Perfectionism: It’s a special kind of Hell, isn’t it? You know all about it, because you live in Perfectionism Purgatory too.

Perfectionism is the monkey on your back. It leaps to attention the moment you wake, stays close by your side all the livelong day and lulls you to sleep whispering in your ear all your mistakes, gaffes, oversights, failings, shortcuts, settling-for-a-lower-standard,  and undone “To Dos” from the day gone-bye.

Each day is the same weary trudge through Perfectionism Purgatory.

You’re damned sick of it!

And so am I.

How did we find ourselves in the Perfectionism Purgatory Predicament? That’s the easy one. How can we escape it? That’s harder to answer.

Wherefore Art Thou Perfection?

Why did we become perfectionists? That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? We did it to win the approval and love of people who mattered to us, our family and, by extension, ourselves. If they finally approved of us, it logically followed we could finally feel “okay” (i.e. self-esteem) about ourselves too. Because it’s almost impossible to live without self-esteem. Believe me, I’ve really tried. It’s even harder to live without self-esteem and NOT become a narcissist yourself.

My journey into perfectionisms may mirror yours. By the time I was nine years old, I’d realized that if I studied hard enough, it was possible to get straight As in school. There was no better feeling than when my parents praised my report card and bragged it up to the relatives. But when I articulated my belief that I had to get straight As to my mother, she denied it, we argued and she flounced out of the room in a huff. Dad tried to bring clarity by saying they only required “a good faith effort” from me. But that made no sense to me then…and still doesn’t today. If I could get straight As, why should I do less…especially after they inquired why I got my one-and-only B!?! Especially after all the pressure not to waste Dad’s hard-earned money spent on my private school education. Especially after all the quizzing, aggressive helping, checking my math papers before I turned them in, etc. Yes, they were “those” kind of parents. I learned everything — except initiative, independence and how to fail gracefully.

When you’re raised by a narcissist who is a perfectionist too, you can never win their 100% approval, 100% acceptance, 100% ἀγάπη (agape /uh-gaw-pay/ or /ae-guh-pee/: def. unconditional) love. They always pick holes in your performance, your appearance, your lifestyle, your relationships, your home, your kids, your choices…well, pretty much everything to explain (i.e. excuse) their reluctance, inability and/or refusal to giving you their 100% approval, acceptance and love. It’s OUR fault. If only we were better! Logically then, if we could patch up those holes, perform better, look better, live better…we could win their 100% approval, acceptance and love.

Hello Perfectionism!!! Our descent into Perfectionism Purgatory is perfectly logical…except for one thing.

A Flawed Foundation

The bedrock underpinning our perfectionism is perfectly flawed, shot through with fissures and cracks, because it ignores this one basic fact: narcissists cannot unconditionally love anyone.

They excuse and disguise that fact by blaming the objects of their love, their spouse and children, whom they should be able to love, flaws and all. By holding up an unreasonable level of perfection as the “key” to unlocking their love, is it any wonder we became perfectionists!?! And each time we lunge frantically for the rarefied level they require, they raise the bar.

Even their hugs have a reluctant quality, they pull you close for a moment only to quickly repulse you again. Their “I love you’s,” if they even say them, are said in a tone that implies an unspoken “but” follows the phrase.

“I love you, but you’re too fat.”

“I love you…anyways.”

“I love you, in spite of yourself.”

“I love you, but you don’t try hard enough.”

Parenting by Dr. Dobson’s childrearing books, my father dutifully took me out on the Father/Daughter dates Dobson encouraged. I’m sure Dr. Dobson (whom I regard with disgust) meant for these Father/Daughter dates to be wonderful bonding times, an opportunity for the father to make his daughter feel like a princess, to model how unconditionally loved and respected her future Mr. Right should make her feel.

Well, Dad sorta’, kinda’ tried. He bought me pancakes and sausage at McDonalds, listened with undisguised boredom to my childish prattle about “the kids at school” and then always had “just one” criticism to share. No princess me! Dates were opportunities to be criticized. Ah, how well I remember that last date. “You need to try harder,” Dad said. No specifics; just a general, across-the-board confusing criticism. I was still getting straight A’s, so how much harder could I try!?! Extending his hand, he asked for “a nice firm handshake” to seal my commitment to “try harder.” But I wasn’t sure I could nor would try harder, and prized my word-as-my-bond too highly to give it frivolously, so I declined to shake. Dad turned away, disappointment in me writ clear across his face. If memory serves, it was the last “date” we ever had.

The Ever Rising Bar

In the altogether insane sport of pole vaulting (IMHO), the bar over which the vaulter vaults is raised higher, higher and ever higher. We perfectionists learned to do that to ourselves at the narcissist’s knee. Although perfectionism will never wrest unconditional love from the breast of a narcissist who is unable or unwilling to give it, but we didn’t know that. Logically, we assumed we simply weren’t perfect enough. As they raised the bar for us, we learned to raise the bar for ourselves. It becomes an unconscious habit, almost an addiction. Only recently have I realized how much I do this to myself.

It wasn’t enough to suddenly pick up the violin at age twenty-three. Oh no! I had to become Jascha Heifetz! Playing the instrument solely for enjoyment seemed pointless. It was a downright waste unless I did it excellently!

Cooking a good meal is never good enough. Haute cuisine — that’s the goal. It depresses me that even the great Escoffier actually simplified French cooking for ho-polloi like me in his 1903 book Le Guide Culinaire. My last Hollaindaise both separated and went grainy. My mashed potatoes are always lumpy. And since I obviously can’t cook haute cuisine (nor afford it!), I feel like a culinary failure.

But that doesn’t stop me from setting a high standard for everything. Writing this blog isn’t enough. Oh no! I added on artwork. And bread baking. I tried (and failed) to mimic the we-make-everything-from-scratch lifestyle of friends who live in a self-sufficiency cult. I just kept raising the bar, piling on the work, moving my own cheese.

Raising the bar did not raise my self-esteem. Adding on activity did not make me feel more worthwhile. If anything, I felt like a failure at e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.

Envy

What about those people who actually do seem to have achieved the level of perfection we aspire too? You know the ones.

There’s never a hair of their coiffure out of place. Their manicure is fresh and perfect. Their chique clothes, well-tailored and perfectly creased paired with the perfect jewelry ensemble. Their children are Honor Students and their dog wins obedience competitions. The grapevine has it that their house is straight out of Better Homes and Gardens and perpetually spotless. Every time your department holds a potluck, the dish they bring is Betty Crocker yummy. And worst of all, they seem so serene. Life seems to be a calm pleasure to them. Secretly we envy Her Serene Highness unspeakably.

We, on the other hand, struggle from morn ’til night, hair awry, lipstick chewed off and clothing wrinkled, and still feel like failures. No matter how hard we work nor how hard we try, there’s always “a string hanging from our hem” as my mother so eloquently phrased it. Our ducks are always wandering off and never in a row. There’s a pearl missing from our strand. I could go on, but you get the point.

FAILURE! That’s what the narcissist called us, didn’t they? We use that word a lot about ourselves, don’t we. Listen to yourself sometime. I bet you say it a lot.

Once we run a quick vacuum over the house, our I-only-shake-when-treats-are-offered dog needs a bath to judge by his happy whiffyness.

So we drag him, limp in protest, to the bathtub, only to find afterward he’s dried himself on the only patch of dirt in our otherwise green front lawn.

So we hose the happily muddy caninus familiarus down in the now-muddy shower…and he dries himself on our bedspread.

So we pop the sodden bedspread into the washing machine (it needed washing anyways), only to discover the time for supper has come and gone.

While the belated supper cooks, we wash the dishes from last night’s Supper and become so engrossed, tonight’s supper burns. So we throw a frozen pizza in the oven instead, choking back our tears from being a “failure” at everything.

And we haven’t even begun to discuss the children, the musty dirty laundry, the unpaid bills, the sandy car, the weedy garden, the overgrown lawn, the unshampooed carpet, the untried recipes, the unclipped coupons, the unfolded towels…the list is endless and all of it screams just one word: FAILURE!

Oh yes, and we haven’t done our yoga or had that nice relaxing cup of tea during “me time” either. More failure!

Failure upon failure overwhelms us until we’re in tears, despairing of ever being perfect enough to be loved.

We wonder how Her Serene Highness does it. And mutter a few choice words under our breath the next time we see her perfectly coiffed, made-up, smiling face.

So how can we escape the Purgatory of Perfectionism? Click here for a few helpful tips!

Photo by Archives Branch, USMC History Division