Love in the Time of Perfectionism

In order to go on living one must try to escape the death involved in perfectionism.

—Hannah Arendt
 

Perfectionism is a personality trait characterized by efforts to be flawless and free from error, unrealistically high standards, and excessively critical attitudes, about oneself and others. In spite of high ideals and expectations, perfectionism can be fundamentally negative and pessimistic. Perfectionistic people often come across as controlling, but don’t see themselves as being controlling, leading to interpersonal problems. While striving for excellence can be adaptive and associated with higher performance, by definition maladaptive perfectionism ends in failure, the exact opposite of the imagined ideal. Perfect is the enemy of good enough.

Because perfectionism is obsessional, perfectionistic thinking and experiencing tends to fold back on itself, become rigid and inflexible, characterized by harsh self-criticism rather than kind self-compassion. In a certain sense, the day-to-day strain of trying to do the impossible for the wrong reasons, perfectionism is a deadening way to live, shutting down essential feelings of vitality and optimism.

We live in a time of increasing cultural perfectionism, especially in Western cultures embroiled in metrics, optics and socialization, excessively demanding workplaces, and high rates of burnout. Well-compensated perfectionists can do well in such an environment, but when it isn’t sustainable, everything can go down in flames.

Am I a perfectionist?

People with perfectionistic tendencies often can’t recognize that they have expections which are different from those of many other people. Perfectionists tend to lack insight into the nature of how they see themselves and others. The negative impact of their actions on their own lives and relationships around them, when perfectionism becomes maladapative, is often lost on them, or recognized at a high cost when relationships and work cause enough suffering to overcome their self-blindness around perfectionism. When we do accept that we may be (or are) perfectionistic, it is easy to feel stuck with no idea of how to change, or how to be anything other than perfectionistic, so near-sighted is perfectionism.

Psychonalytic and psychodynamic therapists might call this self-blindness “ego syntonic”, in line with comfortable views about oneself, and recognition of negative traits as “ego dystonic”. Maintaining a comfort level about oneself can trump external feedback (reality), and seeing perfectionism as a positive trait while blaming others for various shortcomings can maintain equilibrium, and avoid the shame and vulnerability which often surrounds self-acknowledgement of any kind of problem. Asking for help is out of the question when you don’t even know help is needed.

By externalizing inner problems, people ignorant of their own motivations tend to rely on projection. They see their own issues writ large in other people and in the world, and causal attributions are split—everything good is within oneself and possibly a few select others (until they do something “wrong”), and everything bad is outside and either someone else’s fault, or a problem with the way things are. Reality is the best defense.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, while there are temperamental components, perfectionism may be seen as one response to a harsh, overly demanding childhood, or an adaptation to an overly chaotic, unsafe environment. Essentially, perfectionism can be associated with complex trauma. Efforts to control others in orders and the environment to maintain developmental safety backfire in adulthood. Perfectionism often comes across as hostile, but the perfectionist typically doesn’t see it that way.

You don’t know what you don’t know.

If you have a condition, and you don’t know that you have that condition, neurologists call it “anosagnosia“, from the Greek “to not know a disease”. What are examples of anosagnosia? Following a stroke affecting certain parts of the brain, people may show what is called “hemi-neglect“. For example, if you ask that person to put on her or his jacket, they put on the left side only, not realizing there is a right side of the world at all, let alone a right arm and right side of the body. There is a massive blind-spot. Anosagnosia is not denial – it is a lack of insight or awareness of a medical condition. If you tell someone with anosagnosia that they have a problem, they won’t accept that information in any meaningful way.

Anosagnosia is not unusual with psychiatric conditions. It is seen in schizophrenia, some forms of depression, anxiety disorders, addictions, personality disorders (including perfectionism), hypochondriasis (now called Illness Anxiety Disorder) and others. This makes it very tricky to navigate relationships with people who have a problem and don’t see it because of how we attribute their motivations. When a symptoms of an illness is lack of insight and awareness into the very nature of that illness, personal progress is often greatly hindered and relationships suffer.

If I think you “know” you have a problem but won’t do anything about it, I’m more likely to blame you, leading to relationship problems. I’m more likely to say you are in denial, rather than comprehend you simply don’t know anything is wrong. On the other hand, if we recognize that the person’s lack of insight is a feature of the disease itself, and not some at least partially intentional form of denial, we are more likely to attribute the issues to the disease, making it easier to deal with the challenges. 

Three kinds of perfectionism.

Davis and colleagues (2018) describe three forms of perfectionism from prior psychological work: self-oriented perfectionism, socially-prescribed perfectionism, and other-oriented perfectionism (originally described by Frost and colleagues in 1990). Self-oriented perfectionism refers to expectations about our own performance, other-oriented perfectionism to our expectations for others, and socially-prescribed perfectionism refers to the belief that others have unrealistic expectations of oneself.

They report that prior research suggests that when we expect our partners to be perfect (other-oriented perfectionism), relationships are less-satisfying and committed. Socially-prescribed perfectionism has been associated with negative emotional responses while dating, difficulty being married, and lower relationship and sexual satisfaction. Perfectionism is associated with a variety of other issues, as well.

Taking a closer look at perfectionism and relationships.

In their recently published paper “Multidimensional perfectionism and perceptions of potential relationship partners”, they set out to see if prior findings hold true in research designed to be more reliable and therefore definitive if the findings are similar (called a “replication study”), and to further spell out how different kinds of perfectionism correlate with important relationship factors.

They surveyed 381 people recruited from an online research population, 170 women, 210 men and 1 genderqueer with an average age of 35 years old, ranging from young adult to elderly. Participants were told the study was about how people respond to information on dating sites. They were presented with simulated dating profiles, completing a series of measures (described below). Unbeknownst to participants, there were five different profiles: a baseline neutral profile, an explicitly non-perfectionistic profile, a self-oriented perfectionist profile, an other-oriented perfectionist profile, and a socially-prescribed prefectionist profile.

They asked basic information about relationship status and sexual orientation. They complete rating items (from 1-7, strongly disgree to strongly agree), including the following: general likeability; warmth and competence; how much they would want to be in a relationship with the person described in the profile; what kind of relationship they would envision (long-term vs. short-term, high-investment vs. low-investment); and openness to any kind of relationship with the person described. Participants also rated themselves on their own perfectionistic tendencies, along the same three dimensions.

After completing these first measures, participants were then provided with a response to a dating inquiry from each hypothetical person described in the profiles and asked to re-evalute their initial responses. Imagine you contacted someone on a dating website, said, “Write something about yourself that someone might not know from just looking at you,” and got the following messages back. 

  • SOP profile: “I strive to be as perfect as possible and I never settle for less than perfection from myself. It is important to me to be perfect in everything I attempt. In fact, if I can’t do things perfectly, I won’t do them at all.”
  • SPP profile: “I feel as though people are disappointed in me wheneve I don’t do something perfectly. I think people make excessive demands of me and expect me to be perfect. In general, I feel as though people expect too much from me.”
  • OOP profile: “It is important to me that other people do things perfectly. People complain that I expect too much of them but I expect people close to me, like my friends or family, to be perfect. I believe that everything that other people do should be flawless.”
  • NP profile: “I am unfazed if things don’t go perfectly. In fact, I don’t care if I do anything perfectly, I just try my best. No one expects anything I do to be perfect and I don’t expect anything they do to be perfect either, so long as they are also trying their best.”

What did they find?

First of all, they confirmed findings from prior research. They found that people unsurprisingly are generally less interested in relationships with perfectionists, and least of all with other-oriented perfectionists. All other factors being equal, only people with masochistic tendencies, and/or impaired relational self-care for other reasons, would spend time with someone who thinks they are inadequate, and isn’t shy about letting them know.

Participants found non-perfectionist and baseline profiles the most desirable, and socially-prescribed perfectionism the least objectionable form of perfectionism. On the contrary, those who rated themselves as perfectionistic had a greater tendency to seek out other perfectionists, with diminished interest in non-perfectionistic or baseline profiles. In this case, birds of a feather appear to flock together, perhaps both because of affinity and attraction, as well as some recognition that other perfectionists may be more inclined to tolerate perfectionism from others in order to sustain relationships. It also suggests that if you think your partner is a perfectionist, and you think you are not a perfectionist, you may need to take another (hopefully non-judgmental) look in the proverbial mirror.

Overall, non-perfectionists were not interested in relationships with perfectionists, perfectionists were relatively drawn to other perfectionists, and perfectionists and non-perfectionists would not be inclined to look for relationships with one another.

Perfectionism in couples dynamics.

Recent research (Taylor et al., 2016) has found correlations with anxious attachment and perfectionism in adolescents. It will be interesting to see how attachment style varies with different kinds of perfectionism in future studies. If perfectionistic traits tend to be associated with a preoccupied or anxious insecure attachment style, perfectionism could keep couples together in spite of the mutual distress which perfectionism engenders. To add insult to injury, perfectionism gets in the way of collaboratively resolving relationship issues.

The Davis et al. study also shows that people are likely to see perfectionists as less warm and less competent. Even self-oriented perfectionists, who place the greatest demands on themselves, were seen as less competent than non-perfectionists, though more likely to be competent than other kinds of perfectionist. Furthermore, participants not only viewed perfectionists as lacking warmth, but they also judged them as less likeable. The study authors suggest that people may assign lower social status to perfectionists because of lower perceived competence. The authors also point out that less warm people are seen as more competitive, and so perfectionists may be seen as more competitive. That is a bad combination, perceived lower competence and higher competitiveness, not a recipe for good professional relations.

In terms of type of romantic relationships, long and short-term, high and low investment, baseline and non-perfectionist profiles were rated as most desirable. As with warmth and competence, other-oriented perfectionists were least desired, followed by self-oriented perfectionists, and finally socially-prescribed perfectionists.  More people thought that they would be happy, if at all, in low-investment short-term relationships with perfectionists.

“Toxic” relationships.

These findings suggest that in terms of general “toxicity”, socially-prescribed perfectionists are the easiest to deal with, followed by self-oriented perfectionists, and finally other-oriented perfectionists. The interaction between attachment and perfectionism is intriguing.

What kinds of relationships would come out of pairings between different kinds of perfectionist, as perfectionists tend to be attracted to perfectionists? Would two self-oriented perfectionists be a good match, because they wouldn’t criticize each other? Or would that implode if they started destructively competing with one another, rather than supporting ambitions? Would self-oriented perfectionists get along with other-oriented perfectionists, or would self- and other-oriented blaming cause too much conflict? When would perfectionists find joy together, and even become a “power couple”?

Socially-prescribed perfectionists might mesh well with other-oriented perfectionists, as other-oriented folks would reenforce the notion that people expect a lot, but that could easily backfire. Two other-oriented perfectionists dating one another sounds potentially awful, as they each demand the impossible from one another and dole out punishment for failing to be perfect. How people get along may depend on the intensity of the perfectionism, in addition to how different kinds of intensity interact, making for an even more complex picture. 

Thinking through the different combos, it’s easy to understand how come perfectionism is associated with lower relationship satisfaction, and harder to see how to improve relationships overshadowed by stronger perfectionistic tendencies. Future research would have to get more granular in looking at relationships involving different kinds of perfectionism. However, because of the higher overall level of criticism, supportive measures, especially those directed at supporting self-esteem, might help at least to alleviate some of the distress, along with mindfulness and compassion-based practices (if they can be tolerated). It’s well worth the effort, and one of the first lessons is to take the long view on change, and relinquish unrealistic expectations for instant results.

For perfectionists, who may not know they are perfectionistic even when they honestly consider the possibility, this research poses hard questions: Am I perfectionistic, even if I don’t know it? If I am, what kind of perfectionism do I experience? How does it affect my self-esteem and productivity, and my relationships? Do I depend on perfectionism too much? Where does it come from? Should I try to work on being less perfectionistic? What does that even look like, I can’t imagine being different? Would I still be me if I weren’t perfectionistic, or would I be “more” myself? Even when we recognize our own perfectionistic tendencies, the struggle can be slow-going, hard to tolerate, but ultimately worthwhile.

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