Maladaptive Perfectionism

My good friend, currently reading Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it wasn’t), insisted that I refer to her on my blog from here on out as A-Dizzle.  Request granted.  A-Dizzle never fails to send me outstanding quotes.  This morning I found this excellent quote waiting for me in my inbox:

“If our goal is perfection rather than growth, it is unlikely that we are willing to go back, because it requires a level of self-empathy— the ability to look at our own actions with understanding and compassion; to understand our experiences in the context in which they happened and to do all this without judgement. When we choose growth over perfection, we choose empathy and connection. I use the term grounding because in order to examine where we are, where we want to go and how we want to get there, we must have a level of self-acceptance about who we are. Grounding gives us the stability we need to reach out and examine who we are and who we want to be. The more grounded we are, the less we feel compelled to defend our decisions and protect ourselves. We can look at ourselves with compassion rather than self-loathing.”– I Thought It Was Just Me (but it wasn’t), Brene Brown

What a striking thought.  If you are anything like me, then perfectionism has been more than a minor demon nipping at your heels.  It’s been an evil overlord riding you hard for most of your life, stealing your joy, paralyzing you, and emotionally exsanguinating you in moments when you should be overflowing with life.  There are factors that set some of us up to experience perfectionism more than others.  I am an only child raised by an only child.  Only children tend to be overachievers.  That is understating my tendencies.  If it could be done well, then I had to do it better.  Perfect simply was not good enough.  An A+ was not sufficient.  100%? Wasn’t there extra credit? Coming in first was not good enough.  Best? What is best? A gold medal? What’s better than that? I was expected to win the diamond-encrusted platinum medal.  In everything.  Not just performance.  In appearance as well.  I had to be the prettiest.  The thinnest.  The most well-mannered.  The most well-bred with the best looking teeth.  The fittest body.  The most desirable hair.

I was, after all, a reflection of my family.  I was essentially like a thoroughbred horse, and that’s how I was talked about.  So, in reality, it wasn’t a stretch that I ended up on the auction block with men from other countries bidding on me.  That is how I was treated by my family.  I was, I felt, destined to be someone’s object at some point.  Perfect.  In every way.

And what happened when I did not meet my family’s definition of perfect? Punishment through excessive criticism and humiliation.  Almost always public.  Sometimes extreme.

My example is extreme, but sometimes we need an extreme example to be able to see the reality of our own lives.  Your life and experiences are no less painful than mine just because they are different.  Perfectionism is a soul killer because it quenches and prevents growth.  There is no time for introspection and learning when you are trying to be something that is an impossibility.  Why is the consistent goal aimed at attaining perfection an impossibility for humans?

Let’s define perfection.  At its most basic and simplistic level, perfection means that something be it an idea, a system, a shape, or an entity lacks nothing nor requires anything to be what it is.  It is what it is in its fullness and needs nothing inherently to be what it is nor can anything ever be taken from it for it to continue to be what it is.  It is a self-contained system that exists unto itself, requiring and lacking nothing at the same time.  Utter perfection.

This notion can in no way be applied to a human being for if we were to try to apply one descriptor to humans it would be this: NEED.  Human beings need from the moment when we are born until the moment we die.  We might try to attain complete self-containment in the form of extreme self-reliance, but we will still need.  We need connection even if that comes in the form of connection to animals or nature.  We need food, air, water.  We need a sense of belonging and significance.  We need hope.

An argument could be made that seeking perfection in life is a good thing.  Perfectionism as a personality trait after all is not a bad thing.  It might just make the difference between a mediocre novel and a great novel or a pretty good piece of art and a masterpiece.  Let’s talk about that for a moment.  I believe that when Brown is discussing “perfection” she is really discussing maladaptive perfectionism.  There’s a phrase.  Maladaptive perfectionism.  What does that mean?

Let’s look at adaptive perfectionism.  As I described myself before, I used to be a highly perfectionistic person in a maladaptive sense due to being raised under a proverbial microscope.  For example, I never developed an eating disorder, but I was body dysmorphic and overcome with social anxiety particularly when I had to socialize with women.  I was overly conscious of myself from being in a hypercritical environment.  “Why do laugh like that? Ladies laugh like this.”  “Why do you walk like that? Ladies walk like this.”  “Why do you chew like that? Ladies chew like this.”  “Did you gain weight? You should not gain weight.”  “Your posture is inadequate.  You are too loud.  You are too quiet.  You are too tall.  You are too thin.  You are too fat.  You are too stupid.  You are too selfish.  You are too, too, too, too, too, too…”  Had I been a robot, my CPU would have exploded.  I did not know how to behave anymore from the constant barrage of criticism.  “Are you breathing? Well, stop it.”  So, I learned to become what was necessary to fit the environment.  I adapted until no one could find one thing wrong with me, and this adaptation was actually maladaptive perfectionism.  Before we can become maladaptive in our perfectionism, we must have the capacity for adaptive perfectionism.

Adaptive perfectionism is the capacity to pursue an ideal.  It is the pilot light that fuels ambition.  It is what keeps us up until 4 AM working on academic papers.  It is what pushes us to pursue high levels of excellence under pressure.  It is that quality that allows us to see small details in a broad landscape of color.  Without adaptive perfectionism, the world would never have people willing to break the glass ceiling or turn oppressive social orders upside down.  It is adaptive perfectionism in its many forms that gives us the Nelson Mandelas and the Marie Curies.  We need that quality if we are ever going to better ourselves particularly if we are in oppressive environments.  Adaptive perfectionism is a catalyst that says, “There is something better.  You want it.  You could be better.  Go after it.”

Maladaptive perfectionism is essentially all of that externalized energy directed at an external goal internalized and turned on the self.  Suddenly, the oppressive environment to be overcome is…you.  Shame is at the core of maladaptive perfectionism because shame says, “You are fundamentally flawed.  Something will always be wrong with you no matter what you do,” and this personality adaptation seeks to correct that because somewhere in every human being is a sense that shame is wrong.  We are not fundamentally flawed, and we are going to prove it.  Enter maladaptive perfectionism.  We will become perfect.  Flawless.  We will look perfect.  We will perform flawlessly.  We will meet every high standard that can be met.  We will prove to everyone that we are the best of the best of the best.  We need nothing and lack nothing.

And then we fail.  Or, worse, need something.  And we fall into a shame spiral of epic proportions.  This kind of perfectionism catalyzes self-loathing, anxiety often in the many forms of OCD, depression, self-harming behaviors, and eating disorders.  At some point, we either stop and look for a way out of this way of thinking, or we jump back into maladaptive perfectionism and keep going.

How did I stop? In short, I got a C on a paper in college.  My first C ever.  In a graduate level Art History class! I felt like I was going to die.  Seriously.  I had never gotten a C on anything at university.  I felt like a horrible human being and a waste of breath.  My first step? Throwdown with the professor.  He stood by his grade.  That made it even worse! I left his office hyperventilating.  It was a political decision.  Suddenly, I had an epiphany! Was I at university to get good grades and, yet again, prove to my awful family that I was worth something? Or, was I there for me? How many scholarships, times on the Dean’s List, and academic accolades would it take for me to believe that I had inherent worth? What if I did well my entire life and still felt worthless?

And that was my question.  In my eyes, I had failed to be perfect.  A goddamn C.  Such a miniscule thing, but, in that moment, it caused a crisis within me.  Now what? Was I worth something or not? Who got to determine that? Me? God? Some crusty, old Flemish professor? My family? Who? Wasn’t there something to be learned in perceived failure? Was my obsession with being perfect getting in my way?

It was this moment that opened my eyes to the nature of my maladaptive perfectionism.  It took me years to be free of it, but I really met it, face to face, for the first time then.  “Hi, Maladaptive Perfectionism, I’m Jules.  I think we should get to know each other.  You’ve been a pain in my ass for years.”

In my experience, this is how you begin to shift from maladaptive perfectionism to adaptive perfectionism.  From internalizing your idealism to externalizing it.  This is what will allow you to become a catalyst for good in the world rather than viewing yourself as your worst enemy.

Get to know your maladaptive perfectionism.  It’s a relationship worth pursuing.

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