Perfectionism is the central feature of OCPD (obsessive compulsive personality disorder), not to be confused with OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder, think Tony Shalhoub in TV series “Monk” or Jack Nicholson’s character in “As Good As It Gets”). Perfectionism, as part of OCPD, is also characterized by such traits as an over-concern with details, excessive devotion to work and productivity (at the expense of leisure), excessive conscientiousness, scrupulousness, thriftiness, inflexibility and rigidity in the issues of morality and ethics, reluctance to delegate tasks and reluctance to relinquish control (Pfohl & Blum, 1991).
Perfectionism is mostly a result of learning, programming and conditioning. I see it as an ingenious adaptation to a hyper-critical, high-pressure, invalidating environment, a psychological self-defense strategy that unfortunately creates more problems than it solves. Most of the perfectionists I have worked with had perfectionistic or narcissistic parents. Aside from parental influence, the extent of perfectionism depends on the culture you live in. Some societies are more culturally perfectionistic than others. The so-called “developed societies,” for example, tend to emphasize “efficiency, punctuality, a willingness to work hard, and orientation to detail,” i.e. the very traits that may accompany perfectionism and OCPD (Millon et al., 2000, p. 174).
Perfectionism can be directed at oneself and/or at others (Flett & Hewitt, 2002). Self-directed (inwardly-oriented) perfectionists are notoriously hard on themselves: if they make a mistake they shred themselves to pieces in ruminating bouts of merciless self-scrutiny. Whereas self-directed perfectionists are their own worst critics, other-directed (outwardly-focused) perfectionists are tough on others and are easily frustrated by others’ imperfections. The literature on perfectionism also distinguishes between generalized (or “extreme”) perfectionism (in which perfectionists pursue “extreme standards across a variety of life domains”) and situational perfectionism (in which perfectionism is limited to specific areas of life) (Flett & Hewitt, 2002, p. 16). Situational perfectionism is, up to a point, adaptive. Indeed, some jobs have extremely narrow margins of error and require high level technical precision (e.g. surgeon) and protocol compliance (e.g. Secretary of State). When, however, perfectionism becomes a way of living (rather than a way of earning a living) then you have a case of generalized or “extreme” perfectionism.
If you are recognizing yourself in any of this, worry not: chances are your prognosis is good! How can I assert that without knowing you? My work with perfectionists has taught me that perfectionists are a highly motivated lot, perfectly positioned for a self-help approach. There’s one speed-bump, however: a perfectionist in treatment/therapy – just like anywhere else – wishes to excel. That, of course, boomerangs because the relentless striving to stop being perfectionistic reinforces the very perfectionism that a perfectionist is trying to overcome. The intuitive strategies (of, say, banning perfectionistic thoughts) tend to fall short which calls for more paradoxical, out-of-the-left-field, lateral (pattern-interrupting), and experiential interventions. In sum, the trick is not to fight your perfectionism but to let go of it. As for the know-how of this elusive “letting go” process, it is too long of a story to describe in a blog post. We (your mind and mine) will have to meet on the pages of my upcoming book (Present Perfect) to take this discussion to another level.
Additional reading (on the motives behind perfectionism): 3 Types of Perfectionistic Hunger http://www.eatingthemoment.com/ordinary-perfection/2009/11/10/3-types-of-perfectionistic-hunger.html
Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of "Eating the Moment" (New Harbinger, 2008), "Present Perfect" (NH, 2010), and "The Lotus Effect" (NH, 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit http://www.eatingthemoment.com and sign up for Pavel Somov’s (free) blog feed Sapience/formerly Mindful-not-Mouthful