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The Curse of Perfectionism

An article for National Guild of Hypnotism Journal
by Jorgen Hansen, CCHt., MBA | Atlanta Hypnotherapy

Very rarely is perfectionism the reason people seek therapy. Why would they? Isn’t it desirable to be perfect? It has so many benefits! Or has it? 

Oftentimes people are ambivalent about being a perfectionist. Many seem to be proud of this particular personality trait, because nobody can be faulted for being perfect, can they? Our culture is increasingly focused on the importance of being a high achiever and being the best. We worship “winners”! 

At the same time, they may be aware that their perfectionism has some negative aspects, such as requiring a lot of time or it making them difficult to work with or live with. 

Few perfectionists realize how perfectionism really influences their lives. Even fewer can answer the question, “How did I become a perfectionist in the first place?”

The presenting issue

Experience suggests people who see themselves as perfectionists seek therapy because they are highly anxious, having panic attacks, being depressed or sometimes even suffer from suicidal ideations. Not realizing that the source of their suffering is their eternal pursuit of the unattainable goal of perfectionism. 

The perfectionist persona is therefore most commonly only discovered by a thorough pre-talk. 

Signs that a person is a perfectionist can include problems such as working too much; burning the midnight oil at work and feeling pressure about deadlines; relationship issues, because the partner doesn’t chip in and “I have to do it all”; complaints about not having enough time to spend with the children, because “there is so much work to do around the house” or similar frustrations.

If you have to do everything to a level of perfection, tasks obviously will require a lot of time. Much more time than tasks which are done “well enough”. Commonly, perfectionists develop certain OCD characteristics, because they feel they must do things. Not because they necessarily need to be done, but because “I cannot just leave it as-is.” They may procrastinate or take too long to complete things or they feel an urge to perfect things, because “that’s what is expected of me.”

Identifying oneself as a perfectionist can create a lot of anxiety. I have had several clients, who live lives being “imprisoned” by their perfectionist persona.  They are at great risk of going into depression as they experience challenges to their identity. Or having panic attacks in the face of imperfection. They have a fundamental fear of having to face the possibility that they may not be perfect after all. They firmly believe that not being perfect equates to being flawed.

The real purpose of perfectionism 

So what is the real purpose of being a perfectionist and why is it a such a toxic issue? Who would not want to be able to do things to a level of perfection? It will make you a star performer at work, the best parent, the perfect housewife, the perfect partner, the best golfer, etc. 

However as we shall see, the rewards are deceptive. 

Let us start with purpose. What is the real purpose of being a perfectionist? When I ask my clients this question, they look puzzled. “It’s obvious, isn’t it? How can he not know that?” They react as if I had just asked them the real purpose of breathing? Obviously, they go on to explain, the purpose of being a perfectionist is to do things perfectly; to shine and feel the satisfaction of having done a “perfect job!”

Or is it? 

When I urge my clients to think again, they often get stuck. What I want them to discover is the real purpose of being perfect is to avoid being imperfect, i.e. to be flawed. In other words, it is a fear-driven coping mechanism to avoid being imperfect and seeing oneself as being flawed. Being “flawed” means not being accepted and that equates to being rejected. Their subconscious logic therefore becomes one of “I need to be perfect to be accepted and liked”! Driven by the fear of rejection.  

Fear of rejection is very primal. Most fairytales has this as their theme and plays to our instinctive fear of being lost or ousted and the happy ending is when we are found or rescued by the prince on the white horse. And being rejected equates to death. If cavewoman or caveman were ousted from the cave and left isolated and exposed, they would die. Consequently humans are hardwired to fear rejection. As we shall see, perfectionism is one way to try to cope with this fear.

The belief

So how did I become a perfectionist?

And what is the issue with being imperfect? The issue is when you are imperfect, you are not “good enough.” In my experience, perfectionists are people-pleasers times ten. They often had experiences in childhood, sensitizing events, which create a belief that they need to please others to “earn” the feeling of adequacy and acceptance. Experiences like rejection, abandonment, abuse, domestic problems, overly critical parents, or parents with high expectations and many more causes have the potential to create the belief “I am not good enough!”

Once such a belief or “locked idea” is created, it controls your life – until it is challenged in therapy. Until that time, any evidence and experience to the contrary gets rejected. If an experience is not congruent with the locked idea, the subconscious will not accept it. Conversely, any experience that confirms the belief is readily accepted as “proof”. Carrying such a belief therefore inevitably will reinforce itself over time and play an increasingly important role in the person’s life.  

Good enough!

An interesting question for any hypnotherapy practitioner is “Not good enough for what?” What is it you need to do – or not do – to qualify and become “good enough?” The answer often is “good enough to be loved and accepted unconditionally.” If there are conditions that must be met in order to be loved and accepted, then love and acceptance are not unconditional. Thus, an imagined, illusionary requirement is set which have to be met in order to be good enough. So, the lifelong, subconscious effort to meet those illusionary requirements begins. 

When the child’s subconscious mind steps in to protect the child from feeling the pain of being “not good enough” the simple solution becomes “I must become the most compliant, accommodating and pleasing little girl / boy and then I will qualify and earn the right to be loved and accepted unconditionally – and my pain will go away.” 

The pain associated with the emotional overwhelm of a child feeling rejected by the people who are the primary source of a child’s basic emotional needs: Love, safety and belonging! 

When a child is challenged on either one of these three basic emotional needs the belief of not being good enough is created and that’s when the people-pleaser mentality or persona is born. 

Try harder!

Often the child will realize attempts to be “good enough” will fail. As mentioned above, the child’s own subconscious mind will reject all the positive validation the child gets in return for the pleasing. The validation will be rejected because any positive feedback is now incongruent with the belief held by the child’s powerful subconscious. Positive feedback and all the “attagirls” / “attaboys” are rejected and discounted. The quest for earning the craved validation becomes a futile and endless endeavor. It becomes an addictive, compulsive cycle. 

When the attempts to earn the craved validation fail, the subconscious mind reacts by “cranking up” the efforts – as we see with so many other issues. Headaches escalate to migraines, habits escalate to OCD, anxiety escalates to depression, eating snacks escalates to binge-eating, which may escalate to bulimia etc. Pleasing escalates to perfectionism!

If pleasing others isn’t sufficient to earn that validation that one is good enough, it is easy for the subconscious to conclude that “I am not doing the pleasing good enough either.” The subconscious response will be to just try harder! If “good enough” isn’t working then surely being perfect will.

But the trap has already sprung. The more effort to be perfect and the more positive feedback the perfectionist attracts from being perfect, the more their subconscious mind digs in to be proven right. It has created the belief that “I am not good enough” and now this locked idea becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

The Illusion

So what’s wrong with being perfect? As we shall see, the answer is: A lot. 

Perfectionism is very deceptive. After all, the client will argue, being perfect at work has brought me to where I am today. Perhaps the client will argue they have a spotless home (keeping up appearances), that they are the role-model housewife or they have the perfect look, the perfect kids, etc. Who would not want that?

One major toxic factor is that “perfect” doesn’t exist. “Perfect” is an illusion and together with the illusion of unconditional love and acceptance, there is the perfect storm. Consequently the quest for validation will never cease. Perfectionists will never reach their surface-goal of being perfect. Everything can always be better. The subconscious is on the hunt and getting it to stop is impossible, because – as mentioned earlier – the real goal is not to reach perfection, but to avoid being imperfect – and subsequently to be rejected. Fear-driven behaviors are – as every therapist knows – very hard to change because fear is a strong motivator. 

Procrastination

Being stuck in the eternal race for perfection creates a lot of anxiety. Nothing will be left untouched, undone or alone until it is perfect. Which is why perfectionists often procrastinate a lot. They fear their task will be judged as not good enough. The simple, subconscious  solution to that problem is to NOT finish the task, because as long as it is unfinished, i.e. “a work in progress,” it cannot be judged and deemed “not good enough” and therefore, imperfect. Hence, as long as the task is not signed off, the perfectionist has the excuse that it is still being worked on because it is not perfect – yet. 

Anger

Chronic worry of imperfection is a major source of anxiety and anger. Because the world is not perfect, there are a million and one things with which the perfectionist can become angry. Angry at my partner for not being a perfect partner! Angry at my boss for not managing well enough, not hiring enough resources or hiring the wrong kind of people! Angry if the boss criticizes me! Angry at politicians for starting wars, wasting taxpayers’ money or being shifty! 

There are endless possibilities. Including the person self: Angry for being angry with everything and anything! Angry for not being perfect and showing how flawed they are by expressing their anger! Anger about being a weak, stressed out procrastinator!

Feelings buried alive…

If there is an opportunity, however miniscule, for becoming angry, the perfectionist will find it. However you wouldn’t know. The perfectionist bottles up the anger and suppresses any expression of anger. Often suppressing the expression of any emotion. Because it is only “flawed, weak people, who show emotions”. And if I were to express my emotions, I run the risk of making other people unhappy – and then they will think I am not good enough – and they will reject me!

The perfectionist’s life is all about monitoring other people’s emotional state and wellbeing. Their sense of responsibility for making sure other people feel well becomes an obsessive and automatic behavior which drains them of energy. The slightest sign that another person is unhappy and their pleasing coping mechanism springs into action. In certain circumstances involving emotionally insecure parents the perfectionist will take on the responsibility for the whole family’s emotional wellbeing and begin to “parent” their parents. Because there is no rulebook and no experience the child get very anxious and stressed about how to fulfill that role to perfection. This can entirely rob a child of their childhood and the effects of parentification as the child grows into an adult is well known in psychology. And the child is afraid of expressing these insecurities and the anger of not being allowed to be a child for fear of upsetting the ones for whom they are responsible. 

It all gets bottled up and repressed. And as the famous book title says: Feelings buried alive never die”. They will manifest themselves somehow – sooner or later. Psychosomatic symptoms are sure to develop. 

Perfectionists at work

Perfectionists have a hard time accepting constructive criticism. Criticism will be perceived as a personal attack because the critique goes straight to the heart of the matter: It triggers the fear of being imperfect and pokes at the belief of not being good enough. 

Perfectionists work themselves to complete exhaustion trying to be perfect. They tend to take too many tasks upon themselves at the workplace, at home and socially. I often hear statements from perfectionists such as, “I am the only one who knows how to resolve XYZ, so I feel I have to do it.” Or “I have to babysit everybody to make sure the work gets done properly.” Perfectionists are often very judgmental in their interpersonal relationships and can be annoying micromanagers. Nothing is ever good enough!

Hence the perfectionist often has a strained relationship with colleagues. They remain unaware of being source of most of the stress they experience at work. The stress adds to the anxiety.

Not being able to accept constructive criticism can lead to the person getting a bad reputation at work – or indeed in a relationship. Their managers get confused because there is a dichotomy here. Why does this person who sees themselves as perfect refuse to accept criticism which is meant to improve their performance and help them grow? Is there an attitude problem here? Can this person grow or are they stuck? Can we risk promoting this person only because they work more hours?

Who am I?

I had a client who became the target of a grievance at work and attempted suicide. Twice! When the perfectionist persona is challenged, there is a great risk of that persona collapsing. The perfectionist is then left with the tough question, “If I am not the perfectionist, who am I?” They don’t have an answer to that because they have no other identity. Their epiphany is that despite all their efforts, they are not perfect and not good enough. All the energy and the life-long work to suppress that fear of rejection were in vain. Such a let-down / disappointment challenges the perfectionist to the very core of their reason for being and can cause depression and suicidal ideations. I don’t know who I am and I have no longer a place in this world!

The perfectionist is often very judgmental of others because nothing is ever good enough. They can be the aforementioned annoying micromanager, they can be bullies or nagging spouses in their relationships. Even worse, they can be overly critical of their children. Such criticism has a high likelihood of passing the perfectionist pathology on to the next generation. A child of a perfectionist quickly learns regardless how hard they try, they are never good enough.

Nobody is perfect

And speaking of interpersonal relationships. The perfectionist’s surface goal is to please to get validation from others. A major component of perfectionism is to attract affection and approval for other people to like them. The ironic and often tragic fact is that most people do not like perfectionists. 

A well-balanced, self-regulating person is more self-accepting. They tend to be okay with the idea that they are not perfect and that any mistake or unsuccessful endeavor on their part is a chance to learn (e.g. Edison and the lightbulb) and move forward. The well-balanced person is therefore somewhat humble and will admit to mistakes from time to time. The well-balanced person believes “to err is human.”

The perfectionist on the other hand, lives with the belief “to err is proof that I am not good enough (to be loved and accepted).” They do everything to prove to themselves that they do not “err” at all and subsequently they are perceived by others as aloof and stand-offish. The perfectionist puts themselves “above others” and people instinctively do not like other people who come across as wanting to be “above me.” 

Most people are attracted to others who – like themselves – have come to realize that nobody is perfect. This humility is completely missing from the perfectionist persona. They live in constant fear of making mistakes, being criticized or being wrong. It is a very lonely life. 

Adding to this risk of being ostracized is the perfectionist may also attract envy from other people. The “benefits” of being a perfectionist, i.e. the fact that they do excel and come in as number one, can easily make them the target of jealousy. As we all know what that can lead to: Sabotage, hatred and isolation.which in turn may also give raise to social anxiety in the perfectionist. That is, the feeling that nobody wants to be with me or I cannot make friends. And what does that prove? That I am not good enough!!!!

Breaking the curse 

Perfectionism can indeed be a curse. As hypnotists we start with the underlying, locked idea. The belief that “I am not good enough.” We are off to a good start when we ask the client these two basic questions: Is it really true, that you are not good enough or were you interpreting your experiences through the eyes of a child? And: “What happened to all the other, more positive beliefs you can have about yourself?”

We should never “take away” a belief without replacing it with another. And as we know, anxious and depressed people have “forgotten” all the positive, supporting beliefs about themselves. In my experience, the most effective Hypnotherapy is about changing beliefs. The beliefs we hold about ourselves – and hide from ourselves!