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.