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Being Average Can Be Good for You

How to address the perfectionist's obsession with hope.

Key points

  • Too much hope can become addictive.
  • Perfectionists struggle to engage in activities for their own sake.
  • Perfectionism is often a means of masking childhood expectations and traumas.
  • Perfectionists falsely claim that they disdain being average when they enjoy aspects of ordinary life.

What's it like when you believe your life is supposed to be amazing? Will you settle for ordinary, ever?

Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder (OCPD), according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), is characterized by a preoccupation with rules and details, excessive doubt and caution (high degree of conscientiousness), and stubbornness about the way things ought to be, especially the life of an individual with this diagnosis. While all of us infuse much of life with some degree of meaning, almost everything feels incredibly meaningful to the perfectionist. In her mind, it's all connected and part of some grander scheme; it's all going somewhere. And time can't be wasted.

Many with OCPD suffer with depression and anxiety, which is imaginable since so much of life actually feels insignificant. While, on the one hand, many of the decisions made are made so to manage the anxiety and anticipated guilt of wasted time and potential, on the other, embedded is a form of addiction, in this case, to hope.

In his autobiography, Based on a True Story, comedian Norm Macdonald details his years-long gambling addiction, which cost him his life savings on three, yep, three, separate occasions. In a poignant reflection in the book, he informs his readers about what sustains any gambling addiction (and one can generalize his comments to any addiction). Contrary to popular belief, he notes, it isn’t winning since most gambling addicts lose most of their money anyway; in reality, it’s merely the hope of winning. That initial moment between the dice having been thrown and landing on the table, that dopamine rush of expectation, when life became arrested by a prenatal bliss, hooked him for the rest of his.

Hope, like anything else, is a double-edged sword. Hope, when more moderate, is associated with resilience, discipline, and lower levels of neuroticism. But hope can just as easily become its own form of escapism, eventually fostering the degrees of fear and sadness it had once remedied. On a perpetual climb, the perfectionist is convinced he's on the road to never-ending improvement, going "up, up, up," as Jay Gatsby would have said. Hope is stitched into the fabric of America, and most of us can't get enough of it. But, the perfectionist, like the gambler, never quite gets his fill, repeatedly left asking: what if? What if this were just a little better? What if I said something funnier? What if I picked the wrong husband?

The combination of having been bullied and having had high expectations placed on me as a so-called "gifted child" cursed me with a fantasy in which I dreamt of appeasing my family while becoming superior to those who tormented me (as though that would somehow offset my distorted self-image). In the perfectionist's mind, the addiction to hope can only end with a grand and sweeping victory when all of one's enemies, internal and external, are finally vanquished. And that's why the gambler continues to play. Any single victory, regardless of its significance or the validation it carries, can't do that for him.

In treatment, rather than attempting to remove hope from my patients, I help them explore what they believe will occur once success is achieved and what they think they're missing whenever it isn't. With perfectionism, we define ourselves mainly by our losses, believing a hyper-focus on them will lead to a mistake-free existence. So, I also help them waste time.

Instead of the "what if," it's better to ask the "can I?" Can I do good without needing validation that I'm a good person? Can I do good without needing it to count as a step toward becoming one? Can I enjoy my afternoon without working? Can I learn to do something for its own sake? Can I just spend a night out with my friends without meeting someone special? And can I be ordinary in some ways while accepting my talents in others?

When the perfectionist is honest with herself and she gains a wider perspective, she'll admit that she's hardly ever happy and prefers more moments of peace. She may even admit that she envies those whom she considers mediocre. (This awareness is a necessity because, in treatment, perfectionists often argue that they don't enjoy the aspects of life that others do, which usually isn't true; in reality, they may not enjoy them for long stretches of time and due to excessive guilt, which should be addressed.) If she can come to accept that the "what if" is unanswerable, which goes against that part of her character that desires control, she can begin to address the "can I."

Like any other addiction, the addiction to hope and perfection necessitates a slow-going remedy. And, in the end, the perfectionist has to choose between some sense of sustainable joy over her drug. I don't mean to negate perfectionism altogether; I mean to allow it to transform into settling for excellence. Excellence allows for mistakes and isn't obsessed with fixing them, which doesn't mean one discontinues caring about them altogether. Excellence allows one to discard the hope for some idyllic existence. And excellence allows one to enjoy the fruits of her labor without expecting each of them to work together to strengthen her perpetually.

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