Mawi AsgedomChicago, ILJune 30, 2010
When most of us think of perfectionists, we think of people who have all their clothes folded perfectly; who chastise themselves if they don't have a 4.0; who must look perfect in every situation.
But did you know that it's common for someone who's messy, laid-back, and by all outward appearances, the antithesis of a perfectionist, to still be a world-class perfectionist? The scary thing is that these perfectionist tendencies occur subconsciously and can:
* Suppress the victim's true personality.
* Result in the victim judging themselves and others harshly.
* Alienate the victim from those they love most.
Sound horrible? Fear not, after reading this article, you'll know how to recognize closet perfectionism and you'll even learn a few tips for dealing with it.
Here's how it works. First, let's all recognize that for the most part, we live in a this-for-that world. If you get an 85% on your math test, you get a B. If your team gets first place in softball, you get a trophy. If you punch a cop in the face, you go to jail.
This action-reward system anchors most societal institutions: school, religious centers, and of course, families. Most of us would agree that it's necessary to have some type of system like this, just for society to function orderly.
Now imagine a young person consciously or subconsciously interpreting the above tit-for-tat system to mean: "When I do things correctly and get higher results, then I am more loved and more worthy. When I do things wrong and get lesser results, then I am worth less and loved less."
Consider the parent who loves their child, but unknowingly only communicates that love when the child has performed well. That child will probably believe: "I need to perform well, or my parent will not love me." Extrapolated: "In life in general, I need to perform well to be worth anything."
In the coming years, this young person will likely gain most of their self-worth from how they perform. When they don't perform as well as they believe they should have, they punish themselves in their heads with punishments far greater than any doled out by parents or society. Even when that young person performs well, that young person believes they have to keep performing at that level or people won't love them anymore, so they go berserk, and push themselves even harder. It continues for many people through adulthood, for the rest of their lives.
Now here are a few side effects: since they need to perform at a high level, and everything must be great in their lives, performance-driven perfectionists tend to be very controlling of those closest to them, both in their personal and professional lives. Why? Because if those closest to them don't perform well, it will reflect on their own performance, and as we established earlier, their own performance MUST be at a high level.
A second side effect is that performance-driven perfectionists tend to alienate others in the following ways: 1) they use the same lens of intense scrutiny they have for themselves and apply it to others, so those they are with can never be perfect enough, and hence, are not worthy of being loved. 2) their own drive for performance takes up so much space in their own lives that there's very little left over for genuine, deep, interactions with others. 3) their controlling behavior drives others away.
As a result, performance-driven perfectionists 1) rarely consider themselves successful no matter what they accomplish 2) judge themselves so harshly when they fail that they often shut down or spiral into apathetic destructive behavior 3) desperately want to be loved, but prevents this through their own actions 4) and sadly, rarely understand the vicious cycle that binds them.
How do we combat this vicious cycle of performance- driven perfectionism? Awareness is the first step. That is why I have written about it. Other solutions include conscious commitments to not judging others/oneself as harshly, and a commitment to exploring the deep roots of the perfectionism and coming to terms with it. You should also make a conscious effort to RELAX. You are much more than your level of performance.
Obviously, this is a lot to think about so I won't write anymore. But if this does strike a nerve with you, share this article with those closest to you and ask them if they feel like you might be a performance-driven perfectionist. If everyone says yes, you will have gained awareness and as I said earlier, awareness is the first step to freedom.