Perfectionism beyond a limit can be maladaptive, distressing to the person himself as well as the people around him.
Purushothaman is all the time worried and dissatisfied. He has tried to give his 200 per cent to everything he did. Apart from working day time in a factory, he was a small-time farmer growing vegetables in his big backyard and active member of the local society. He did his daily exercise to keep himself fit. He also put in extra efforts to maintain good relationship with all his relatives. Then why on earth was he so upset?
This idealistic man seemed to be suffocating his family members with his perfectionism. He was constantly disappointed with them who, according to him, never rose to his standards. All his life he has been pointing out their faults, lecturing them about their duties and warning them about how their future would be doomed unless they changed their easygoing nature.
With each passing year, he found his wife and children, now grown up adults, becoming more detached and irresponsible, quite contrary to what he wanted. They seemed to be purposely not following his instructions. They avoided him even to the extent of refusing to sit together to have a meal! Obviously, they found his constant blaming and advising obnoxious.
We are dealing with a highly perfectionist, workaholic man here. Such people are said to have Anankastic personality traits. Often preoccupied with details, rules and order, they have conflicts with the family members or colleagues because they believe that they know what is best and insist that others follow their own way of doing things. They never allow others the freedom to decide. They compromise on essential pleasure and cordial interpersonal relationship in their race to be always productive and working. Thus, perfectionism beyond a limit can be maladaptive, distressing to the person himself as well as the people around him.
Perfectionists never wait for others to do their duties. They take it upon themselves to finish tasks without waiting for the deadline, due to their anxiety. This makes them feel that others are lazy and are not bothered about doing their duties. Their constant bragging that ‘But for me, nothing would be accomplished…, it's all my hard work and achievement…' puts off people. Others get even more demoralised and oppositional. People associating with perfectionists always feel that “it's better not to do anything at all …if we do something, we get criticised…and anyway, he will take all the credit and never acknowledge our efforts.” Thus, family members, colleagues and subordinates of perfectionists gradually become passive and aggressive, purposely delaying and forgetful, and oppositional and non-functional. This aggravates interpersonal problems and strengthens the vicious cycle of blaming by the perfectionist and underperforming by the people around him.
It is difficult for family members to convince the perfectionist of his problematic behaviour. Nor does he realise on his own that his blaming and advising are actually driving people away from him or making them more and more irresponsible. This pattern could be the reason for high achieving parents to often have kids who just seem to be wasting away their potential.
Children of a perfectionist parent grow up being constantly criticised for their “inadequate performance.” This seriously dents their confidence and self-esteem. These children are often forced to focus only on studies and give up their pleasures and pastimes. Such a situation puts them at the risk of falling victim to depression and anxiety disorders. They may even develop suicidal tendencies.
Even when the perfectionist seems to have succeeded in making his family members rise to his high standards, it's often at a cost.
Take, for example, the recipient of a best teacher award. All her life, she has stressed it out trying to do her best for her children, husband, students and all. How she wished she could just relax and take it easy like some of her colleagues or friends who seemed to know how to really have fun and enjoy life!
As William Shakespeare said in King Lear “Striving to be better, oft we mar what's well”.
(The writer is Clinical Asst. Professor, Department of Clinical Psychology, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences. His email ID is firstname.lastname@example.org)