"Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best, but it is not about self-improvement; it's about earning approval and acceptance." —Brené Brown
As discussed in a a previous post on the potential problems perfectionism causes in close personal relationships, perfectionism is:
“A personality trait characterized by efforts to be flawless and free from error, unrealistically high standards, and excessively critical attitudes, about oneself and others. In spite of high ideals and expectations, perfectionism can be fundamentally negative and pessimistic."
There is overlap with a psychiatric condition called “Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder” (OCPD). When folks say “He’s so OCD,” they are usually talking about OCPD, not Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, a condition in which people have intrusive thoughts and repetitive behaviors they are unable to control. It's exhausting for all. Living and working with very perfectionistic people requires patience and compassion all around.
While this piece is not about how people become perfectionistic, perfectionism often has its origins in negative childhood experiences (interacting with inherited biological traits) where such tendencies developed as a reaction against feeling out of control with caregivers who were incompetent, absent and often abusive.
OCD vs. OCPD
According to the International OCD Foundation, OCPD consists of:
- Rigid adherence to rules and regulations.
- An overwhelming need for order.
- Unwillingness to yield or give responsibilities to others.
- A sense of righteousness about the way things “should be done."
Symptoms of OCPD include:
- Excessive devotion to work that impairs social and family activities.
- Excessive fixation with lists, rules and minor details.
- Perfectionism that interferes with finishing tasks.
- Rigid following of moral and ethical codes.
- Unwillingness to assign tasks unless others perform exactly as asked.
- Lack of generosity; extreme frugality without reason.
- Hoarding behaviors.
One thing OCD and OCPD can share is lack of insight. If one doesn't see a problem, it's hard understanding how others around them are behaving. As a result, relationships can be plagued by blindspots. Insight can improve over time, and also wax and wane with stress levels and emotions.
To avoid making things worse interpersonally by triggering disavowed self-critical reactions and accompanying defensive aggression, it's important not to confuse inadvertent lack of insight with willful denial or maliciousness. In moderation, these traits are useful and adaptive, but in excess are dysfunctional.
Signs You May Be Perfectionistic
With this in mind, here's a list of common experiences found in relationships where one person is very perfectionistic, even to the point of having OCPD. They aren't exclusive to OCPD but when clustered together are characteristic of it. Perfectionism is often one side of a dysfunctional relationship, where the other person has their own issues, which creates a perfect storm of dysfunctional "irrelationship." Please be aware that the following may be emotionally challenging:
1. Everyone else is "lazy" or incompetent. You have to nag folks to get anything done. No one remembers what needs to happen but you. If you don’t constantly remind people what they have to do, they don’t do it. They may tell you they feel pressured, even bullied, but that is not where you are coming from. Over time, they may give up and stop trying to communicate. When that happens, the resentment can lead them to stop working at it, even sometimes deliberately doing a bad job or not even bothering to try. This makes them seem lazy or incompetent when they are just shutting down.
2. People say you're anxious, but you don’t feel anxious. The constant feeling that nothing is right or ever quite good enough is both anxiety-provoking and fatiguing for other people. Over time it becomes demoralizing, and for other people who don’t have a solid sense of self, it can even lead to chronic feelings of low self-esteem. With chronic demoralization and disempowerment, others give up and stop trying to meet those impossible standards.
The anxiety over task-completion isn't felt as anxiety and is projected onto others who either join in the anxiety contagion or defensively withdraw when efforts to talk fail.
3. People say you are hostile and critical, but you aren't. "It's not about criticism! This is about doing a good job!" It isn’t personal in the sense that one person is judging another; it is about meeting a higher "objective" standard.
The confusing thing for a perfectionistic person is that the demand seems as normal as the sun up in the sky. It doesn’t make sense when other people act hurt or feel inadequate. It's annoying to be misunderstood.
Why do people take things so personally? The hostility is hidden because perfectionistic people don’t get that their frustration comes across as an attack. Rather than seeing their behavior toward others as hostile, they instead feel hurt and unappreciated.
4. People tell you that you don't seem happy. This is confusing because for the perfectionistic person, doing a meticulous job and making sure everything is going smoothly and turns out right is exactly what they like. It’s a relief from anxiety they often don’t know they are experiencing, which leads others to feel on edge. What the perfectionistic person isn’t seeing is that things usually turn out OK even if every detail isn’t nailed down. Indeed, perfectionism may be a way to mask depression.
There’s no room to relax, slow down, and respond flexibly if issues come up because everything is a high priority. This can make things which ought to be fun into forced labor for others.
5. People feel like they have to perform in order for you to be nice to them. Because of the tension when things aren’t going right, others feel like they are never good enough. Love feels conditional and praise is rare. Rather than notice others' needs and enjoy the time spent together, they are preoccupied with trying to fix things, leading to burnout.
6. People say you are controlling, but you don’t see it that way. It is about performance being the best it can be, and everyone should feel that way. The perfectionistic person, feeling out of control, is trying to control the outcome, not the people. But the people around them feel controlled. In a way, they are both right, but can’t have a meeting of the minds because they're living in different psychological realities about what the motivations and priorities are.
There’s little or no room for feelings, which just get pushed down more. This accentuates the other person’s sense of being isolated and is frustrating and injurious. You may feel overwhelmed by everything, and it seems like others are giving you a hard time and don't empathize.
7. When people try to talk with you about how they feel or what they think, you steamroll or stonewall them. Having a real conversation is almost impossible. There's always too much to get done, and when people tell you how they feel, you fixate on what needs to happen and feel resentful that they are wasting time. When other people say how they feel, the perfectionistic person typically hears it as an attack, at least in the short-term. Sometimes when the feeling settles down, they can make connections.
In the heat of the moment, others' perspectives are a waste of time, which is invalidating. Rather than slow down and listen, you overpower them and tune them out. If they push back, you ramp up the aggression until they give up, or it turns into a big fight.
With moral rigidity, there is only one right way to see things. This means that perfectionistic people argue fiercely, making it hard to listen and empathize. Conflicts rarely get resolved, change if it occurs at all is painfully slow, and resentment builds. No one feels like they can win an argument, and they each blame the other.
In extreme, perfectionism is a personality disorder which causes a great deal of suffering and dysfunction for all within its net. Because of the extreme inflexibility and difficulty seeing others' perspectives, having compassion—the very thing most needed to work through tough relationship issues—is one of the most difficult things to do.
At the end of the day, being in a relationship with anyone struggling with serious difficulties is a choice, often a hard one. Deciding to stay in a relationship where one's needs are not being well-met is a choice that requires deep reflection and self-examination, and day-to-day self-discipline and compassionate practice.
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