May 31, 2010
Understanding the origins of perfectionism makes it much easier to help your partner and to not get caught in her need to control.
NOTE: This is the third in a series of articles on Living With a Perfectionist.
How does a complex personality, such as perfectionism, develop? Usually it began when we decided that our parents, good souls though they may otherwise have been, didn’t think we were okay unless we met their expectations. Those expectations may have been perfectly reasonable, but we concluded that we weren’t okay just as we were — only when we performed. Come home with all A’s and one B? I’d be questioned on why I got the B.
It is nice to get praise for doing well, of course. Praise helps us know we have reached the goals someone thinks we can reach. Praise can reinforce the good feeling that comes from finishing a difficult task. All of us like to experience that sense of achievement. Winning a race can leave us feeling we’re on the top of the world. The problem is that no one stays on the top forever. Rather than accepting our new position as somewhere between the top and bottom, we feel impotent. We feel “ordinary,” an uncomfortable feeling because we sense our parents wanted us to be special.
Our perfectionism also grew out of the fact that as children we didn’t learn that mistakes were a natural and acceptable part of life. We didn’t learn that errors were to be honored because they offer a chance to learn to live comfortably in the middle ground between success and failure — where most people live most of the time.
Does any of this help you understand your partner a little better? Perhaps now you can see why some of the traits that seemed so endearing at the beginning of your relationship are starting to wear a bit thin. You’re tired of having to watch each step you take to make certain she doesn’t get upset. You’re tired of having to be very careful when pointing out something she didn’t do as well as expected for fear she will think you don’t love her. And if she also tends to have a bit of a martyr complex, which is not uncommon with perfectionists, that can be an additional challenge.
Here are some things to consider as you decide to address your partner’s perfectionism.
Remember that it isn’t comfortable living in a perfectionist’s skin. I strongly suspect she would appreciate your help in getting past her fear of failure and in becoming more accepting of the middle ground where most people live. If you seriously give these suggestions a good try, I will almost guarantee that life will be better for both of you.
Become aware of how well you handle anger, guilt, worry, and criticism and what sets you off. What dreams do you have yet to fulfill? You can’t help your partner very easily if you don’t know how your own past might be affecting you today — and that what you do or don’t do about that has ramifications for your relationship. Knowing who you are and recognizing your own struggles and weaknesses will help you respond to the perfectionist family member with greater compassion.
Recognize the importance that shame plays in your partner’s makeup and be willing to talk about it. If you sense that your partner’s reaction to a real or implied criticism by you or someone else is causing her distress, reassure her that she is loved, even if she hasn’t done everything as well as she, or others, would have liked. It also helps to let her know that you understand how she might react negatively because of her experience growing up (assuming you know enough about her background to recognize the seeds of her perfectionism). Unfortunately, we tend not to discuss shame and other intense emotions, as Brock Hansen, LCSW, notes in Shame and Anger: The Criticism Connection:
Talking about shame tends to evoke some of the sting of this powerful and painful feeling. Many of our basic affective states seem to have an infectious or contagious quality to them. There is a universal tendency to suppress expression of powerful affect in public—perhaps because its expression can be contagious.” [For example, terror, rage and mob violence.]
Shame and distress are similarly contagious, especially within the primary groups with which we identify: our families. When we see the posture and facial expression of shame on the face of our parent or our child, we often identify and feel the shame ourselves. . . . Shame motivates us first to hide, to avoid eye contact, and to keep quiet, though the anger response that follows may motivate us to protest. It may be that this contagious and uncomfortable response to shame, even as a subject for discussion, is part of the reason we do not talk about it.
In the next article in the Living With a Perfectionist series, I’ll give you specific things you can do to help your partner deal with this personality trait that so often causes problems for both the perfectionist and her spouse.
If you enjoyed this article, be sure to read the rest of
the Living With a Perfectionist series.
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