieve ourselves of the stress of trying to be perfect and become comfortable with being good enough.

Counselling Connections, Dundalk. 24th Nov 2011.

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