Needing to be Perfect

perfectThe need to be perfect is one of the “dangerous ideas” that can destroy a life. It often comes from the fear of abandonment that all of us have, and which can be easily activated in childhood by a mismatch in personality with one’s parent.

A wonderful, smart, attractive, funny, energetic woman talked with us about her experience of this. It all began with parents who were absolutely focused on wanting her to be successful, and who, in their unrestrained preoccupation with that idea, went well over the top in terms of their criticism of her “failures.”

This created so much fear in her that she became consumed with the thought that she needed to be perfect in order to be lovable.

Internally she began to experience an intense alternation between the feeling that she might actually achieve the goal (associated with a sense of almost euphoria, lasting for a few minutes) and the sense of despair that she was completely worthless as a person (with hours of vicious self-castigation).

This unregulated internal turmoil also manifested in several self destructive behaviors. Most particularly in her relationship with food. Since for her, as for many of us, food was a substitute for love, she tried to create an internal sense of security by eating, and began to binge eat. This was of course shameful, and was associated with an intense fear of being discovered. And when she did gain weight it activated her parent’s criticism. So she began to experience the same alternation between the feeling of euphoria associated with severe diets and, briefly, with her binges, and long periods of shame about her need to eat.

Her hungers became unregulated: food had very little to do with physical needs, it was all about emotional needs, with the result that she ended up not knowing when she was really hungry.

All of this behavior might conceivably have made some sense when she was young, but that now her fears were really completely unrealistic. Even when she was binging heavily she remained a very attractive and lovable woman. Except that she was so self critical that she hid that aspect of herself.

The process of unlearning these lessons begins with the repeated recognition that the fears are no longer valid.

In the course of writing down these thoughts we ran across some quotes from the Daily Celebrations website that reminded us that these issues are ones that many, many of us have had to deal with… 

Both the artist and the lover know that perfection is not loveable. It is the clumsiness of a fault that makes a person lovable. ~ Joseph Campbell

Striving for perfection is the greatest stopper there is. You’ll be afraid you can’t achieve it. It’s your excuse to yourself for not doing anything. Instead, strive for excellence, doing your best. ~Laurence Olivier

Good enough is good enough. If something’s worth doing at all, it’s worth doing halfway. Seeking perfection in art or in life is a lesson in futility. ~ Ron Kent

I’m a perfectionist in recovery. I’m trying to deal with that monster inside of me that wants to do everything right. Or better than right. ~ Shakira, NY Times, 11/13/05

Indiscriminate pursuit of perfection infallibly leads to mediocrity. ~ Henry Fuseli

Every human being must thus be viewed according to what it is good for; for none of us, no, not one, is perfect; and were we to love none who had imperfections, this world would be a desert for our love. ~ Thomas Jefferson