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On Being A Perfectionist

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

Are you a perfectionist?

Do you demand that everything you do is of the highest quality and above any criticism? If so, you are a very unhappy person! I can imagine you responding to this latter sentence with something like: "he’s awfully presumptuous! How dare he make judgments of other people without knowing them?" Well, I do not wish to sound either presumptuous or judgmental. Instead, what I am sounding is a cautionary note based on certain types of people who enter therapy seeking relief from anxiety and depression.

Not everyone who experiences anxiety and depression is a perfectionist. However, all of those patients I have seen over the years who are perfectionists are anxious, depressed and obsessive in their thinking. Many of them suffer from some combination of procrastination, an inability to get things done, a tendency to be work-a-holics and either under-achievement or over-achievement.

How does perfectionism work to make so many people unhappy?

First, it is important to understand that human beings cannot be perfect. If you have a religious bent to your thinking and living, then realize that on the God can be perfect. Human beings are flawed creatures as are all other living creatures on this earth. That does not mean that we should not strive for excellence. However, there is a big difference between striving for excellence and striving for perfection. Excellence is attainable because, be definition, it allows for the fact that we will fall short of perfection. Excellence presumes that we are doing the best we can do on a project. In fact, excellence presumes that we are trying hard to do even better than we may have done in previous efforts.

Because excellence is attainable, there is motivation in that direction. A job well done feels really good. That good feeling does not necessarily come from the praise of others, but from an inner feeling of satisfaction.

By contrast, the perfectionist never feels pride or satisfaction in a job well done because they never believe their job was done "well enough." There can never be a good feeling about completing a project because the final project is viewed as imperfect, flawed, filled with errors.

To borrow an old saying, the perfectionist is like the "person who cannot see the forest for the trees." In other words, there this is an individual who becomes so focused on the tiny details that they forget that there is a purpose to what they are doing. That is why some perfectionists become procrastinators. Filled with so much anxiety about having to do every little detail to perfection they become discouraged about ever starting their project. There are many candidates for Ph.D. degrees who never graduate. They complete all their course work, successfully finish all of their comprehensive exams and even successfully choose a topic for their research study, and never move beyond that point. Many of these are very brilliant people who stumble over perfectionism: 1. they doubt that they understand the material they are researching, 2. they doubt they can teach the material they are studying. Often, PhD candidates are allowed to teach undergraduate classes as a way of funding their advanced studies, 3. They doubt that their research is acceptable, 4. They believe they are frauds who have fooled everyone into believing they are smart and, 4. The list goes on endlessly. Another way of putting it is to say that the perfectionist is "always spinning his wheels but getting nowhere."

Are you a perfectionist? Write in about your experiences with this and let’s have an interchange of ideas.

If you wish, try the book by David Burns, MD. entitled The Feeling Good Handbook. Here, Dr. Burns explains how to use cognitive-behavioral techniques to overcome these types of problems. Ultimately psychotherapy which focuses on cognitive-behavioral therapy is excellent for these types of problems.

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