A version of this post first appeared in August 2013:
Is it a good thing to be a perfectionist? To answer this question, it’s important to understand the difference between adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. This brief article defines these two types of perfectionism:
This type of perfectionism is characterized by high standards of yourself as well as others, persistence in the face of adversity, and conscientiousness. Healthy perfectionism usually goes along with goal-directed behavior and good organizational skills.
This type of perfectionism is characterized by excessive preoccupation with past mistakes, fears about making new mistakes, doubts about whether you are doing something correctly and being heavily invested in the high expectations of others, such as parents or employers. An excessive preoccupation with control is also a hallmark feature of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism.
Hmm. Fear. Doubt. Control. All symptoms of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism. Sound familiar? It’s hard to have a conversation about OCD without including those three words; they are the cornerstones of OCD. It’s not surprising then, that many people who have OCD are also perfectionists. For the purpose of this discussion, the term perfectionist refers to unhealthy perfectionism.
When my son Dan’s OCD was severe, mistakes were not allowed. Procrastinating with schoolwork became the norm and then morphed into him only being able to work at a specific time of day. He then became tied to the clock for all activities of daily living. Fear. Doubt. Control. Perfectionism and OCD rolled into one. So many compulsions in OCD are wrapped up in perfectionism. Some people need to reread paragraphs, sentences, or words over and over again to make sure they get it right. Shutting off the stove must be done properly, checking the door lock, or checking anything for that matter, are all compulsions that need to be done perfectly. The list goes on.
Of course, the problem is perfection doesn’t exist, and so those struggling with OCD can never be certain they reread the paragraph correctly, or performed any compulsion perfectly. Just as the need for control in OCD leads to a life that is out of control, the quest for perfection leads to a life not lived to its greatest potential.
I think most people would agree there is nothing wrong with wanting to excel, and striving to be the best person you can be. That’s different from being perfect. Perfection is an unattainable goal for all of us, as is certainty. A good therapist who knows how to treat OCD will also know how to deal with matters surrounding perfectionism. Those suffering from both issues can learn to accept the imperfection and uncertainty that surrounds us. Indeed, this is something we all need to do to live happy, fulfilling lives.