Thursday, July 25, 2019

Perfectionism as Addiction

Perfection develops as an adaptation or a survival strategy for a number of different reasons. The most common one is to compensate for a sense of inadequacy and not being good enough, and over functioning to meet external standards is one way to offset those feelings of inadequacy

Deany Laliotis, LICSW in the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine course Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards

Perfectionism is a double-edged sword.

On the one hand: it drives our pursuit of excellence, motivates us towards quality, and provides tangible rewards from the outside world.

On the other hand: it feeds the sense that we will NEVER be enough, triggers shame, tips our life out of balance, and sucks the joy out of creating and out of our real accomplishments.

Complicating matters, we are bombarded with messages that if we just “do more – better” that we will be OK.

Perfectionism provides feelings of control.

If I just do this “more perfectly” – it will all be OK.

Then, the goalposts move.

There is no such thing as “more perfectly.”

The therapists ask “When is the amount of effort you are expending no longer providing return on investment?”

How much is “enough?”

Is that last 5% (when you are already working at 110%) going to really give you 115% of results? Or 100%? Or is it even going to move you backwards?

Will anyone really notice?

Or…will they continue to feed the shame of “not good enough?”


I have found that there is a vicious cycle at work here. One that mirrors addiction.

You do something with high quality in a tight timeline.

Your internal reward is a feeling of accomplishment, pride, and control.

You are externally rewarded – with a demand for higher quality and a tighter timeline.

You feel needed. Confident. Competent.

For awhile, it works.

You feel accomplished. People around you are happy. You are rewarded with more challenging assignments with higher quality demands in a tighter timeline.

Somewhere along the way, things tip.

Now you are chasing the “high” of acceptance and control.

But it takes more and more to get there.

Suddenly, all you are doing is seeking the next “hit.”

But there is no joy.

No joy in the accomplishment and no joy in the process.

Instead of getting the return on investment, you are moving backwards. Relationships deteriorate. Life goes downhill.

The problem comes when people set standards without ever evaluating, “is this standard the least bit reality-based?” And until they evolve a discrimination strategy. So, I don’t have any difficulty with somebody setting high standards that are attainable, achievable. The rub comes when it’s painful, when it’s self-restrictive, is when people set standards for themselves that they can’t possibly live up to, and they have no idea that they’ve set an unrealistic standard for themselves.

Michael Yapko, PhD in Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards

How realistic are your standards?

What are the rewards you are expecting? Is that realistic?

What are the true costs? Are the rewards worth the cost?

Chances are, you will never meet your own standards.

You might not even meet anyone else’s standards.

That’s OK.

Find someone to help you with discernment.

Someone who can show you whether your standards (and the expectation of others) are realistic.

Someone who can show you the true relationship between cost and reward.

The quality of your life depends on it.


Resources: (all links are Amazon Affiliate Links unless otherwise noted)

Perfectionism’s Cost: Helping Clients See the Hidden Damage Under the Rewards (non-affiliate): This CE/CPU course provides a therapist’s view of perfectionism and how it goes wildly astray. The online course also provides insight into ways to address raging perfectionism in patients.

Psychology Today: Are You Addicted to Perfection? (blog post): Insight into how shame may tip the scales from the pursuit of excellence into personally destructive perfectionism.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Brene Brown’s 2010 reflection on perfectionism, shame, and the challenge of being human. Many of her examples focus on family and relationships – where much perfectionism and “over-functioning” starts.

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