It Has to be Perfect

You are reading an article online and you come across the following sentence:

Sometimes when your driving you may notice your car does not seem to be performing at it’s best.

Do you cringe? Do you immediately scroll to the bottom of the article to find the comments section and fire off this reply:

Cutting costs on editors now? The sentence should read: “Sometimes when you’re driving you may notice your car does not seem to be performing at its best.”

You frequently berate yourself for not having made progress on a mental list of tasks that need to be done. You have piles of unread mail to go through; there is that assignment due next week and you keep telling yourself that this time you aren’t going to leave it until the last minute and then stay up until 2am completing it; your lawn is getting long and you are worrying about what the neighbours will think about the fact you haven’t mown yet.

You are driving at 100km/h in a 100km/h zone. Someone overtakes you; you estimate he is doing 106km/h. You secretly hope he gets pulled over for speeding. If you do see him pulled over, you feel secretly pleased.

You are given a project to work on with a team of colleagues. You do most of the work yourself because you’re sure the others wouldn’t do it right.

You don’t like anyone to help you clean up at home because they always put things in the wrong place, or they wipe the benches with the dish cloth and the dishes with the bench cloth.

You have trouble throwing things away – you never know when they might come in handy.

You finding yourself spending more time developing a more efficient way to complete a one-off task than it would have taken you to just do the task with the tools you already had.

Your friends tell you that you work too much … or you don’t have time for friends.

Someone at work is collecting money for yet another birthday or farewell cake. You try to avoid contributing.

You have an eye for detail and always complete tasks to a very high standard. But, at the same time, you find it hard to get the motivation to start something and you are never happy with the end result. Nothing ever feels good enough.

You are in a waiting room and the urge to straighten a crooked painting on the wall is becoming almost overwhelming.

Annoyingly crooked square in a set of neatly arranged squares

If more than a few of the above scenarios sound familiar to you, it might be fair to say you are a bit of a perfectionist. If quite a lot of the above sound familiar to you but you are thinking, “Me? A perfectionist?! No way! You should see the mess in my garden shed/bedroom/kitchen/office …!” then you most likely are a perfectionist (who, like most perfectionists, is incessantly bothered by your inability to meet your own standard of perfection). Does this mean you have a problem? Not necessarily.

Perfectionism can be a strength. I’m certain we would all prefer that the surgeon who is about to perform a difficult operation to remove a malignant tumour has perfectionistic traits. But we also have to live in the real world. In the real world, perfection is not a thing. It is an idea that exists in our minds, but never manifests in reality. That can be a problem if we can’t identify the line that is “good enough”. To try to make any part of reality match a theoretical idea that is “perfection” means to set a goal that we will seem to endlessly approach yet will remain forever out of reach. It is like Zeno’s dichotomy paradox: There is an endless series of halfway-points on the journey to perfection, each one smaller, more detailed, yet cumulatively guaranteeing you can never, ever reach the destination.

Because we quickly learn perfection is impossible to attain, yet continue to expect it of ourselves, we procrastinate. For a perfectionist there is either perfection or there is failure. That means starting a task is guaranteeing failure. Putting off a task is delaying failure and believing maybe tomorrow you will have the energy and the motivation you lack today to complete that task perfectly. But because perfection doesn’t exist, that day never actually comes. So you either never do it, or you eventually fail at it.

Yes, perfectionism, of a sort, can be a strength. Tempered perfectionism can be a very useful thing. But perfectionism that gets in the way of accomplishment, prevents us from taking action that is consistent with the things we value, offends the people we care about and leaves us in a state of perpetual guilt is nothing but a nuisance.

Perfectionism and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD). or OCPD, is a condition that generally develops out of childhood exposure to inflexibility, controlingness and unrelenting standards. It is characterised by orderliness, control and perfection that is maintained at the expense of flexibility and spontaneity (adapted from the DSM-IV). Like all the personality disorders, it represents an extreme on a continuum that includes adaptive personality traits. Like other personality disorders, there are aspects of this condition that should be considered strengths but, overall, it interferes significantly with relationships and functioning.

It is confusing that Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder is just one word different from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Perhaps this is why, in the The International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems OCPD is known as “anankastic personality disorder” – not much more enlightening. OCPD and OCD are quite different in practice. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder involves distressing intrusive thoughts and repetitive rituals driven by fears of what could happen if the rituals are not carried out. OCPD/anankastic personality disorder involves beliefs that one must meet excessively high standards in order to be acceptable. A person with OCPD does not necessarily carry out any “rituals” as such. The two conditions do have a tendency to co-occur, however.

I judge your back, you judge mine

One of the characteristics of OCPD is adherence to a very high set of standards. These standards may only cover certain areas of a person’s life, however: For example, having extremely high standards of orderliness, but not of hygiene.

The perfectionist usually assumes that everyone holds these standards. If a perfectionist observes another individual falling short of his standard, he will tend to judge her critically. However, hand-in-hand with this critical tendency is the perfectionist’s belief that he is being likewise judged – and a great deal of associated anxiety about needing to adhere to these strict standards to be accepted by others.

When a perfectionist completes a task, she immediately identifies where it falls short of her standards. She points this out to others, and regardless of whether they deny the fault, she believes they feel the same way.

Unperfecting

Research has a long way to go before we can reliably say that any particular treatment is effective for OCPD. Psychological therapy or self-help is, however, generally recommended over medication.

One thing is apparent: It is necessary to relax the unrelenting standards and learn to accept a performance that is less-than-perfect. I can see no shortcut to prepare a person for this. It is necessary to accept that it is logically acceptable to do things well enough instead of perfectly and to practice applying this. Complete tasks to a satisfactory, but imperfect standard. Acknowledge imperfection, but accept it.

Perhaps learn to relish it: Imperfections are the fingerprints of a human being who is living life and getting things done that they care about.

About Paul McQueen

Dr Paul McQueen is a Clinical Psychologist, holding a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Melbourne. He has experience working in both adult and child mental health services in Queensland and Victoria. Dr McQueen is comitted to providing high quality, evidence-based interventions for a range of mental health conditions. He specialises in the treatment of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Borderline Personality Disorder and Depression.

6 Comments

  1. I’m confused about one of your examples.
    What has “Someone at work is collecting money for yet another birthday or farewell cake. You try to avoid contributing.” got to do with perfectionism?
    Not being critical, just curious.

    • Good question – thanks for picking that up. One of the characteristics of OCPD is a tendency to be “miserly”, but I suspect that is more about a standard of not wanting to “waste” money on things that may be seen as frivolous.

  2. You seem to have left one of the squares a bit crooked 🙂
    I have found it difficult to contribute money to a constant stream of gifts at work due to their not being any real caring behind the giving. People give money out of obligation or to avoid appearing stingy.

    • Yes, there are many reasons for resisting contributing to workplace gifts – they do not all indicate perfectionism and may relate to other values such as genuineness as you describe.

      As for the crooked square, I am tempted to add some javascript to this article to allow concerned readers to straighten it and correct the colour position. But that probably wouldn’t be helping anyone.

  3. intrusive thoughts

    I’ve had some terribly intrusive ideas recently which have been really upsetting me. I came across this blog which helped me cope with them.

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