Perfectionist is Not Obsessed with Perfection
Non-perfectionists frequently misunderstand perfectionists as being obsessed with perfection. The very term “perfectionist” implies an obsession with perfection, an obsessive pursuit of perfection. But, strangely, it is not so! Perfectionism, more often than not, isn’t about the pursuit of perfection per se but about the psychological, relational and existential dividends of being perfect.
It helps to understand the words involved. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the verb “to obsess” literally means “to besiege” from the Latin verb “obsidere” which in its turn means “to sit opposite to” or “to sit opposite of”. Originally, the word obsession meant “an act of besieging” and referred to a military maneuver in which an occupying army surrounds and besieges an enemy city. The army that besieges a town of interest doesn’t just camp around for the heck of it. Soldiers don’t just sit “opposite of” the enemy fortress in some kind of militaristic zazen. No, the army obsessively “sits” around a point of military interest because it is interested in gaining control over it.
Same with perfectionists: perfectionists don’t just obsess over perfection for the lofty goal of it (I wish they would, that would be psychologically healthier, that would be what I call “primary” or “aesthetic” perfectionism, I’ll explain that in a separate post). No, more often than not perfectionism, for perfectionists, is just a means to an end.
The garden-variety neurotic perfectionism, for example, is a “striving for excessively high standards due to fears of failure and concerns about disappointing others” (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 14). Therefore, the object of the neurotic-perfectionist’s obsession is not perfection per se but the approval and the relational security that comes with being perfect.
In other words, a perfectionist’s pursuit of perfection is a compulsion, not an obsession, a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. That’s why behind the clinical scenes perfectionists are called “compulsives” rather than “obsessives.”
Perfectionism as Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder
While perfectionism is not, per se, a diagnostic category, it is an essential feature of the so-called Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD, not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, OCD). OCPD is usually defined as “preoccupation with perfectionism, mental and interpersonal control, and orderliness at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency” (Pfohl & Blum, 1991).
More specifically, Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder (OCPD) is associated with such traits as preoccupation with details, excessive devotion to work and productivity at the expense of leisure, excessive conscientiousness, scrupulousness, inflexibility and rigidity in the issues of morality and ethics, hoarding or difficulty discarding worn-out objects that have no sentimental value, reluctance to delegate tasks or to relinquish control or to submit to someone else’s standards, thriftiness (DSM-IV, 1994). OCPD sounds a bit like OCD but it’s not.
Perfectionism: OCPD, not OCD
As a perfectionist, you are likely to have been not only misunderstood but also misdiagnosed as having Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Don’t worry: while you might “test positive” for some OCD traits, the chances are you don’t have it. To make sense of the difference between Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, let’s take a moment to examine the distinction between obsessions and compulsions.
Obsession Isn’t Compulsion
An obsession is a mental preoccupation, a recurrent thought. A compulsion is a course of action we take in order to reduce our obsessive preoccupation.
Not All Obsessions Are Created Equal
Obsessions can be desirable (or, in Freudian terms, ego-syntonic, i.e. pleasant to one’s ego) or undesirable (ego-dystonic, i.e. unpleasant to one’s ego).
An individual with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder experiences ego-dystonic (i.e. unpleasant, intrusive, undesirable) obsessions that cause great anxiety and relies on repetitive behavioral compulsions to reduce the anxiety.
A person with an Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder, on the other hand, is obsessed with doing the right thing and avoiding mistakes. Such a person experiences their obsession with being “right” and doing the “right” thing not as an intrusive thought but as a freely-chosen philosophy of living.
Therefore a person with OCPD, i.e. a perfectionist, experiences his obsession as desirable and ego-friendly (or ego-syntonic). Such a person fervently believes in the righteousness of his or her standards and compulsively pursues these standards through their actions.
In sum, it could be then said that while individuals with OCD and OCPD are similarly compulsive in addressing their obsessions, they differ in the vector of their obsessions.
The individuals with OCD don’t want their obsessions, while OCPD perfectionists swear by them.
What’s Eating You, Perfectionist?
What’s eating me? What am I hungering for?
What am I chasing: perfection, approval, certainty, validation?
Ask yourself: Why am I seeking all this? How am I incomplete without it all? What’s amiss? Do I really need what I’m chasing, or do I just want it? What will approval prove? What will validation validate? What will certainty protect me from?
Whose stamp of approval am I striving for and why? Whose pat on my back has the power of the Midas touch that makes me feel golden, valuable, worthwhile? Whose opinion of me do I worship, seek out, cater to? Who has the power and wisdom to reassure me of all my fears and insecurities? Whose validation, attention, and acknowledgment do I need in order to feel visible and justified in my existence? Then ask yourself: Who promoted this person/these people to this special status? How did they earn such clout, such influence in my life?
How have I gotten by all these years without that I’m still chasing?
Ponder what’s eating you and learn how to feed your perfectionistic hunger from within.