Its easy to see how perfectionism harms the perfectionist. She (or he) finds it difficult to love herself because she thinks shes lovable only if shes perfect. She drives herself to illness staying up all night to create the perfect visual aids. She frets and stews when stitches are out of place, or shes running late. She may experience anxiety because she forgot to add the accessories to her outfit or discovered a run in her stocking. Clearly perfectionists make themselves miserable by being overly hard on themselves. Unfortunate, however, is the fact that their perfectionism can also make others miserable.
Hard on Children
Children of perfectionists know that if they look good their mom looks good. Mom teaches this lesson with comments like, “Sit up straight, youre embarrassing me.” or “Dont wear that dress. What will people think of our family?” Children of perfectionists witness the frantic running around, the barking of commands, the preparation for performances Mom insists be “perfect.”
When children are young they may work very hard to meet a perfectionist mothers demands. They will scurry right alongside her, trying to please her, and also learning to become a perfectionist themselves. As they grow older, they will feel the angst Mom feels when something is out of place. They may experience equivalent shame to what she feels when things arent perfect. A childs response to this awakening may result in rebellion. They may recognize that the standard set by the perfectionist in the family is unrealistic, impossible and totally unfair. They may simply quit. “Shes impossible to please so why try?” the child of a perfectionist asks themselves.
The perfectionist parent may conclude that God sent her “a rebellious spirit,” when in reality the child would be perfectly compliant if the expectations were within reason.
Hard on the Spouse
You might imagine that perfectionism harms a marriage because the perfectionist pushes their spouse to be perfect just like she pushes the children. This is one obvious symptom of perfectionism. Less obvious, and even more damaging, is the tendency of perfectionists to withdraw from the relationship when they, themselves, have done something that disappointed the spouse.
For example, Sister Walker works very hard to make the perfect dinner for Fathers Day. When the family sits down to eat, her husband is full of praise. However, when she asks how he likes the rolls, he admits that they are bland. Sister Walker remembers that she forgot to add the salt and she is horrified. Angry at herself for failing to meet her own perfectionist standard, she is sullen and withdrawn the rest of the meal, and in some cases for days afterward.
She has difficulty loving herself in the midst of her perceived failure, and thus cannot love her spouse. She resists his overtures of affection, refuses to believe that the bland rolls are of little consequence to him and doubts his sincerity when he claims she is equally lovable, bland rolls or not. Hopefully Sister Walker will “forgive” herself over time and return to the marriage, but this period of withdrawal would not happen if she was not so hard on herself in the first place.
Of course this is an example of a fairly innocuous mistake in a marriage. The same dynamic can occur when offenses are of a greater magnitude. The shame of the perfectionist can be more profound, and the self-forgiveness more difficult when the offense is clearly of a serious nature.
Recovering perfectionists will accept that mistakes are normal, a part of this mortal experience. Everybody makes them. Most importantly, mistakes dont make a person unlovable. If the spouse of a perfectionist stops loving her when she makes a mistake, then we have an entirely different problem on our hands.
Shooting the Messenger
When the perfectionist fails to be perfect (which she will, no matter how hard she tries to avoid it) it affects the marriage in the aforementioned way: she withdraws and considers herself unlovable. Equally damaging is the tendency of perfectionists to blame the spouse for noticing when they have done something offensive. The perfectionist becomes defensive, resentful or bitter because the spouse dared to recognize the mistake. Frequently a perfectionist finds it so troubling to admit she has made a mistake she will go to great lengths to deny the possibility, to defend her actions, and to argue her perspective.
To share another banal example, imagine the spouse asked the perfectionist to stop and pick up milk on the way home from work and she forgot. When the spouse opens the refrigerator to look for milk he finds the refrigerator is empty. He asks the spouse if she picked up milk and she claims he didnt ask her to get milk. She will get defensive and angry when he persists in sharing his point of view. She cant tolerate the idea that she failed. She may actually believe he didnt ask her to get milk because her mind is so threatened by the possibility of failure that she will re-create reality in her mind in order to be free of guilt.
Of course, the solution here is the same as before. Accepting imperfection, and accepting the atonement as necessary to overcome imperfection is part of our task during this mortal existence.
Frequently, I have noticed, perfectionists marry one another. Both of them withdraw when they make a mistake. Both of them feel unlovable. Both of them become defensive when “caught” making a mistake. Latter-day Saint couples can be particularly vulnerable to the dangers of perfectionism, because in and out of a marriage we work very hard to “be ye there perfect.”
Latter-day Saint couples, therefore, want to be especially cautious that they overcome perfectionism, for their own benefit, as well as the benefit of the marriage. The acceptance of unconditional love and reliance on the atonement can cure couples who are prone to perfectionism and instead infuse the marriage with unity.
JeaNette Goates Smith is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Jacksonville, Florida and the author of Unsteady Dating: Resisting the Rush to Romance available at www.amazon.com