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The perils of perfectionism

The world is an interesting place, full of interesting people. It is a cornucopia of personalities, events and happenings, moods and melodies and so much more. Were I to attempt to write about the different types of personalities that help to spin the globe, someone would find my skeleton sitting at my desk.

I choose to focus today on a very special type of person, the perfectionist. Such an individual is so complicated but let’s see if I can give you a sneak-peek into the mind of this unique one. Shall we name him? I think so! Let us call him Trevor, and I quickly add my disclaimer that the comments and events hereafter listed are not related to anyone named Trevor currently alive or already deceased.

Perhaps in Trevor’s life there was a parent who was a strict disciplinarian who never understood that children needed to play as part of their general development. This parent probably had a hard life and wanted better for his or her son and so they were never satisfied with a less than stellar report. It was never ‘O.K.’ for Trevor to get a ‘B’ and many times he may have been punished for doing so.

This type of behaviour would have been reinforced in Trevor’s mind and he would consequently develop the faulty thinking that love was dependent on good results. Those things we learn in childhood take a long time to unlearn and so Trevor no doubt strived for perfection in pursuit of love.

Trevor on the outside as a child is a high-achiever and the child everyone wishes was their own. As a teen he is focused and driven beyond his years and we meet him again at the top of his game as a young adult. What are some personality traits that would clue us into the fact that Trevor has become a perfectionist?

He needs to have everything done perfectly.

He spends an inordinately lengthy time on a project trying to get it right.

He takes a long time to start a project.

He gives up on many things if he is not perfect at doing them.

There is an intense, sometimes crippling, cloud of fear looming over his head.

He does not like anyone to tell him there is a fault with his work and is unable to accept even constructive criticism.

He strives for perfection instead of excellence.

He has exacting standards for himself and everyone else.

He is very intolerant of the mistakes of others.

He suffers from ‘presenteeism’- that need to be present so that no one can fault him for being absent.

He always says ‘yes’ when asked to do a favour or extra work despite an already impossible workload.

He is prone to suffer from burnout.

He finds grave difficulty in recovering from a ‘failure’.

It must be difficult living in the world of the perfectionist. I have to say that I firmly believe in doing things well and striving for excellence. However, the goal of perfection cannot be attained on this side of the mud… it just is not possible.

The first step in recovering from perfectionism is realizing that one is a perfectionist. There are many tools available on-line to assess oneself or perhaps that annoying colleague you suspect might be one. After recognizing this, the next step is understanding that set behaviour patterns do not change overnight under normal circumstances. This process takes months possibly even years to reverse and maybe not ever reverse completely.

After recognizing the problem is the need to seek out a solution. Not surprisingly, this might take the perfectionist a while, trying to determine what the best solution to the problem might be. I humbly suggest professional counselling.

I am sure that alarm bells similar in intensity to those on a fire truck are going off in a many a head. Yes, I said counselling. In the Caribbean, mental health concerns generally have gotten a very bad rap simply because of the perceptions of our people. Perhaps we believe psychiatrists and counsellors are only for those persons who are ‘mad’ (whatever that means) and that there is no benefit otherwise to having a meeting with any of those professional men and women.

That could not be further from the truth. Trained mental health professionals function in so many categories that maybe I should discuss that in another article. Be that as it may, the perfectionist should seek out the services of a trained mental health professional for guidance and advice on how to manage this abnormal behaviour pattern.

If an individual goes to his or her doctor for an acute infection and is prescribed medication, he or she will not benefit unless the medication is taken as prescribed. In the same way, a perfectionist cannot recover if he or she does not adhere to the treatment prescribed and maintain follow up care. In the same way the abnormal thinking patterns were constantly reinforced, new ways of thinking need to be reinforced. It takes time and a considerable amount of effort.

I also think it advisable to engage the support of family members and friends because any difficult journey is made more bearable with support. These persons can also see when the perfectionist may be slipping back into old habits and can help redirect him or her to the straight and narrow path.

The world of the perfectionist is filled with negative emotions such as the fear we mentioned earlier, being critical of others and sadly, a lot of low self-esteem. However, I am a firm believer in the fact that if there is life, there is hope. Perfectionism can be helped and sufferers (because indeed, such persons suffer) can lead normal healthy lives, with love and support from friends and family and the input of a trained professional.

(Rénee Boyce is a medical doctor, a wife, a mother and a Christian, who is committed to Barbados’ development. Email:reneestboyce@gmail.com)

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