Perfectionism is akin to insatiable hunger, to a relentless striving on a feedback loop. In striving for perfection, what have you been actually craving? As I see it there are 3 types of perfectionistic hunger:
- Approval/validation hunger
- Reflection/attention hunger
- Control/certainty hunger.
Approval/Validation Hunger Perfectionism:
A pat on the back, a word of praise, a nod of approval can sure feel validating, and can put a self-doubting mind at ease. Approval-hungry/validation-hungry perfectionism parallels the so-called Conscientious Compulsive variant of OCPD (Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder)(Millon et al., 2000). Conscientious compulsives tend to be hard-working, dutiful, and ever eager to meet others' expectations. They fear "that failure to perform perfectly will lead to both abandonment and condemnation" by others (Millon et al., 2000, p. 176-177, my italics). This makes sense: when you are perfect, people generally like you (unless they are threatened by your perfection) and they come to depend on you; as a result, you feel valuable and indispensible. The downside, of course, is that you have to constantly strive to meet everyone's expectations and that you essentially live in fear of others' disapproval of you.
Reflection/Attention Hunger Perfectionism:
At a certain stage of our growing up it is essential that we feel seen, acknowledged, and attended to -- i.e. mirrored. Perfectionism can be an adaptation to a deficit of mirroring. Growing up with an insecure, possibly narcissistic, parent, you might have lost your sense of self because your sense of self was in the service of being a mirror for your parent's hungry ego. And now the only way for you to feel good about yourself is to stand out by being perfect. Some reflection-hungry perfectionists seek out attention; others demand it, commanding special treatment and insisting on unquestioning compliance with their wishes, both trying to be perfect themselves and demanding nothing less than perfection from others. If you recognize yourself in this, cut yourself some slack: you aren't bad, you are just starved.
Control/Certainty Hunger Perfectionism:
Life's confusing and full of the unexpected. It tests our predictive acumen and frustrates our assumptions. So, in order to go on and not surrender to the chaos of life, we crave certainty, we yearn for a sense of control, we seek reassurance that we are on the right track. To deal with this uncertainty and lack of control, we shop around for a philosophy of living, for some kind of ideological structure or guidance, and once we find something that makes half decent sense, we latch on to it. As we become invested in a particular way of living and thinking, we become understandably threatened by differences as they make us second-guess our own approach to life, undermining our hard-earned sense of certainty and control. Some of us respond by becoming more rigid. We might even fight back by insisting that others should live, think, act the way we do. So, in trying to protect our sense of control, we become judgmental and controlling. This kind of principled perfectionism is common in the area of ethics and morality and it runs a close parallel to the so-called Puritanical Compulsive variant of OCPD which is characterized by being uncompromising and dogmatic (Millon, 2000). If control/certainty-hungry perfectionism rings the bell and you don't like the sound of it, allow yourself to recognize that hunger for control and certainty (just like hunger for approval, validation, reflection, and attention) is a normal part of who we are. We all start out as a bit needy and afraid. We are all new to this confusing, bewildering and awesome world. Living -- like any skill -- has a learning curve to it. If you are reading this, you are climbing this curve.
Exercise: What's Eating at Me?
Ask yourself: What am I hungering for? What am I chasing: perfection, approval, certainty, validation? Ask yourself: Why am I seeking all this? How am I incomplete without it all? What's amiss? Do I really need what I am chasing or do I just want it? What will approval prove? What will validation validate? What will certainty assure me from? Ask yourself: Whose stamp of approval am I striving for and why? Whose pat on my back has the power of the Midas touch that makes me feel golden, valuable, worthwhile? Whose opinion of me do I worship, seek out, cater to? Who has the power and wisdom to reassure me of all my fears and insecurities? Whose validation, attention and acknowledgment do I need in order to feel visible and justified in my existence? Ask yourself: Who promoted this person/these people to this special status? How did they earn such clout, such influence in my life? Ask yourself: How have I gotten by all these years without that I'm still chasing?
Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time (New Harbinger, 2008) and of "Present Perfect: From Mindless Pursuit of What Should Be to Mindful Acceptance of What Is" (in press, New Harbinger Publications, in stores in July 2010). He is in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. For more information visit www.eatingthemoment.com and sign up for Pavel Somov's monthly "Mindful-not-Mouthful" Newsletter