Open Gently

Musings on the introspective life.

Do You Always Feel You're Letting Yourself Down?

"Do Your Best" can be a tough demand to a literal child.

At 45, my friend I'll call Rachel is one of the most lovable and giving people I know, with great accomplishments under her belt. But, like many of us, she spends more time dwelling on her "faults." In fact, when a new man was interested in her she presented him with a list of her faults to make sure he wouldn't reject her when he discovered them later!  Recalling the story, he just smiled, "I told her I loved her no matter what."

Still, Rachel can't celebrate his love fully, or indeed when anything goes well in her life. "The minute I finish a long-term project at work, I think, how can I do it better next time?," she says. "If I have friends round for dinner and everyone tells me they had a nice time, I can’t help thinking: “It would have been better if I’d been wittier, more engaging,more entertaining.” I constantly feel as though I’m letting myself down."

She also found herself being hard on her adoring partner, nagging him to improve himself in various ways that weren't important enough to justify the stress she created between them.

"Perfectionists can never be satisfied," says Canadian psychologist Professor Gordon Flett, a leading researcher in the field. "‘Even when they achieve a goal, they immediately think: ‘Now 
I have to do it again. Or now I have to work as hard to keep at that level.’ Or they think, ‘I’ve finally achieved my goal but I shouldn’t have had to try so hard, it shouldn’t have taken me so long.’ 

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Most of us are happier when we strive to meet standards and see progress. And while many perfectionists recognize they go overboard, they still think they're right to push. If you are a perfectionist, you probably like your high standards and won’t give them up without a fight. You see your fears as the price of your standards. But you may want to think about the origin of  those fears, and see whether your goals shift.

One source is an inborn tendency to obsession and anxiety, or an unusual sensitivity to the perceptions of others. "‘Perfectionism runs in families," says Flett. "There’s a genetic element, but there is also the impulse to imitate our parents’ high standards, or live up to their expectations."

Teachers often see perfectionism in gifted children, although psychologists disagree over whether it’s built into intelligence. It also can result from praise. "If you’re used to praise, absence of praiseis criticism. And these children can be especially attuned," explains Ken Rice, a research psychologist at the University of Florida. A gifted child who is overpraised, or rewarded solely for achievements, could easily learn to associate love with her performance.

 To a literal child, even the apparently supportive ‘Do your best’ is a tough demand, notes psychologist Robert Slaney of Pennsylvania State University.

‘Contingent self-esteem’, a deep-seated fear that you must meet requirements to be lovable – or even acceptable – can be planted by a critical or cold home. You may have taken on adult responsibilities as a child or worked hard to boost or maintain the self-esteem of a fragile parent.

Deep perfectionism is dangerous and can even be even deadly, a factor in depression, anxiety, social phobias, eating disorders and suicide. The common sort holds you back in life by making it harder to do take risks, experiment, roll with the punches and move on. It also makes you unhappy when you needn't be. 

Perfectionist tendencies are just as likely to develop in later life, says Flett. Your career choice has an important impact. ‘Being a doctor, architect or public performer – jobs in which everybody’s watching your achievements – can turn you into a perfectionist, because you gradually become more self-conscious about how you measure up to expectations.’

In his research, Flett has devised a perfectionism scale, identifying three subsets of perfectionist behaviour.

1. "Selforiented" perfectionists have exceedingly high standards for themselves. They often feel they have to work extra hard just to be as good as everyone else. And although they may not be too demanding of most people in their lives, they are sometimes too tough on their children. 

2. "Other-oriented” perfectionists tend to project their high standards on to other people. They're  critical and chronically disappointed by colleagues, family, waitresses, films.  

3. “Socially prescribed” perfectionists always feel under pressure from others--parents, co-workers, loved ones or society as a whole. They may not in fact have demanding people in their lives. 

You may have all three of these tendencies but most people fall basically into one category.

Narcissistic perfectionists may veer from arrogance to self-hatred and back. My friend Amy, a 48-year-old lawyer, recalls a phenomenon she called "Harvard syndrome" among her fellow students at Harvard Law School. "We’d measure ourselves against Mozart and Wittgenstein, and feel like complete failures, but then we’d look around the room and say, “I’m better than anybody else here.”’ 

Not all perfectionists do well in the world. If you’re wondering why a bright person isn’t more ambitious, the answer may be the opposite of what you think: not low standards but skyscraper ones. A socially prescribed perfectionist might languish in a dead-end job because she creates exaggerated (and daunting) expectations of how she should function in a more interesting position. She’s a slow worker, largely because she procrastinates and dots every ‘i’. At school, she
may have missed handing in some papers because they weren’t finished – to her satisfaction. She may be painfully shy. ‘Some people are afraid to even say what film they saw at the weekend because it might be the wrong film,’ says Antony.

Down the hall, her boss’ self-esteem may be no more secure. Successful other-oriented
perfectionists attribute their achievements to their punishing habits, not talent or commitment, and live in fear of losing their status. As supervisors, they nit-pick, and when employees begin
to resent their unnecessary demands and respond with passive-aggressive resistance, they become more anxious and demanding. They neglect spouses and become emotionally isolated – think of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada.

To avoid blame or disappointment, loved ones hide their problems from a critical perfectionist, who hides her own lapses from them. They are too rigid to have fun or indulge in a hobby. Why? They may not be the absolute best. 

We live in a demanding society. Every year the world’s athletes beat a record (and more of them cheat with drugs). Everywhere we look, we see symmetrical faces and hard bodies in advertising and the media (and more of us get plastic surgery). We diet, follow exercise fads, hire trainers and get facelifts at 40, along with Botox and lipo. We’re equally dedicated to ‘inner growth’, at least in theory. Selfhelp books pile up beside our beds as we work longer hours to advance in our careers and finance ever-fancier lifestyles. It’s not enough to do a good job – you need to be scoping out your next one. Dating sites encourage singles (and mentally wandering spouses) to seek fantasy mates. We’re told to interview prospective spouses on our ‘Must Haves’ and ‘Can’t Stands’ – and  turn real-life dating encounters into a grind. 

The key to recognizing and addressing your perfectionism: change your response to setbacks and failure. (Yes, something else to work on!) One wife makes affectionate jokes about having to remind her husband to do his own laundry. A perfectionist wife gets angry or hurt each time she sees the laundry build up. She feels her husband is a slacker or doesn't love her or that their marriage isn't good because they can't solve problems.

Don't let each mishap or fault become a sign of something bigger--the failure to be perfect.

Portions of this article appeared previously in Psychologies.

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Temma Ehrenfeld is a New York-based science writer, and former assistant editor at Newsweek.

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