“Perfectionism is probably the most common and also one of the most damaging characteristics of dysfunctional families,” wrote John and Linda Friel in their excellent book An Adult Child’s Guide to What’s Normal. When I read that, I felt like I’d discovered fire. Perfectionism ran rampant in my narcissistic family and I’ve been its willing slave since childhood.
But why? That’s what I want to know.
Perfectionism as a Legacy
Along with the good china and family Bible, families pass perfectionism down through the generations. The back-breaking standards for “how housework should be done” are passed down from mother to daughter. The rigid standards for “how the grass should be mowed” are passed down from father to son.
Generation after generation, this burden of senseless perfection is handed down. Well, laa-dee-frickin’-da!
Am I the only one who’s screaming “WHY!?!”
Perfectionism as Condescension
Could there be a more perfect source of narcissistic supply than to set unattainable goals for someone and then glory in their failure to attain them? That’s kinda’ how it felt. No matter how hard I tried, there was always something my narcs could pick on.
If I was excelling on the job, tut-tut, I wasn’t taking my vitamins.
And if I started taking my vitamins, tut-tut, my complexion was still ravaged by OCD.
So with a little help from L’Oreal (bless her!) I managed to cover the OCD but, tut-tut, I wasn’t going to sleep early enough.
So I fought my insomnia but, tut-tut, now my choice of male companionship was unsuitable.
It just went on and on and on. No matter how hard I tried to be “perfect” (according to the narcs), I always fell short. Each time I lunged for that elusive carrot of perfection, they moved it 2 mm to the left of my frantic grasp…but always under that blasted guise of “love and care.”
My sweet patootie!
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Perfectionism as False Ego
I know someone whose house is always perfect. You could literally eat off the furthest, darkest corner of her basement floor. For eight decades, she’s waged an almost pathological, OCDish battle on her arch nemesis: dust. On the rare occasions when relatives visit, she hands them a sheet and asks them to “seesaw” for cobwebs behind the piano. They’re lucky to find one cobweb.
But I’ve got the inside dope, the hot skinny. Gather round! I happen to know she hasn’t got self-esteem. Not really. All she’s got is her perfection as a kind-of pseudo self-esteem filling that hole in her heart.
Perfectionism as Manipulation
No one wants to be around a perfect person…especially if they rub it in our face. Now Miss Suzy-Q-Homemaker has honed using perfection as manipulation to a fine art. She simply bewails her “dirty house.”
This serves two purposes. First, it manipulates everyone into saying, “Dirty!? It’s so clean!” followed by, “You think your house is dirty…you should see mine.” It’s like a smorgasboard for her ego!
Secondly, bewailing her “dirty house” is a subtle way for her to “clamber on the carcass” of everyone else to elevate herself. No one can hold a candle to her perfection. She knows it and we know it. It’s like the Ice Cream Sundae bar at the end of the Ego Smorgasboard she’s created for herself.
Combined with her superior religiosity, is it any wonder that no one wants to visit her?
Perfectionism = Workaholism
Perfectionism starts out as our servant. We use her to achieve praise and earn love. We use her to attain self-esteem. Ah, but she’s fickle. Like any drug, as soon as we’re addicted to the good feelings we get on the rare occasions we achieve “perfection,” she flips the tables on us. Suddenly, she is the master and we are the slave. She’s the monkey on our back.
Suddenly, we can’t leave a dirty dish in the sink for fear an unannounced visitor will see it. Suddenly, the lawn must be perfect at all times for fear of neighborhood gossip. Our perfection equals our self-worth. Work equals personal value.
Welcome to the punishing life of a workaholic. I know. I live it…and fight it every day.