Updated: Jul 8, 2021
A 44-year-old man was prodded to come to therapy by his wife after she had noticed an increase in anxiety, irritability and angry outbursts in him over the smallest of issues at home and work.
He appeared mildly annoyed at the prospect of meeting a therapist and dismissively talked of how people don’t focus on achieving their goals whilst using mental and emotional reasons for accepting less than a perfect life. He quoted the screen icons and their rags to riches stories, pattered quotes from the Wolf of Wall Street, spoke of the brilliant trajectory of his career, the frequent overseas holidays, the children, the wife, the dog and the fat monthly instalments towards the house loan. His eyes, especially widened when he proudly shared how he packs in a punch even with just 5 hours of sleep every night.
Then we spoke of migraines. The eczema. The hostility he has towards himself when he makes a small error. How angry he gets when his family doesn’t follow the best practices he insists on. How he goes over an email ten times checking for synonyms of the words that can replace the ones he used. How he evaluates all his conversations he has with anyone at a party. How he never touches the door knobs of his office bathrooms. How he never can be seen travelling in public transport. How he has not touched gluten in 6 years in fear of triggering an IBS he has never been clinically diagnosed with. How he must travel to 156 countries before he turns 50. How he should never ever be seen in the midst of a marital discord by his friends. How social media must curate his wonderful life for others to savour. How he must at all times be working towards perfect outcomes with a diligent plan
A conversation laced with Shoulds, musts, ifs and thens.
I am always cautious of throwing diagnostic labels during the therapy process but it’s easy to see how Clinical Anxiety can cover the presenting Cognitive Symptoms and Behaviours. But that isn’t the point. It is what may have contributed to this constant state of high alertness, measured- to- fit responsiveness, the incessant cycle of worrying, predictive analysis of all life plans, the chronic avoidance of spontaneous acts, the debilitating fear of failure and most importantly the overarching need for everything to be perfect.
At its root, Perfectionism isn’t really about a deep love of being meticulous, scrupulous or an achiever.
Perfectionism doesn’t make you feel accomplished, it makes you feel inadequate.
We all have been repeatedly told, through our growing years, the merit of being the best in whatever we chose to do. If we didn’t, the disapproval from the environment came through in words and phrases such as, “next time aim for the best”, “look, how perfect they are”, “nothing else but the best”! As an adult, I don’t recall having wished anyone a ‘good enough’ day, life or success. It’s sneaky -this need for perfection! I meet parents that take away privileges from the child over a B grade in school, teenagers with a deep cut in pocket money when they aren’t able to crack the competitive exams like the others. Employees that are anguished by their micromanaging bosses, managers that don’t make quick team decisions, employees that procrastinate to escape the feared outcome. There is also the enticing world of likes, loves, check-ins and shares -social media pushes the same narrative with its carefully constructed, wondrous glimpse into other people’s lives.
Over the years, we are innately mentalized to put our ideals and goals on a lofty pedestal. Everything else, anything less is correlated to mediocrity, failure and absence of any worthwhile pursuit.
But in all its hyperbolic complexity, it is easy to forget how Perfectionism is actually about ‘fear’- fear of making a mistake, of disapproval, of disappointing others, of rejection, of unbelonging, of missing out, of failure, of embodying the failure, and of even measuring success.
Clients with perfectionism as their schema have spent agonising years in behaviour rechecking, redoing tasks, procrastinating, being triggered over minutest of details, resenting self and others over mistakes, ruminating, battling depressive thoughts over setbacks, obsessing over lists and exhausting the life force within them over setting perfect processes to avoid failures.
To most of us working in the vast field of Psychology, Perfectionism is a dysfunction – an outcome of distortions in thinking, fuelled by our beliefs and unhealthy coping mechanisms.
In a mild form, it is a risk factor for mental health. In augmentation, it is a form of self-abuse.
It makes you overlook self-care, self-compassion and mindfulness that one needs to thrive.
Maladaptive perfectionism is associated with anxiety disorders, mood affective dysfunctions, eating disorders, body dysmorphia, obsessive compulsive behaviours, erectile dysfunction, procrastination, catastrophic thinking during life’s adversities, probability overestimation and even considered a risk factor suicide assessment.
Here’s an unpopular opinion from a mental health professional that sees enough "successful” people with mood affective and anxiety disorders -
Do good enough.
Add lots of good enoughs.
Forget Positive. Think flexible.
Throw away the books on The Secret, Kondo or whatever sells by preying on our needs for perfection.
Oh, and don’t get me wrong, I am pro success, pro excellence and pro passion. I am in equal measure pro failure, pro set- backs too BUT biasedly and extremely pro -the subtle art of good enoughs.