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.
Adaptive, or healthy, perfectionism is characterized by very high standards — not only for yourself but others as well. Those who display adaptive perfectionism are persistent when faced with hardship or adversity and are extremely conscientious. Goal-directed behavior and good organizational skills are usually associated with this type of perfectionism, and those who possess adaptive perfectionism view it as a positive aspect of their lives, often helping them achieve much success.
On the other hand, maladaptive, or unhealthy perfectionism, is comprised of excessive preoccupation with all mistakes – past, present, and possible future ones – with fear and doubt woven in. Those with this type of perfectionism worry continuously about making mistakes and are overly concerned about what others (such as employers, parents, peers) might think of them if they are not perfect. There is an unhealthy need for control as well. Those with maladaptive perfectionism often find this trait actually hinders their success.
Hmm. Fear. Doubt. Control. All symptoms of maladaptive/unhealthy perfectionism. Sound familiar? It’s hard to have a conversation about obsessive-compulsive disorder without including those three words; they are the cornerstones of OCD. So it’s not surprising that many people who have OCD are also perfectionists. For the purpose of this discussion, the term perfectionist refers to maladaptive 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, washing hands must be done just right, checking the door lock, or checking anything for that matter, are all compulsions that need to be done perfectly. And if a mistake is made, then the person with OCD has to start over. It is emotionally, and often physically, exhausting.
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 an imperfect life – 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.