12/04/2012 06:14 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Are You a Perfectionist?

In a quest for perfection, a friend of mine, I'll call her Liz, has kept up a frantic pace for 40 years. She raised three sons who were always well groomed and neatly dressed. Their house was and is as picture perfect as a magazine layout. The backyard has an unreal quality, as if each blade of grass has been arranged to perfection. The garage is shipshape perfect. Every room in the house is immaculate and beautifully decorated. The inside of the refrigerator is germ‑free. Even the trash under the kitchen sink seems sanitized. When she was raising her family the entire family worked hard at their home and at their other goals -- even if it meant staying up all night.

"For many years we had a business cleaning offices," Liz told me. "I worked my daytime job and then the whole family would clean offices from 5 to 11 p.m. We would get a few hours of sleep and then start all over the next day. On weekends we would clean our own house and work on our own remodeling projects. We would stay up around the clock until they were done."

Liz and her husband have always been over-stretched financially to make their house, family, and life look perfect. Clothing could not look worn, their cars could not look used, the yard could not look weathered. When the newness wore off an item, it was replaced. They continued buying and buying and fixing and fixing so that the exterior of their lives appeared perfect. Their goal is not necessarily materialism, but perfection. Even now that the boys are grown and have their own lives, Liz and her husband do not take weekends off.

"We have taken vacations, but then we work twice as hard before we go so that everything is perfect when we come home. When I leave my house on vacation I literally rake the carpets with a garden rake on my way out of the door so that when I come back home everything will be perfect. The kids weren't allowed to go back in even if they forgot something."

For years, the financial pressure to keep her perfect house of cards from collapsing drove Liz to extremes.

"For one solid year I worked my daytime office job, then I would go home and try to sleep for three or four hours, and then I would go to my next job on an assembly line from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. I would shower and then go back to my daytime job."

During that year, they continued buying things for their home and working on the remodeling projects. On the outside, their life appeared perfect.

"But we found that we couldn't keep the work pace up, and everything started to slide. One day my neighbor stopped by and found me curled up on the kitchen floor in a fetal position. I was so tired, I just dropped there. I couldn't even talk."

The pressure was too much for their marriage, which nearly broke apart. Bills had piled up that they could no longer juggle. They were forced to file for bankruptcy protection and the house of cards of perfectionism came toppling down.

Liz understands how she became a perfectionist.

"Since I was very little, I grew up cleaning and straightening things up -- it was a family thing. It was mostly because of my mother. I always wanted to keep things looking good so that it wouldn't cause her to flip out. It was like we didn't want to give her any reasons."

Liz's mother's drinking and suicide attempts that began when Liz was 7 were the source of great anxiety in the family. Not that keeping the house perfect always kept Liz's mother calm. She would sometimes flip out even if the house was clean and ordered.

Liz believed that there was safety in perfection, and she feared imperfection led to anxiety, nervousness, and jitters, when things were not perfect led to blindly driving herself led to nervous breakdown and bankruptcy.

Perfectionists are the ultimate never-enough personalities. Perfectionism wrecks havoc on health and happiness. If these characteristics describe you, you might consider that you're a perfectionist.

  1. You will put any amount of energy into the details of a project, wanting everything to be just so.
  2. You have many ambitious goals that you try to accomplish simultaneously.
  3. You almost never finish everything you expect to accomplish in one day.
  4. You do not feel a sense of satisfaction when you accomplish a goal, but rather you pick it apart for its flaws or you are already thinking of something else that needs to be done.
  5. You never feel satisfied with yourself.
  6. You are self-critical and unforgiving of your flaws.
  7. You are compelled to work rather than do something fun.
  8. Even when you are doing something that is supposed to be fun you turn it into a project/work.
  9. You feel nervous taking time away from work, even if it is for family fun.
  10. No matter what you do you feel that it is never enough.
  11. You do not feel that you have high expectations of yourself, or that you make unreasonable demands on yourself even though others tell you that you are too hard on yourself.

If you're fed up with feeling crazed, you might want to consider admitting how exhausting, depleting, and defeating your quest for perfection is, and that no matter how perfect you become, you will never satisfy your own critical voice. Perfectionists often set self-defeating goals.

"I always think that I am going to have more hours during the day to get things done," Liz said. "I might have 10 jobs on a mental list that I think should be done that day. Maybe I get five of them done, and then I get really depressed that I didn't get the other five done, because I think that I should have been able to fit all of those into my 24-hour day."

Maybe the first step in recovering from being a perfectionist is to admit, "Yes, I am a perfectionist."

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