Stan has come into therapy to decide whether to break up with his boyfriend, Michael. He loves Michael, and feels loved in return, but he’s finding so many imperfections in him that he’s afraid that he’s “settling.” Michael isn’t well-read, he’s politically naïve, his tastes in music are limited, and so on. Stan suspects that something is wrong with the way he’s thinking, and that these “flaws” matter too much to him, but he just can’t turn off his harsh judgments.
He’s even harder on himself. When he was in school, he felt ashamed and panicky whenever he had to raise his hand to ask a question, because it meant admitting to the class that he didn’t know the answer. As an adult he sometimes forces himself to work eighteen hour days at his job because he feels driven to make sure he does everything thoroughly and without mistakes; and in his annual reviews, if he gets anything less than “exceeds expectations” on even one measure, he goes into a depression spiral and sees himself as a failure.
Many people set high standards for themselves and strive to be successful, but Stan suffers from compulsive perfectionism. People with this issue demand from themselves completely unattainable levels of performance, chronically judge their efforts as insufficient, and believe that to make any mistakes at all is to fail. Compulsive perfectionism seems to be very widespread in our culture. Some research suggests that as many as 30 percent of the adult population are afflicted with it.
Most psychologists understand it as a symptom of obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. But although OCD sufferers have compulsions that sometimes relieve their obsessions, they usually know that there is something irrational about what they’re doing. But compulsive perfectionists too often lack that insight. They may be aware of the pain they’re causing themselves, but still believe that they need their perfectionism in order to insure that they don’t become total failures.
Perfectionism tends to be associated with procrastination and postponement (“I can’t do this task until I know the ‘right’ way to do it.”). Because perfectionists believe that they have to avoid any danger of failure, they tend to be risk-averse. Compulsive perfectionism is also associated with low productivity because people with this issue can get bogged down on small and irrelevant details of larger projects or daily activities. Ironically, then, perfectionists often bring about the very failure that they most fear.
Compulsive perfectionists have a hard time getting close to other people because they’re afraid that it’s dangerous to let anyone know them. They typically feel that they have to be strong and in control of their emotions, and that they must never let anyone see their personal fears, inadequacies, or disappointments. This touches on the core issue in perfectionism: at bottom it isn’t really about high achievement at all. As Brene Brown writes in her excellent book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “Perfectionism is a self-destructive and addictive belief system that fuels this primary thought: If I look perfect, and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.” The deep, dark secret that Stan tries to hide, both from himself and from everyone who tries to know him, is that no one who actually does know him will ever love him.
And that’s why I’m not neutral on the question of whether he should break up with Michael. If he loves and feels loved in return, then his task is to make sure that he doesn’t allow his terror of imperfection (his or his partner’s) to drive him away. The opposite of perfectionism isn’t “imperfectionism” – it’s authenticity. If he can allow himself to love an imperfect person imperfectly, instead of thinking of that as “settling” – and if he can take the risk of letting his imperfect boyfriend love him in the midst of all of his own messiness and imperfections – then he will be well on his way to overcoming the core issue in his compulsive perfectionism. For a compulsive perfectionist, when it comes to love, if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.