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We often think of perfectionism as being a good thing and this isn´t surprising as in many areas of life, perfectionism can serve us well. It can inspire us to keep going when things get difficult and to attain a high level of success in both our work and personal lives. But is there a dark side to perfectionism? What happens when perfectionism becomes maladaptive? In this article we explore some of the problems surrounding perfectionism and how this can lead to or contribute towards OCD and anxiety.
What is perfectionism?
Psychology Today describes perfectionism in the following way: “Perfectionism is a trait that makes life an endless report card on accomplishments or looks. When healthy, it can be self-motivating and drive you to overcome adversity and achieve success. When unhealthy, it can be a fast and enduring track to unhappiness. What makes extreme perfectionism so toxic is that while those in its grip desire success, they are most focused on avoiding failure, resulting in a negative orientation”.
I can really resonate with this definition of perfectionism. So much of intense anxiety and OCD is related to avoidance. We do not want to feel the discomfort of anxiety and so we do whatever we can to avoid it.
Two Types Of Maladaptive Perfectionism
So how does perfectionism work to keep the cycle of anxiety and OCD going? First we have the classical perfectionist. Nothing is quite good enough and it is almost impossible to complete anything to a high enough standard. This can relate to both ourselves and other people. In terms of OCD, you might think of this as having to perform a compulsion over and over again to ensure that you do it just right. If you have as ritual or a routine that you follow, you might find yourself having to do things in the exact right order and if you make a mistake you often have to start again.
This style of thinking often relates to pure O OCD as well. So often with pure O the reassurance you try to give yourself through constant rumination is the search for certainty. You need to be certain that the terrible thing can never happen and so you ruminate until you have eliminated all possible doubt. Only once you feel like you have arrived at that place of certainty another thought will often come up out of nowhere and the rumination will start all over again. This search for perfect certainty then is the very thing that keeps us trapped.
Perfectionism can even hijack our relationships. When we project unfair expectations onto our romantic partners, we ca inadvertently set ourselves up for problems in our relationships. To try and quell the nagging doubt that OCD all too easily gives us in abundance we can look for perfection in other people. But yet again, this is a losing battle for obvious reasons. Nobody is perfect and, as we learn from the stoics, the only true control we have in this life is over ourselves, our actions, words and focus are all under our direct control. We do not have control over other people and their actions and should not therefore be reliant upon them for our own contentment.
The Hidden Perfectionists
Another side to perfectionism that is perhaps slightly less understood or discussed is how it can make people procrastinate or not even bother to do things at all. I certainly fall into both camps at times, but when I was younger this type of perfectionism was very problematic for me.
For example, as a child, if I found something hard, then I would often not want to do it. It wasn´t that I couldn´t do it, but that I wanted to be able to do it perfectly and if I couldn´t doit perfectly immediately then I would often give up. This is something I have struggled with over the years, certainly I remember at University that I would procrastinate a lot. But once you know you are doing it, then you can start to take action to change the habit. So much with OCD and anxiety is about habit and fortunately we have the tools to change our habits.
So whether you need to wash your hands just right, check the stove is turned off four times or mentally review every mistake you may have made the night before, perfectionism is most probably playing a big role in this and needs to be addressed.
How to challenge the inner perfectionist
Striving to do your best is great, but if perfectionism takes over and becomes the center of everything, then it´s time to challenge it. How do we do this? Well in much the same way you go about dealing with anxiety and OCD.
Know your perfections
If we want to stop doing something, then first of all we have to know what it is exactly that we are doing. If you have reflected on yourself and recognize the spark of unhealthy perfectionism, then starting to think about where it shows up in your life is a good place to start. Keeping a thought journal or diary is a good place to start with this. I always find that writing down my thoughts allows me to see them a little more objectively. Really try to be honest with yourself during this process, in what areas of your life is perfectionism potentially causing problems, is it stopping you from doing things, as you think you won´t do them just right or is it taking up hours of your time because you can never do things in just the right way.
How Does Your Own Perfectionism Link To OCD & Anxiety
Once you´ve reflected and worked out the areas in which perfectionism influences you and your experience of OCD and anxiety you can use this information to better understand what got you trapped and what kind of thinking you need to let go of, in order to get yourself out of the anxiety trap. It may be the case that perfectionism is adding fuel to the flames of the OCD and gently trying to address it, may really help in learning to let go of old compulsive habits and to build acceptance of imperfection.
Remember that striving for what you want in this world is clearly a good thing, but this striving should be done in service of us feeling more content and self-actualized. If the striving is not leading to that and instead is perpetuating an anxiety disorder, then clearly something is not right. Knowledge here is king. Once you recognize what the issue is you can start working on it and like everything, you can overcome it.