It’s easy to think about perfectionism in terms of behaviors and outcomes:
- Obsessively studying months in advance in order to ace the exam and get a perfect score.
- Ensuring the dinner party goes just right, not a stray piece of silverware or unhappy face to be found anywhere.
- Double workouts every day in order to achieve not just a healthy weight, but the perfect body and figure.
In other words, perfectionism appears to be about perfecting things out there in the world-scores on an exam, party decor arrangement, body fat percentage.
This makes some sense given that the behaviors associated with perfectionism are visible and easy to spot: people see us spending long hours in the library, fussing over seating arrangements, and repeatedly checking the scale.
But just because behaviors are visible and easy to observe doesn’t mean they’re the whole story. Or even the most important part of the story.
The Perfectionist’s Dilemma
The way we think about perfectionism is strongly influenced by the way it looks. But looks, as we all know, can be deceiving.
Most people who struggle with perfectionism will tell you they know that on some level their expectations and efforts toward achieving perfect outcomes are both unrealistic and detrimental-that achieving true perfection is impossible.
This brings us to The Paradox of Perfectionism:
Perfectionists know that achieving perfection is impossible, and yet, they feel driven to keep trying anyway.
Why is this? What motivates perfectionism if not the desire to achieve perfection?
Perfectionism is about feeling perfect.
Most perfectionism begins as a childhood response to some form of trauma (actual or perceived) and its emotional consequences:
- After a difficult divorce, an only child begins trying to “be perfect” because they believe the separation was somehow their fault and that never making mistakes will prevent future family disruptions and assuage their guilt.
- Because the older brother was the good-looking, athletic one, and younger sister was the funny, charismatic one, the middle child learns to work inordinately hard in order to gain attention and affection.
- As the child of a violent and erratic alcoholic parent, an oldest sibling learns to obsessively plan for every possible contingency each afternoon when coming home from school in order to protect herself (and her siblings) and to feel safe.
In each case, the habit of striving for perfection was initially triggered by a disturbing situation and the need to ease a painful emotion.
The important idea here is this:
The habit of striving for perfection becomes strengthened because on some level it works.
On the one hand, it may actually have prevented harm at some point, as in the case of the child who obsessively plans for every possible contingency regarding their abusive parent.
But the habit of perfectionistic striving may also “work” in the sense that it provides relief from a painful feeling: By throwing themselves into their school work and getting good grades, the forgotten middle child is able to distract themselves (temporarily) from the sadness that comes from feeling dismissed and devalued by their parents.
Perfectionism isn’t about being perfect, it’s about feeling perfect.
Rinse and repeat for a few decades and you’ve got a strongly ingrained habit of striving for perfection in order to feel good (or at least less badly).
Each time a painful emotion arises, the brain remembers that perfectionistic striving leads to some emotional relief in the past, and so it “pushes” us toward that option in the present.
And each time we follow through with this push, we strengthen the connection between painful emotion and perfectionistic striving. Which makes that initial push stronger and stronger as time goes on. This is how vicious cycles get formed.
Perfectionists don’t engage in perfectionistic behaviors because they’re under the delusion that they’ll actually achieve perfection; they do it because it temporarily provides relief from a painful feeling.