Perfectionism's Trap: Matthew McConaughey's Impossible Chase
Perfectionism is an addiction, meaning we’re repeatedly unable to stop our perfectionist behaviors. Like other addictions, perfectionism varies in severity and can have negative consequences. It harms our self-esteem, makes us unable to accept other people’s differences and their mistakes and flaws, and it can rob us of time with them. We require that things look or are done in a specific, “correct” way in accordance with our perfectionist standards. Some perfectionists attempt to perfect their bodies with repeated surgeries or pursue athleticism to the point of injury. Severe perfectionism has also been linked to anorexia, depression, and even suicide.
Perfectionists are chasing an illusion that exists only in their mind. Telling perfectionists that they look fine or that their home or project is excellent is of no use. Their image of how things should be bears little correlation to reality. They will continue to find flaws and have difficulty taking pleasure in compliments or satisfaction from their efforts. Perfectionists expect what is humanly impossible. Hence, they don’t accept themselves or their own humanity. Self-acceptance is a foreign concept. The thought of being average is horrifying and would mean being inferior, what they fear, but also what they actually believe. They never feel good enough and live with a harsh inner judge that tyrannizes them with how they should act, what they should have done differently or should be doing that they’re not. They’re sensitive to criticism, because it mirrors the doubts perfectionists have about themselves and their work. A negative reaction from someone overshadows positive feedback they receive. Dreading criticism, some perfectionists hide their mistakes and only take credit for the positive they do.
Their behavior reflects underlying shame – not feeling good enough as a person in some way, such as looks, character, physical prowess, or intelligence. They unconsciously imagine that achieving perfection would make them feel worthwhile. This compensates for deep-seated shame about which perfectionists are generally unaware.
Because perfection is relative and an illusion, a perfectionist is always chasing it. Hence, a perfectionist is continually failing and unable to enjoy the results of their efforts. When success is achieved, pride of accomplishment is only fleetingly enjoyed, if at all, because there is always a flaw or higher bar to surpass. For example gratification from receiving an “A” on a test can be spoiled if they made a mistake or a teacher’s comments were anything but complimentary. Upon winning the highly coveted Oscar for Best Actor, Matthew McConaughey aptly described his perfectionism as always chasing his future self, knowing he’ll never catch up. He proudly declared, “My hero is always 10 years away...to keep on chasing.” In actuality, perfectionists are constantly running away from their inner critic, and the pursuit of their imaginary ideal provides ongoing ammunition for self-criticism. This is the perfectionists’ trap. Their defensive solution to shame creates more of it.
The seeds of shame and perfectionism lie in childhood and often accompany codependency. Parents who are overcorrecting, controlling, abusive, punitive, or unpredictable can create insecurity and doubt in their children. Children imagine that if they perform flawlessly or are perfectly good, they will be accepted or that their parents won’t argue, that Mommy will be happy or Daddy won’t drink. Other parents encourage perfectionism by pressuring their children to perform, achieve unrealistic goals, or only approve of them based upon their performance. Even bright children, as well as perfectionist adults, quit or avoid learning new things to avoid feeling like a failure during the learning process when mistakes are unavoidable. Parents should empathize with their children’s sense of failure when they make mistakes.
Perfectionists fear exposing mistakes or a sloppy or inferior performance or appearance. Several decades ago, the plaster of my living room wall had to be patched due to earthquake damage. (I live in California, so this literally goes with the territory.) The plasterer did his best to match the rest of the wall, but the original plaster had a variegated, mottled texture, and the new plaster didn’t match. Probably no one else would have noticed, but I did. It wasn’t perfect, and I was frustrated. It occurred to me that my fixation on the plaster symbolized my concerns about exposing my own imperfections. With that awareness, I was able to let it go.
As with any addiction, changing habits and compulsive behavior isn’t always so easy. But it’s entirely possible to have high standards and realistic goals without the compulsive, driven quality of perfectionism and without the destructive side effects, as well.