When I was reminiscing with a friend recently, she began to share her experience with perfectionism and the damage she felt it did to her health, self-esteem, and productivity. “Perfectionism is self-abuse of the highest order,” writes Anne Wilson Schaef, internationally known author and speaker. My friend, I will call her Deirdre, can attest to that self-abuse. Her story, I believe, is not an uncommon one and worthy of sharing so that others inclined to be perfectionists can be helped.
As a youngster, she learned that to please authority, she had to try hard to be “good.” That meant to be obedient, kind to others in thought, word, and deed –a pretty tall order for a child. She received a double and contradictory message: authority was to be obeyed no matter what and yet that same authority was loving. But she felt that to know and be accepted by a loving authority she had literally to be faultless. It never occurred to her ask her parents or brothers and sisters about this. She thought they believed the same thing. So the need to be perfect was more than a need for her, it was a command. She felt guilty over the slightest matters. That guilt grew gradually into a state of anxiety. And she interpreted that anxiety as evidence of her lack of worth!
While she did very well in school and felt good about that, she felt that in the scheme of things that mattered little if she continued to indulge in peccadilloes. But no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t quite rid herself of the stain of not being good enough. So while others praised her for her accomplishments, her self- esteem got lower and lower because she knew who she really was – an imperfect, very imperfect person, someone who could never measure up. She was besieged with headaches. She thought she could get rid of those headaches through sheer mental effort. As a result, she became quite ill to the point of being unable to function normally except through a huge expenditure of physical and mental energy.
Finally, she saw a doctor who saw nothing wrong with her physically and then gave her pills to take care of the anxiety and constant headaches.
This became a turning point. She lost faith in authority. She no longer was concerned about being “perfect” as she thought she should. Her primary focus became to get rid of the headaches and to FEEL good.
She read and studied everything available about her condition. She realized too late, it turns out, that her problems were due to an addiction to perfectionism. She understood that she was cursed, she thought, with a super sensitive psyche. That was why her brothers and sisters seemed to roll through life without headaches and this drive to be perfect. They seemed to enjoy life; they just did not take the demands/commands of those in authority so seriously and wondered why she did.
Deirdre now lives a life forever marked by the insidious effects of the self-abuse which is addiction to perfectionism. In one way, she came to see that recognition of her addiction lead her to view it both as a blessing and a curse as it helped her to develop deep-seated compassion for others, to recognize how dangerous it is to feel compelled as a sensitive child to live a life dictated by unbending rules. Even now she is often tempted, she says, to go to the other extreme and throw out all rules and regulations. Her prayer is that of G.K. Chesterton: Teach me to care and not to care. Teach me to sit still.