May 28, 2010
Until you appreciate the dynamics of your perfectionist partner’s inner battles, it will be difficult to help her.
NOTE: This is the second in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.
In graduate school I learned about perfectionism, which is related to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and gradually began to recognize those traits in myself. It was liberating to know that the complex feelings I had were actually understood by someone. It has taken me many years to integrate my learning to a point where I no longer focus so much on what others think of me. Now I hope that I can help you help your spouse become a recovering perfectionist more quickly than I was able to do.
Let’s start with the fact that your spouse probably doesn’t experience herself as trying “too hard.” She doesn’t stop to realize she tries to work at 110% capacity 110% of the time. In fact, every perfectionist I’ve met in my marriage and family practice denies he or she wants to be perfect. They all say, “I’m just trying to do well.” Unaware of their often impossibly high standards, they don’t know when they’ve reached a reasonable place to stop and don’t know what “good enough” means.
As long as your partner doesn’t demand you do more than necessary, of course, you can tolerate the standards she places on herself. Unfortunately, in a world where the achievement of high standards is not usually the norm, including the world within the home, perfectionists feel displeased much of the time. Self-critical, judgmental of others, and opinionated, we often find it hard to see the other person’s point of view, although most of us have learned to be quite pleasant and courteous in our relationships.
This veneer causes us internal distress that others don’t see. When we think about it, we know that 110% is not really reasonable. But when we don’t achieve that level of success, we feel shamed. And it is this sense of shame that lies at the heart of a perfectionist’s pain, for shame is the feeling that not only have we disappointed someone, we are, at our core, “bad” in some way. This shame turns easily into anger, which is often suppressed or denied, though our spouses may often feel its effect.
Since we need the approval of others, however, we generally suffer in silence, afraid to show our anger because we need the other person, particularly our spouse, to like us. This fuels the fire even more when we consider the unfairness of being “asked” to do so much.
Unfortunately, the outlook on life between perfectionists and others is exacerbated because we don’t see life in grays, where most people live, but in the polarities of omnipotence and impotence. Constantly checking to see whether we, and others, hit the 110% mark, we experience life as black or white, up or down, with me or against me, success or failure, okay or not okay.
Since we perfectionists only experience high self-confidence — omnipotence — when we reach our high expectations, or what we think are the high expectations of others, we only feel great about ourselves some of the time. And even though we may do well more often than the average person, it isn’t often enough from our perspective and, therefore, we frequently feel impotent. You may say that this doesn’t make sense — it doesn’t — because your perfectionist seems so composed and capable. You can’t see the inner struggle she goes through every day.
Imagine what it must feel like to constantly check to see whether another person — spouse, teacher, parent, sibling, friend, boss, or child — believes you did what you think you were “supposed” to do, and whether you did it well enough.
In actual fact, of course, your perfectionist may have done exactly what you wanted her to do (or what you would have been satisfied to accept) long before she finally got around to finishing a project. You, of course, would find it only reasonable to check with the person who asked you to do a job so you could understand what he or she required.
But from the perspective of a perfectionist, this would be a sign of weakness and indicate she hadn’t understood the instructions — mind-reading being one of the skills perfectionists think they “ought” to have. Since they need the approval of others so badly, they’re not willing to confront the other person and learn whether they’ve guessed correctly. So they put on a cheerful face, yet shudder in fear they won’t be liked!
Since perfectionists think they’ve been appointed God’s assistant, they must be very careful and make sure all their decisions are the best possible in the circumstances. Consequently, as you have undoubtedly already discovered, it can take a long time for her to choose not only the best pattern of wallpaper for the dining room, but any DVD she rents. This may drive you crazy, but remember that she doesn’t want to take any chances that she will choose “wrong.” She isn’t yet able to see that that any choice that anyone makes is simply part of the human condition: sometimes we make great choices, sometimes we don’t.
That is why you may sometimes get a sense of foreboding when she suggests you choose the evening’s movie or restaurant. She may be able to avoid putting in her two-cent’s worth, but she is secretly afraid that you may not make quite as good a choice as you “should.” Then, if you happen to choose something that you both agree is terrible, despite all the good reviews you’ve read, she may be outwardly magnanimous in forgiving you, even laughing about it. But inside there is a good chance she is disappointed in you for not choosing better. After all, as God’s appointed assistant in making sure the universe runs smoothly, if you don’t make mistakes, her life is easier.
In the next article in the Living With a Perfectionist series, you will learn how your partner developed this strict personality style.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read the rest of
the Living With a Perfectionist series.
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