We all say, “No one’s perfect!” But there is a subset of people who frankly strive to be and can seem pretty close.
We are born as perfect as we will ever be: untainted, un-programmed, and un-manipulated. But soon thereafter, our well-intentioned parents may begin “fulfilling their dreams” through us, consciously and unconsciously. The dreams for their children hopefully will be translated into shaping behaviors that turn boys into successful men and girls into successful women through the lens of their parental dreams. And if one child begins to show talents or above average intelligence, the molding and shaping behaviors increase to ensure that this child becomes the “very best he/she can be.” Being “In the Sunshine of Their Love” becomes a very well-tuned everyday project for both parent and child. The more our children succeed, the more warmth and praise; the more warmth and praise, the more they succeed. And so a perfectionist is born.
Another route to perfectionism comes through parents who, no matter how hard children try, constantly find fault with them. Children are held to impossible standards and, as a consequence, have an underlying feeling of “not good enough,” no matter how well they do.
In both cases, parents have been reacting to their children’s performance, not to their children’s human individuality. The result is that these children grow up to believe that their performance is what determines their worth and lovability. They are trained to see what’s not perfect – in themselves (even though they may not admit it), and in others, which can be especially infuriating and off-putting to family, friends, and colleagues. They may also be risk averse, fearing failure and therefore attempting only those things at which they are immediately good. They can be seen as good at everything they try because they only try things at which they’re good.
Gifted or Perfect
Overall, these parents have raised well-behaved children who perform well in school and become the best at whatever extracurricular activities have been chosen to complete the dream, possibly in line with the children’s gifts … or not. To what extent we as parents take into account our children’s interests, our children will develop as individuals, while still perfectionistic.
Add in sibling rivalry with less competent, talented, or attractive siblings and the reinforcement to be perfect continues: pats on the back, admiring glances, approval. Schools with grading systems and honor rolls, sports with competitions and awards, and beauty-based pageant awards complete the perfectionism trifecta. The message is, “You’re different, better, than the others.”
What’s so bad about being really good at everything, being more attractive than most peers? It’s hard to find fault with success when there are so many reasons and rewards to reinforce the behaviors. Money, success, higher education and more money, is, after all, every parent’s dream for their talented child.
Bumps and Bruises
But along the path to the perfect life are very few bumps and bruises – bumps and bruises that are marvelous teachers. These bumps and bruises teach that others are not as talented or as smart and struggle mightily at times to achieve lesser results. They teach respect and appreciation for more than achievement and tolerance for and the ability to recognize the talents of less successful peers.
And Then There were Two
In relationships, any relationships, the perfectionist often struggles to appreciate efforts of others who are less talented, less creative, less driven, or less smart. The judgment wheels turn and rarely can a partner/friend/colleague measure up to the standards, expectations, and needs of the perfectionist. Sadly, having learned little tolerance for or appreciation of “less than,” conflicts can often erupt over inadequate performance or responses that don’t meet expectations. There is an unequal balance of power and relationships frequently fail.
The perfectionist, however, often insulated from the need for and never developing the ability for introspection or humility, will cast blame on the lesser partner finding the fault in their weaknesses or lower performance standards.
Perfectionists also can be myopic about what “perfect” is. For example, although they may wonderful at scrapbooking, remembering everyone’s birthday, and interior decorating, they may not be good at other things – like apologizing or comforting the injured – if those were things at which they didn’t excel and therefore never practiced. When they work as hard as they can on their strengths and the relationship falls apart because they don’t have relationship skills, for instance, this reinforces their deeply-held belief that they’re not good enough. They may then attend to even smaller details in their preferred activities, thereby narrowing rather than expanding their focus.
The Early Answer
The answers begin in the cradle with flexible and child-sensitive standards and goals. Recognizing children for the unique individuals they are rather than just their accomplishments is central. Teaching humility and appreciation for skills and abilities of others over individual accomplishment does not diminish a child’s talents and chances for success. Learning empathy, the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, produces the ability to attach and connect on deeper levels, creating the possibility for satisfying relationships regardless of ability level. And most of all, modeling all of the above in the relationships that children see every day can create the balance so necessary for future partnering and coupling.
After the Fact Answer
Perfectionism is the double-edged sword of high achievement driven to the point of missing out on the joys of life. The inevitable disappointment of not finding the “perfect” partner in this world, the reality of painful and costly unacknowledged mistakes may sometimes bring the perfectionist to reckon with the faulty thinking loaded with land mines taught and reinforced over a lifetime. Careful consideration of the learned and reinforced belief of the way “it or someone should be” can open the door to vulnerability and possible real connection but the risk/fear of “being wrong” might scuttle attempts. “Should” is the key word profoundly at the base of perfectionism. Simply changing “should” to “would like” will soften the expectation and provide the opportunity to examine the thought behind it, springing open the door to the prison of perfectionistic thinking.
Lesley S. Cunningham is a therapist with The Labyrinth Institute specializing in relationships and attachment issues. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 720-509-9832.