Are you a Relational Perfectionist?
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
You? No way! Well, maybe. Read more about what a "relational perfectionist" looks like and struggles with to see if this resonates with you.
This is my first official blog post.
I’ve thought a lot about where to start. I even created a list.
At first thought, I really wanted to write about break-ups. I really love helping clients make sense of endings while also working to create something wholly new. But “Hey, hello, let’s talk break-ups” didn’t quite have the welcoming ring to it I was hoping for.
Then I thought, okay, I’ll write about anxiety. But given that this is one of my clinical specialties and passions, I felt like I needed a series of blogs on this one topic and starting out with a series felt weird.
Should I write something uplifting? After all, instilling hope is one of the primary goals of therapy. I could also write about positive psychology and my dissertation (I am determined not to have this work lay on a shelf collecting dust!).
Maybe it would be helpful to be practical. I could write about mindfulness.
For every topic I thought about, I could look at it from 20 different angles. Naturally, I became overwhelmed.
I stopped listing.
The document labeled “Blog Ideas” went from being prominently displayed on my desktop to being neatly hidden in a folder labeled “Business Stuff” … out of sight and out of mind.
Today I went back to it.
All of the ideas above are good ones and I will likely write about them in future blogs - series and all. But the topic I needed to write about before all of that became very, very clear.
I went to the top of my list and pressed the return bar. In the number one spot, I typed in ... PERFECTIONISM.
When others would call me a perfectionist in my early 20s, I would often scoff at them. Me? Pfff. Don’t perfectionists actually get things perfect? (a client once said this to me too – great minds think alike).
Not me, I thought. I am fine with letting go of stuff. I’m okay with good enough. I have half assed school/work projects and thrown together Halloween costumes and made dinner with random ingredients in my fridge like I’m on an episode of Chopped with the best of them. I’m not totally type A. I like yoga and hippie stuff.
Isn’t it funny that I was trying to show just how non-perfectionistic I was by showcasing the ways I didn’t fit the perfectionist definition perfectly?
Years later, and after working with many, many people - hardworking people like graduate students getting their PhDs, athletes trying to make it, parents with businesses, and young entrepreneurs trying to find love - it dawned on me:
NOT ONE PERSON has ever self-identified as a perfectionist or come into therapy wanting to work on perfectionism. Not one.
Interestingly enough, the perfectionists in my practice show up with imposter syndrome, riddled by social comparison, and full of self-judgment, disappointment, and guilt.
They should be doing more. They haven’t done enough. They’re letting others down.
They don’t feel good about themselves.
They are gripped by self-doubt, overcome with anxiety, feeling unable to make decisions or live with the consequences of the decisions they have made.
THIS is the true picture of perfectionism.
And more and more, I see what I call “relational perfectionism.” A desire to be the perfect partner, parent, professional.
It’s not enough to do good work. Relational perfectionism calls them to embody a sense of perfection - to be all things to all people in all settings. Even when they excel in one area, it feels incomplete and they focus on how they are “dropping the ball” in another area.
This looks like the person who has recently lost 50 pounds but is focused on how they are still struggling financially. It’s the person who is prioritizing their marriage but is keenly aware of how they are not regularly cleaning their home. This looks like the parent who is killing it at work with a recent deal, but feels guilty for relying on pre-made food for their kids.
Even when they do well, they could always have done more, better, faster. There is no end to the desire for efficiency and excellence.
Relational perfection operates the other way too – expectations to have the perfect partner, child, friend, etc. And all sorts of things come up for people as they experience the very real, very human flaws of those around them.
Control rears its head in the face of fear and disappointment. Distance becomes a way to protect themselves from these feelings and yet, also leaves them feeling isolated.
Relational perfectionism also operates in how they relate to themselves. They are harsh and judgmental with themselves. Their high standards, while unattainable, become a hammer with which to pound down their sense of self for all the ways in which they have not measured up.
They expect perfection, without realizing it, and this keeps them paralyzed about how to make the “right” decision, constantly being reminded of the ways it could go wrong and they could fail. They fear others’ judgment although really what they fear is others holding up a mirror to the judgments they have internalized and continue to keep alive.
Perfectionism breeds anxiety. Doesn’t it make sense to feel anxious while trying to achieve something that we can never have? What an impossible task?!
So, what do you from here? Well, if this sounds like you, stay tuned.
In the next few blogs, I will write more about:
· How our society encourages perfectionism and the role of technology in this
· How we can be mindful of our perfectionistic tendencies and why that’s the first step
· How therapy can help us unpack our particular variety of perfectionism
· How we can use our body as a resource for taming our perfectionism
· How self-compassion holds the key to moving in a different direction
And ha, just like that, I am simultaneously laughing at the irony of the universe and believing that it is possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
I started with a series anyway, didn’t I?