09 Aug 2018

100% is not enough -- life as a perfectionist

Like hamsters on a wheel, perfectionists run as fast as they can but they never reach the finish line. All they do is wear themselves out. 

Wysokie Obcasy
Agnieszka Jucewicz Wysokie Obcasy, Global
100% is not enough -- life as a perfectionist - NewsMavens
Measuring Tape, PixaBay

The following are fragments from Agnieszka Jucewicz's interview with Wojciech Eichelberger which originally appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in July 2018.

AJ: It’s never good enough.

Wojciech Eichelberger: It can always be better!

AJ: Do you often meet people suffering from perfectionism in your practice?

I do, although they usually attend my coaching sessions, not therapy, and unfortunately their number keeps increasing.

AJ: So they show up and say: “Hi, I’m a perfectionist. Can you help me?”

Of course not. They complain about fatigue and professional burnout. They tell me stories about exhaustion, self-exploitation and notorious negligence of their relationships with partners, kids or parents. When we begin to take a closer look at their lives, we come to the conclusion that the main source of their problems is nothing else but perfectionism.

AJ: What is perfectionism?

The unfulfilled need to do everything flawlessly. It can refer to different spheres of life, but most often it relates to work. A person suffering from perfectionism is convinced that they could have completed every task in a finer way: given a better presentation, written a better report, read more articles, and spent more time on preparation, etc. It never ends.

 AJ: They’re never pleased with themselves?

Never. Their parents were never pleased with their children’s achievements either and they surely didn’t hesitate to show it: “You should have tried harder”, or “You could have done it better!” It’s an extremely difficult situation for a child due to their natural craving for a close connection with parents -- for their acceptance, affection and support. If parents use emotional blackmail: “We will love you, spend time with you and value you as a person, only if you meet our requirements concerning your educational results, household chores and lifestyle” -- they leave their son or daughter with no choice. Until they turn 15 or 16, most children are not strong or self-reliant enough to risk their parents’ rejection, so they strive to fulfil even the highest expectations. 

 AJ: How do adult perfectionists respond to compliments? Let’s say, someone at their workplace comes up and says: "You did a great job!"

They don’t take praise seriously and often secretly lose respect for people who applaud their achievements, seeing them as easily impressed amateurs with low standards. Their self-criticism is equally severe -- they persistently blame themselves for not putting enough effort into their tasks and constantly strive for better results: “If only I had stayed up a few nights more, my performance would have been better. Next time I won’t sleep at all!”

AJ: What do bosses think about perfectionist employees?

At the beginning every employer is delighted with the “perfect” worker: conscientious, diligent and dependable. Perfectionists not only never refuse additional tasks but they strive to complete each of them impeccably, more often than not, at the expense of their health, time and family life.

AJ: They don’t really look after themselves, do they?

They don’t even realize that they’re entitled to do so.

Although it also depends on the type of perfectionism. The obsession could be directed at one’s physical appearance: their figure, weight and fitness.

Nevertheless, that desire for a perfect physique usually has nothing to do with health awareness, and it often leads to eating disorders, injuries or permanent health damage.

AJ: How do perfectionists react to failures?

Terribly. Perfectionism itself is driven by the fear of failure. Every blunder in their childhood resulted in their parents’ rejection, exclusion and loneliness, so they treat every minor fiasco as a disaster and try to avoid them at all costs. We also need to remember what “failure” means for a perfectionist. It’s not a plan that didn’t "work out", but rather every task that has not been completed impeccably. For them, scoring 100% is not an accomplishment, but a failure. Perfectionists don’t need supervisors breathing down their neck because they already apply their own excessive standards to every single assignment.

AJ: What are perfectionists truly fighting for?

For love. But it’s unattainable -- they will never receive that unconditional love they craved as children.

AJ: So they’re chasing something they’ll never get?

Definitely something that’s constantly drifting away. Perfectionists live in a permanent, frustrating  race. Like a hamster on a wheel -- they run as fast as they can but they never get to the finish line. All that happens is that they wear themselves out along the way, both physically and psychologically. That’s the moment perfectionists come to see me [not to solve their perfectionism], but rather to find out why they’re feeling so dreadful and to regain their strength for their further pursuit of perfection.

Perfectionism preys on the human organism on a physiological, emotional and existential level. It's outcome will be catastrophic -- it’s inevitable.

AJ: Paul Hewitt, an American psychologist specialising in the subject, claims that perfectionism is not a way of thinking about yourself and the world but a way of being.

Absolutely. It’s a way of living.

AJ: Why do perfectionists isolate themselves from people? Do they find relationships too time-consuming?

That’s the first reason. Secondly, perfectionists don’t enjoy spending time among people who seem to be wasting their own time and neglecting their duties. Instead of chatting and sipping tea or wine, these people should do something constructive or getting back to work. And if their job is finished, they could surely check it again and make some improvements!

AJ: They see other people as lazy slobs?

Precisely. They find most people incredibly irritating and only tolerate the company of those with equally high standards.

AJ: Do they look down on non-perfectionists?

Undoubtedly! They have a strong and unjustified sense of superiority, which stems from their own obsession. Another reason for perfectionists’ uneasiness with other people lies with the unpredictability of social interactions. Relations with people can’t be controlled; they’re highly changeable, full of surprises and unexpected failures. It’s more than enough to make them unbearable for every perfectionist. 

AJ: Are there any benefits to being a perfectionist?

None. And that’s the saddest part. Perfectionists might feed on little scraps of praise and flattery on the way, but the bottom line is: they will never feel fully satisfied. The excellence they long for simply cannot be achieved.

AJ: Does a perfectionist’s ambition, determination and constant self-improvement translate into expertise in a profession?

On the contrary. Despite their enormous effort, perfectionists usually restrain themselves to a small area of competence. They can spend their whole lives moving within their comfort zone, where they feel confident, relatively self-assured and safe from any unforeseen incidents and potential failures.

AJ: They don’t risk.

And they don’t move forward. Perfectionism is the enemy of development.

AJ: Is there an escape from perfectionism?

Escape lies in the entire changing of one’s mindset and self-acceptance. Normally, I start a perfectionist’s “treatment” by going back to the root of the problem and redefining their relationship with their parents. I try to make a patient aware that the obsession he or she struggles with arises from their parents’ unrealistic expectations, and that the manipulation parents used on the patient (either deliberately or unintentionally) was unjust and inappropriate.

Once that’s established, we can concentrate on the critic inside the perfectionist’s head. The patient has to understand that the nagging voice they hear every day: “It’s not enough, you should try harder!” doesn’t really belong to them. As soon as they realize that, and start separating themselves from the bogus enemy inside them, we can move our therapy to the next step.

AJ: What’s the next step?

Accepting and addressing one’s true needs, which up until now have been buried deep inside and neglected. For many perfectionists, it’s incredibly painful to realize that they have to replace former, seemingly important, concerns with brand new priorities and habits. It’s a long and laborious process which doesn’t happen overnight. Ironically, we can use a patient’s perfectionism to make the transformation a bit less distressing.

AJ: How?

By saying things such as "Right, why don’t we try to perfectly rearrange your life routine to include all the key requirements you’ve just become aware of. We can start with a draft of your week or month schedule, and make time for fun, relaxation and hobbies" -- the activities seen by perfectionists as completely pointless. At the beginning, patients feel uncomfortable and ashamed. Then, they start feeling guilty, and the old critic inside them is back and crying out: “What am I doing?”, “Pleasure, leisure, fun?”, “If mother could see me now she would kick me out of the house”, and “I’m such a slacker”.

AJ: How can they defeat this voice?

Once again, they have to try and isolate themselves from this critical voice, remembering that it’s not them speaking, it’s just their fear of failure in disguise. It’s a crucial stage of treatment -- they need to dismiss the negativity and replace it with their genuine thoughts and feelings. 

AJ: What’s the reward for their hard work?

The fact that they can finally see their perfectionism for what it is: a powerful, self-destructive mechanism which needs to be treated just like any other form of addiction. The prize is also a regained sensitivity, a new life perspective and a deeper awareness of one’s (no longer exploited) body. A fresh, previously unknown feeling of satisfaction comes into the picture, too.

And that growing satisfaction throws light on the perfectionist’s old routine, exposing its obvious destructiveness and making it even easier to reject.

AJ: At the very beginning you mentioned that the number of perfectionists is constantly increasing. Does something about our culture create these types of people?

It’s probably the main reason. We live in a superficial, highly narcissistic society, revolving around pretence and reputation. It doesn’t matter who we really are. All that counts is what we look like and what impression we make on others. We fill the Internet with photos from the gym, popular restaurants and exotic holidays; brag about new cars or a house we’ve recently bought.

Social media generates a modern population of self-obsessed narcissists and creates a breeding ground for perfectionism. Both disorders are rooted in the same lack of stable self-esteem. The only difference is that people with a narcissistic personality truly believe that the facade they present to the world is flawless and extraordinary; perfectionists, on the other hand, don’t. They feel worthless and permanently disappointed with themselves. They are empty on the inside and on the outside.

AJ: Surely it's not because they compare themselves to other people?

You’re right, they don’t need to. Every perfectionist is their own judge, jury and executioner. They constantly try to outrun themselves and no matter how many races and rewards they’ve won, they credit every achievement to their rivals’ indisposition and still see each of their victories as a failure.

AJ: Can you think of any preventative measures against perfectionism?

Positive role models, conscious parenting, healthy upbringing -- that’s the main area of prevention. There are no shortcuts or magic solutions. Children start along the path of perfectionism because they try to please their parents, be accepted at school and appreciated by their colleagues and friends. Time, attention, love and joy -- these are the preventative measures I would recommend.


Wojciech Eichelberger is a psychologist, psychotherapist, and author of books (including "Betrayed by father", "Women without guilt and shame", "Male too man") and columns. He is the co-founder and director of the Institute of Psychoimmunology in Warsaw. In training and therapy, he refers to the concept of integral therapy, which in addition to the psyche takes into account the body, energy and spirituality of a human being

--Translated from Polish by Martyna Kardach

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