Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square area, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

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Therapy Can Work

Katherine Rabinowitz, LP, M.A., NCPsyA

Licensed Psychotherapist & Psychoanalyst
Union Square area, Greenwich Village, New York, NY

Perfectionism

“Only the idea of something is perfect.
Its expression in material, worldly terms
is a mere shadow of that idea.”

~Plato

The Big Fantasy

It is a misconception to think that perfectionism is actually about attaining perfection. The reason is simple: there is no such thing. It’s a fantasy. Perfectionists are steeped in the unrealistic and mistaken belief that if they just work hard enough, carefully enough, and are ever vigilant, they will somehow achieve perfection. And that’s just fine with them – for a perfectionist, it’s the only acceptable possibility. They’re proud of it. It’s seen as desirable for success. There’s a right way to do things and a wrong way, with nothing in between, ever. Making mistakes means failure, disappointing someone, being thought badly of, or worse, being rejected.

What’s Underneath

Underneath, perfectionism is an attempt to get or maintain approval or love, and the struggle is never-ending. The most common word in a perfectionist’s vocabulary is the word “should,” because self-worth is tied to reaching excessively high goals. So there is constant pressure to do more. “I really should get this done right now (do this over, check this one more time).” What’s so often missing is wants or desires. It’s all about “should.”

There are many common characteristics in this personality. A perfectionist usually exhibits or suffers from several of the following:

A Canadian researcher (Gordon Flett of York University) delineated three types of perfectionists:

  1. The self-oriented perfectionist, who expects perfection of himself
  2. The other-oriented perfectionist, who demands perfection of others
  3. And the socially prescribed perfectionist, who works to fulfill the perfection others demand (often only imagined)

Self-Sabotage

Ironically, perfectionists’ way of being is precisely what will sabotage the success they’re hoping to achieve. If you spend hours and hours searching for the exactly right words for your report, you’ll never get it done. Exhausted, you become paralyzed with fear of turning in something less than perfect, dreading the reproach you’re sure will come. Belief in yourself (what little there was) wanes further. You miss out on a lot of fun because of the ridiculous hours you’re putting in. It’s entirely self-defeating.

There are serious consequences that get worse as the perfectionist becomes more entrenched in “the only way to do things”, (the “right” way). Though the behavior is proudly worn, it becomes an oppressive overcoat. A perfectionist is always under some kind of stressful pressure. It can lead to depression, relationship problems, health problems from all the stress, and an inability to relax and enjoy life.

Where does this come from?

Though there may be a genetic component, it is generally accepted that perfectionists are made, not born. It starts early. A highly critical parent for whom nothing is ever good enough is very common. We live in a competitive society that values achievement. A generation or two ago, a B was a perfectly acceptable grade. Today, nothing less than an A+ will do for some families. You got a 98? What happened to the other two points? Or, another scenario is the one where parents who don’t push their children at all, nonetheless bask in the glory of their achievements. The children learn quickly that it makes mommy and daddy very happy when they do well, and the message is internalized and becomes an integral part of who they are. They are motivated to achieve because what they believe is if I want their love, I have to do well. This is a heavy, heavy burden for a child, who then feels the need to live up to it forever.

Healthier Alternative

A healthy pursuit of excellence does exist. Goals can be within reason. High achievers enjoy the process, and are willing to learn from mistakes. High achievers know that self-worth is not diminished by not reaching a goal – something unthinkable for a perfectionist. They also understand that a missed goal is an opportunity for personal growth. Perfectionists are so caught up in their rigid way of approaching tasks, that they are unwilling to take risks like healthy achievers. And there is no evidence that perfectionists are more successful than the healthier high achiever types. They are generally unhappier, more lonely and often insufferable personalities. They can be tedious and self-righteous, rigid and stuffy. Not the losers they think they are, just not a whole lot of fun to be around.

What’s to be done?

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect
and beginning the work of becoming yourself.”
~ Anna Quindlen

A good start is the realization that perfectionism is undesirable, and a fantasy that cannot be attained. It’s not the same as doing your best (though it may feel like they’re the same). It’s accepting yourself and forgiving yourself. It’s setting reasonable and realistic goals and generally enjoying the ride. It’s the recognition that sometimes good enough is good enough. Spending hours doing and redoing a task to make it perfect impinges on the rest of your life. It’s learning to be flexible, and letting go of your formerly iron-clad rules of “the way things are supposed to be.” It’s giving up the endless self-evaluation. It’s understanding that if people love you, they will love even when you’re less than perfect. It’s embracing the idea that part of being human is to make mistakes, to have weaknesses, and to be, well, imperfect. And that it is acceptable to be human. This is not easy. Most likely you’ve been this way for a long, long time. And you’re probably pretty sick of it, and haven’t been able to do much about it on your own. That’s why you’re reading this. If that’s the case, you can try therapy. Therapy can work.

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