When Perfectionism Becomes Dysfunctional

Posted on January 23rd, 2013

The personality disposition called perfectionism comes with pluses and minuses. Coupled with the right combination of other character traits, work habits, and values, it can help in achieving goals. What is sometimes called "maladaptive" perfectionism, though, can actually hinder accomplishments and working relationships.

Perfection as a Crippling Set of Flaws

The clearest example of perfectionism gone extreme and gone awry is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder: OCPD. In the related but distinct obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), one’s obsessive concerns translate into specific actions (hand washing, checking the locks on the doors) that are sustained or repeated enough to no longer be rational – and in extreme cases, to the point of harm. OCPD – also called perfectionist (or perfectionism) personality disorder – has a wider and sometimes contradictory range of effects:

  • Aggressive competitiveness
  • Preoccupation with discipline, rules, order, lists, behavioral codes
  • Stubbornness and inflexibility
  • Constant stress and inability to relax
  • Self-righteousness and hypersensitivity to criticism, real or imagined

OCPD sufferers may:

  • Habitually find fault
  • Show impatience, harshness, or contempt
  • Try to control cooperative situations
  • Withhold affection
  • Hoard money, as well as things of no obvious value

OCPD may make it difficult to:

  • Acknowledge and apologize for mistakes made or harm inflicted
  • Forgive others for slights or failures, real or perceived
  • Delegate work or set limits to the demands of one’s own work
  • Accept new information
  • Set or follow priorities or come to a decision
  • Start or finish a task, on time or at all

How Do Others See Us?

Not all OCPD sufferers will show all symptoms all the time. As we can see, though, any handful of these characteristics is enough to earn a reputation as difficult. In the workplace in particular we may be seen as rigid, overwrought, touchy, controlling, intolerant, sarcastic, tactless, and disorganized and unproductive in our constant focus on issues others don’t give the same weight. Some of these traits are work-specific and some interpersonal (which has a lot more to do with work success than is officially acknowledged). Off the clock, those interpersonal deficits may be compounded when in the comfort of our cluttered or obsessively ordered homes we act distant, belittling, unforgiving, and stingy.

Standards: A Question of Black and White?

Standards are very important to perfectionists, and obsessively so for those with OCPD. Overall, standards are a good thing – we use them to shape a common reality to work and live in. As conditions change and humanity struggles to better itself, standards change as well. This is hard for OCPD sufferers to swallow, because we hate ambiguity and we love absolutes. We tend to think in terms of all standards as black and white, right or wrong, and researchers identify this either/or thinking as what likely pushes a perfectionist tendency into dysfunction. That thinking also fosters a kind of tunnel vision, focused on the kinds of questions that lend themselves to absolutes. Social standards such as expectations for tolerance, kindness, and respectful attention are more complex and varied and can push us out of our default comfort zone-where we’d be just fine if everyone was as always right as we are (or feel we must be).

Examining Our Standards

Do we need to "lower" our standards? Sometimes, yes. Often, we need to raise them to more general standards of kindness and civility. In all cases, we need to examine our standards and assign them a relative importance. We need to cultivate the ability to adjust our standards and especially to recognize the standards of others on the fly. While most people make such adjustments frequently and often unconsciously, for us this kind of responsive flexibility is extremely hard.

Healing

Therapy for OCPD may use cognitive and behavioral intervention to help us create more adaptive responses to the triggers of our destructive inflexibility and paralysis. Both behaviorists and more "psychodynamically" oriented therapists deal with these triggers that have typically been imprinted in our firmware early on: Parents or parental figures easily pass on or exacerbate OCPD traits they show themselves. Both therapeutic approaches – which in modern psychotherapy are often blended – can help us live more productive and less frustrating lives. And online communities and tools organized by our kind are also available.

A current maxim in the world of business and politics is don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. There is much to be gained from ratcheting down our perfectionism and ratcheting up our social skills and our compassion. From experience both bitter and sweet, anyone who admits to being OCPD can attest that there’s really nothing like the heart rush that comes from checking the reflexively cold or snarky response with a display of empathy.

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