Are you experiencing difficulties related to having a perfectionistic personality?
Do you hold yourself and others to unrealistically high standards?
Do you tend to criticize yourself often?
Do you experience self-imposed pressure to achieve great things, and great disappointment when you fall even slightly short of your goal?
Do you feel anxiety over less than perfect performance?
Is your relentless pursuit of perfection causing you emotional and interpersonal problems?
If you answered yes to many of these questions, you may be suffering from an emotional condition called perfectionism. The good news is, overcoming perfectionism is possible with psychotherapy in NYC with a wise, empathetic therapist.
How do we define perfectionist?
A perfectionism disorder is when someone who due to certain stressors experienced in his or her lifetime, feels poorly about himself, that is he is experiencing low self-esteem, and in an attempt to fix that problem and raise his self-esteem he figures, “If I can just do things amazingly, and achieve superior, near perfect performance, then I will feel good about myself.” In other words he tries to achieve perfect performance as a way to redeem himself from his low self-value. He reasons, “If I achieve great or near perfect things, I will certainly have value and feel good about myself.” However since perfect performance is practically impossible, he never seems to achieve his goal, and is frustrated and remains in his state of low self-esteem. Even when he does perform well, he tends to find many things to criticize about himself and is never satisfied. In addition perfectionists tend to be very critical of others, which creates interpersonal problems.
Perfectionism often generates psycho-somatic disorders, such as back pain, fibromyalgia, sciatica and many others.
In addition, pursuit of perfection can create much anxiety, as the person is constantly under so much self-imposed pressure to achieve, and since perfection is so unlikely, he is always in great fear of failure.
Perfectionists find it very difficult to enjoy everyday life, as they constantly criticize themselves for less than perfect performance, never allowing them to be pleased with themselves. They tend to think, “With such poor, imperfect performance, I don’t deserve to enjoy things.”
One perfectionist I had was a wine stewardess in an upscale restaurant,
her job was to pick out just the perfect wine to go with the dish. Her boss told her, “I never have to criticize or correct the work that you do, you always criticize yourself so harshly before I ever get a chance.” She would constantly hit herself over the head if the customer didn’t give her only the most glowing reports of her choice of wine. If the customer left half a bottle undrunk, she would cite this as evidence of her terrible choice of wine and feel intense shame. She felt great anxiety when choosing wines and agonized over every decision. She had the idea in her head that she must be absolutely the best in her business, otherwise she was completely worthless and a failure. She cut herself absolutely no slack.
How to treat perfectionism in psychotherapy?
There are two paths, on is changing unhealthy perfectionistic thought patterns, the other is going into the past and healing from past traumas.
Changing your thoughts.
Perfectionists have strong beliefs that only perfection is worthwhile, less than perfect is unacceptable, and that he needs to achieve great things to earn his right to exist. These will all be challenged in psychotherapy by bathing them in the light of reason. Is anyone who is less than perfect really worthless? That would invalidate 99 percent of the world, is it really true? Do I deserve as a person to feel so terrible about myself? Wasn’t I born a normal decent person like everyone else who deserves to feel positive about himself? The most important thought pattern that the perfectionist will strive to adopt in therapy is an appreciation of the mundane, satisfaction with the average and even a celebration of the mediocre! You see, 99 percent of life and people’s achievement is in the range of the mundane, average and mediocre, and it was meant to be that way! A mundane, ordinary life is actually the beautiful one, and is the true path to happiness. Some perfectionists after time in therapy, report such tremendous relief at being able to relax and simple be an average, decent person, it is so liberating! It is such a joy to be happy and content with ordinary performance, it puts you in the company of almost everyone else! It is so helpful to realize that there is no shame in achieving less than perfect, that there is even a sublime beauty in living a decent, mundane life.
It takes time in psychotherapy to assimilate these ideas, it must be done gradually.
Perfectionists are often reluctant to abandon the pursuit of perfection, as they may reason, doesn’t everyone know that high achievement is a good thing? However the point is, that emotional health is much more important than high achievement! Sanity is the highest value, and achievement accompanied by self-criticism, undue self-imposed pressure and anxiety is no virtue.
How do we distinguish between perfectionist tendencies and the healthy pursuit of achievement?
A healthy person may strive for perfection, but when he inevitably at times falls short he is in no way disappointed. He appreciates and values himself for his sincere efforts, even if they only resulted in mediocre output. He is in no way shamed or self-critical for a less than perfect accomplishment, he goes easy on himself. But a perfectionist sees a failure as a shameful and humiliating defeat. He is endlessly self-critical and harsh on himself. The good news is, that after some time in therapy a former perfectionist is able to return and pursue excellence in a healthy way, however in order to get there, he must first for some time give up the pursuit of superior performance, and shoot for only decent performance at the highest. He must literally hope and only try for average. This will break his perfectionistic habits.
What causes a perfectionistic personality?
Perfectionism is caused by the patient having been mistreated by others in the past, particularly by being chronically criticized, put down, or emotionally neglected, especially in childhood. Such a mistreated child adopts the fantasy of, “I will do everything great. I will be a perfect person. Then they won’t be able to criticize me anymore. I will do so good that I will be a worthy person beyond any reasonable doubt.” Such thought patterns last through adulthood. The solution here is to truly understand the mechanism through which his perfectionistic habits were generated. It is a normal reaction to being mistreated in childhood. It is the child’s desperate attempt to save his self-esteem. In therapy, he must understand that perfectionism is truly maladaptive, unhealthy, and unhelpful. Then he can begin to heal and restructure his thoughts. I have seen perfectionists after a time in therapy exclaim, “Trying to be perfect is so silly! How could I ever get that idea into my head!”
In addition the patient will need to mourn and grieve his childhood trauma.
Being criticized or mistreated when young is a terrible trauma, and as long as that trauma is unmourned, it will constantly shock the patient anew, driving him to seek a perfectionistic solution. Mourning and grieving is the psychological process through which he integrates an awareness of the past trauma into his everyday waking consciousness. He must become as aware of the fact that, “I was harshly criticized and mistreated in childhood,” as he is aware of the fact that, “I live in New York,” and “I am married.” Then the trauma will be totally processed and put into the past, where is will never drive perfectionistic tendencies anymore.
In addition, anytime someone is mistreated, he will feel anger. Therefore the patient will need to express and gain conscious awareness of his anger towards those that mistreated him. This will allow him to truly process and overcome the trauma, so it no longer leads to perfectionistic desires.
All of this involves gaining a conscious awareness of his emotional life, one of the critical steps in psychotherapy.
Then the patient should do some journaling as follows.
He or she should write down 2 good things that he did each day. Not grandiose or amazing accomplishments, but simple positive acts in personal growth and healthy emotional attitudes such as, “I called a friend and cheered her up today,” and “I performed an act of kindness for my child,” and “I was gentle and forgiving towards myself.” At the end of the month he will have 60 good things in the journal and he should review them in therapy, thinking, “Look at all the mundane, ordinary, good things I did! Don’t I deserve to feel good about myself? I don’t need amazing accomplishments to feel good!” In this way his self-esteem will gradually be raised and he will therefore no longer feel the need for perfectionism.
Never despair of achieving improvement with this great work, it has healed many people!
But you may still have concerns about perfectionism treatment through psychotherapy…
Therapy is expensive, and I’m not sure it’s worth the money…
Emotional issues like perfectionism tend to be progressive, that is they get worse over time, not better. Dealing with the problem now is an early intervention, whereby you will nip it in the bud and prevent it from getting worse. It may require a year of therapy now but if you wait 10 years, 2-3 years of therapy will be required.
I’m afraid to give up my dreams of amazing achievement…
The most truly amazing achievement that a person must accomplish above all others is emotional health! All other achievements are worthless if you are not well. Ironically, once you treat and resolve your perfectionism, it frees you up to pursue realistic, moderate but deeply fulfilling achievements in a healthy, balanced way.
I’m afraid to look so deeply into my past, I’m afraid of what I will find…
Psychotherapy is like taking out a splinter, initially it hurts more to take it out and you would rather just tolerate the pain of leaving it in. But if you can grit your teeth and take it out, such incredible relief will follow! Therapy is not easy and it takes bravery. But the intense, joy, relief and satisfaction it achieves is so worth the effort!
I have been working with perfectionists for years. I have the wisdom, patience and especially the kind heart to help you overcome your issues and find relief. It is my greatest joy to help a person in need!
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, and the rest of my website. If you are struggling with how to stop being a perfectionist, and would like guidance or treatment from a NYC psychotherapist, you may chat with me here in the chat box, or call me directly at 646-681-1707 for a complementary 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!