Hi! My name’s Alexandra and I’m a perfectionist. That’s good, eh? Well, let me tell you about it…
One of the autistic traits that often crops up in lists is attention to detail. We’re notorious for focusing on the small things, picking up what others often overlook. And then there is the pattern recognition, and seeking order in our environment. I have many autistic friends who excel at Where’s Waldo? or spotting the differences between two pictures. Many of us find our attention drawn to whatever doesn’t fit or is out of place.
And that attention to detail is what most people think of when they hear the word perfectionist: somebody who is methodical, double-checking every aspect of what they do. Zero faults.
Yeah. It bears about as much relation to that as a paper plane does to an airliner. At heart perfectionism is an anxiety disorder, in the same class as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
When you suffer from perfectionism your sense of self-worth is inextricably tied to your assessment of how well you measure up to standards that you set yourself. It’s an intrinsic measure, not an extrinsic one although it may leverage extrinsic feedback such as scores and grades in school, performance evaluations at work, comments by friends.
When I was at school we had examinations at the end of each term and I was accustomed to placing first or second. Over seven years, with three exams a year, there were two occasions when I didn’t place in the top two: one time I came third, and once when I came 7th. I was about 9 at the time, and writing this 35 years later I still feel ashamed that I did so poorly.
Most people would put it down to an off day, or make some other excuse to explain it: it would be an excusable anomaly. As a perfectionist there are no excuses: I can’t bring myself to accept that I failed so badly. And I was terrified to go home and face my parents after it, even though I had no rational reason to expect them to react negatively. I don’t even recall them being disappointed, but that’s not the point: as I said, it’s an intrinsic judgement and I found myself guilty as hell.
Perfectionism does drive you to succeed, but it does that by setting the bar higher and higher every time. Second place is the first loser. Coming first in school exams wasn’t enough if I didn’t get a perfect score. Failure is built in, eventually inevitable, but the motivation comes from seeing failing as catastrophic. The terror it inspires, the paralysing anxiety, is serious and disabling.
Just as when obsessions completely dominate the thinking of somebody with OCD, so thoughts of failing come to dominate that of somebody suffering from perfectionism. I use the word suffering deliberately: I’ve sat there paralysed with fear, terrified to do anything at all in case I got some small part of it wrong. It triggers panic attacks, makes me unable to function.
So, far from being some super-power that enables me to perform above average, perfectionism is in reality an obstacle to performing at all. It doesn’t make me work harder: that’s inspired by my interest in what I’m doing. It doesn’t give me any satisfaction at a job well done. Instead that is the minimum I will accept: if I excel at something it’s merely what I was supposed to do. If I struggle with something, or make mistakes, I’m a failure and worthless.
Perfectionism is toxic. It doesn’t have any upsides: the apparent benefits are illusory and the underlying motivations are unhealthy.
6 thoughts on “Pobody’s Nerfect–Why Perfectionism Isn’t a Good Place To Be”
This is interesting! I’ve always been called a perfectionist and an overachiever, always wanting to get the best grades, the highest scores, the fewest mistakes. I’ve always craved that perfect result. I’ve always been told by others to loosen up and let things go. And I do recognise that a lot of my sense of self-worth is tied up in how well I perform according to my own demanding standards.
The difference is, it feels great for me. When I spot a tiny error in my work, I don’t punish myself, because I know I did the best I could at that moment, and I simply vow to not make the same mistake again. I know that perfection isn’t possible, but I constantly push myself to get closer to perfect, and I learn so much about myself and my capabilities in the process. I always spot the flaws, but if I can’t go back and actually fix them, then I know I gave my best… and that’s pretty damn good.
So I don’t know if that means that I’m really not a perfectionist at all, or whether there’s something hidden underneath perfectionism that decides if it’s a negative or a positive trait. It’s very interesting to think about, though.
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I wonder if the difference is in whether you’re able to accept something that falls short, by however little, without it feeling like an admission of failure?
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Could be! I’m trying to think of times where I felt I was a failure, but that’s almost always situations where for some reason I did nothing at all.
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This post goes to show just how different one autistic person can be from another. As you know, my sister and I are both autistic (as are our sons, and my sister’s grandson). My sister is a perfectionist with OCD – everything has to be clean to the point of being sterile, and in exactly the place that she expects it to be in (this doesn’t include the cat, obviously – although it might if cats could be trained).
Me? I can’t do housework anyway (and have been advised today that I may well never walk unaided again – but that’s a story for my own blog and you and I are already plotting how we can cause maximum havoc at SEAS anyway lol). I’m more concerned about proofreading and editing my drivel, or advising a new tarantula keeper, or looking after my own eight legged crew. There’s also time for me to love Doctor Who and Weird Al when I’m not flying on opiates (which I was when I saw the GP today; if not for the circumstances it might have been funny).
I’m not a slob, as such; I’m messy because I have no choice, and I won’t let anybody come in and tidy for me because I know where (almost) everything is. You know my brand of hospitality though: it’s literally “Welcome! Sit down if you can find somewhere not covered in Stuff – oh, and the kettle’s out there, feel free to make yourself a brew. Oh, and if I don’t mind the mess (that my husband rather than myself creates) you shouldn’t either. Make yourself right at home – oh, have you met this particular eight legs before?”
Basically, I become obsessed with shows and hobbies, as opposed to material things. Just don’t move stuff around in the living room, because that will cause a meltdown!
Umm, who are we going to troll at SEAS anyway? Not that I really notice the eejits – I only look for my friends (and next year I have GOT to get a ridiculous photo with Carnage Cockroach and Spiderman!)
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” It doesn’t give me any satisfaction at a job well done. Instead that is the minimum I will accept: if I excel at something it’s merely what I was supposed to do. If I struggle with something, or make mistakes, I’m a failure and worthless.”
Yes, this is so recognizable. The achievement barely registers as such, because that was what was supposed to happen, so meh. But gods forbid it is slightly subpar…
Pff, exhausting indeed.
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