Alexa was born a perfectionist. It wasn’t a problem, just something that was noticeable to her parents, siblings and family. When she was little she enjoyed coloring in the lines, arranging her toys in a symmetrical line and dressing her dolls just right. As she grew, she developed a tendency toward organization, keeping schedules and planning ahead. Alexa’s pattern is one that I call Overt Perfectionism in my book Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding Balance and Self-Acceptance, because it is visible to others.
Although in some ways it appears to be an advantage in life, perfectionism isn’t always a good thing.
In school or at work, perfectionism can be an asset; however, perfectionists will often have unexpected challenges in their friendships, sibling relationships and eventually in their intimate relationships. At 34, Alexa sought help after her second marriage seemed to be falling apart. She worked very hard at being a good spouse and she couldn’t cope with failing at another relationship. Her struggles were not something she could fix by being perfect. In fact, being perfect may have caused them.
The following behaviors and traits are noticeable in the overt perfectionist:
Imagine yourself on the opposite side of a relationship with a perfectionist who exhibits all or even a few of these traits. The irony is that for a perfectionist, the harder he tries to be a good partner, the more alone his partner feels. They may be doing a great deal to manage a job, home, children and more, but not necessarily the things that a partner really needs and wants. The partner of a perfectionist may feel the absence of true closeness, equality and interdependence (reliance on one another in a balanced way). They will often see the perfectionist as critical, dissatisfied, unreachable, unavailable and without emotional needs. The perfectionist also ends up feeling alone and unappreciated and cannot understand what they are missing. It is devastating to devote oneself to being the best and finding out that it is not seen or appreciated.
With help and soul searching Alexa discovered that although her past and current partner found her interesting and dependable in the beginning, they did not feel emotionally connected to her. Because of her perfectionist pattern, Alexa had been attracted to partners who were at first in need of her stability, competence and independence and then later resented it. She was certain that she did not cause all of the problems in these relationships, but she was ready to face her personal role in her struggles.
She began a process of gradual change which may be helpful to others with this pattern:
The key to changing a perfectionist pattern is to view it as a shift rather than a total transformation. It is more likely to happen if you put the focus on the rewards of becoming real. Everyone has flaws and that fact connects us with humanity. Pretending we don’t leads to isolation and at best, conditional love. Deep down, we all want to be loved and accepted for who we are. The change starts with acknowledging our humanness and accepting the best and worst of who we are. Self improvement is a choice, not a mandate. Some things about us will never change and other traits may be altered by life experiences. In the meantime you are good enough for today – perfectly imperfect.
My next blog will address this topic from the perspective of the less visible Covert Perfectionist.
Ann Smith is the Executive Director of Breakthrough at Caron. Her updated book, Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding Balance and Self-Acceptance, was released on March 5, 2013. Leave a comment here or connect with her on Twitter, @CaronBT or Facebook.