Having been a perfectionist myself and having many perfectionist friends and family around me, I am only now beginning to understand this ‘dysfunction’ in its full depth. So what is perfectionism?
Two things characterise perfectionism. One, the inability to accept that external things, people and events can be the way they are. Two, the inability to face one’s own deficiencies. Why does perfection come about? Most likely, it is born in childhood, in the house, or with peers. When our parents do not allow room for our weaknesses, when perfection in action (scoring well on tests, doing excellent in play) is praised and other people who do not fit the criteria of perfection are actively criticised, this becomes the fertile ground for perfectionists. Generally, such people have superiority complexes. They feel they are somehow better than the rest. This may not always be overt, but subtle. It may come out as self effacing humour or false humility, but a part of us actively seeks out this assurance, praise or appreciation.
Perfection is born when we are not taught that it is okay to fail, sometimes. That it is okay to have flaws. Perfectionists lack the courage to look at their own flaws and be kind to themselves. This creates an immense split in themselves. On one hand they are troubled because of some emotional pain and on the other hand they cannot come around to accept that they have this emotional pain in them. This duality, results in immense frustration. And this frustration is usually expressed as perpetual anger and frustration on the people around them.
Many perfectionists are also people pleasers. In fact, they appear to be hard on their own family and extremely courteous to extended family, friends and so on. Why does this happen? At the core, perfectionists are extremely insecure. Because they are unable to face their own faults, they have to constantly build a wall to protect their so called goodness. This means actively hiding their flaws. And because they lack the courage to face these deficiencies, they need constant external approval. Now, the people closest to them, already know them. They see these deficiencies and therefore are not fooled by the false defences and pretences. Therefore, perfectionists seek out people who don’t know them that well, so that the myth of their perfection, the aura of invulnerability can be continued. This helps them derive a short term ego kick to enhance their sense of self. But as always, as the friendship begins to develop, intimacy grows. And as intimacy grows, one’s frailties are exposed. And precisely at this time, they move on to make other friends and develop new interests. Or they maintain a very superficial friendship for life. A friendship, where the other simply does not know one’s vulnerabilities. Most of us perfectionists have the need to constantly flit to new interests, new hobbies and new friends. Never settling down to develop anything in great depth. Whenever, they are faced with a challenging situation that throws their deficiencies in sharp relief, they escape.
On the other hand, perfectionists can barely tolerate faults in others. They usually cannot tolerate weakness in others. They usually show irritation and display a temper when someone behaves in a weak manner – especially emotionally. Or, if they cannot express anger and irritation, they begin giving rational solutions. A typical conversation could go like this: “Hey I am feeling a bit down today”. The perfectionist: “Did you take your medicines? You didn’t exercise today”. The response is purely functional without any empathy.
Perfectionists are usually very miserable, although (obviously) they do not admit it. They are high functioning and may be ‘successful’ at their work, because they get the work done. They may also be vivacious, and very friendly around extended friends and family. But in reality, they have a deep rooted sense of emptiness, which comes from a deep feeling that they are never enough. And this ‘I am not enough’ destroys close intimate relationships and prevents them from coming in touch with who we are – which is a sum total of both the good and the bad.
What to do? Do you recognize these characteristics in yourself? If so, how can we begin to overcome this obsessive need to be right?
First, recognize this is perfectly normal. You are not a bad person or unique in any way. We have all been there. So have I. Start by recognizing that this is indeed a dysfunction and that you want to overcome it. The will to overcome perfectionism is critical.
Second, make a list of your flaws. Sometimes our ego prevents us from even seeing our own flaws so that we can make an honest assessment of ourselves. If you find it hard, ask a trusted friend or a family member. ‘Hey what do you think is a dominant flaw in me?’. This may feel extremely uncomfortable. And that’s natural and okay. Allow this crushing feeling to exist. Realize you are working towards overcoming your ego.
Third, accept the flaws. Sit with yourself and accept the flaws. This does not mean that you do nothing about it. We certainly will. But for now, realize that you are as frail as anyone is. You are not unique. Telling ourselves it is okay to fail,it is okay to be inadequate is the beginning of the change. This is extremely liberating. You realize having flaws is a shared human condition. As we begin to accept flaws in us, we can begin to allow others to have faults. This is the basis of empathy.
True perfection does not imply a lack of imperfections. True perfection is when one can hold both the perfection and imperfection within oneself is equal stead. The basis is acceptance. And then, one can begin to correct oneself and move towards improving one’s good qualities and reducing the negative qualities. But we must begin with an honest appraisal, with a realization that we are not special, that we are human, and that our flaws are part of the shared human condition.
Once we go beyond perfection and come to a state of acceptance, then we begin to truly know who we are. As we begin to get in touch with ourselves, we can start to have deep, meaningful and intimate relationships. Then, people feel accepted in our company, they feel a space which allows them to be who they are – despite their flaws. Then people feel loved. And when people feel loved, they return it to us in a multifold manner. Isn’t that what we all want?