Perfectionism—the Ultimate Victim Role
There is no endpoint and it will destroy the quality of your life and health.
Posted September 13, 2021 | Reviewed by Ekua Hagan
- Perfectionism is felt by many to be a virtue. It is reflected in terms of “high standards,” “excellent quality,” and “strong work ethic.”
- Perfectionism is actually a disguised version of anger directed at oneself.
- The most disturbing aspect of perfectionism is that it arises from the unconscious brain and won't respond to reason.
- Overcoming perfectionism requires reprogramming the unconscious brain.
Perfectionism may be the most common, almost universal disguise of anger. I had been raised with the idea that it was a virtue, and this perception was dramatically reinforced during my medical training. It was at the core of my burnout and journey into The Abyss of pain. I had no idea it was a problem until well after I had crashed and burned.
Perfectionism fits into the anger cascade in the following manner.
- A given situation, person, or you, are less than your concept of ideal.
- You blame one of the above for being “less than perfect.”
- You are now a victim of “less than perfect.”
- You will perpetually exist in some state of conscious or unconscious agitation.
David Burns, in his book, Ten Days to Self Esteem,1 points out that the gap between your concept of perfect and your reality is the degree of your unhappiness. Perfection does not exist in the human experience. Since perfection is unattainable, why do so many of us continue to embrace it? I will offer a couple of observations from the perspective of an extreme perfectionist.
Why do we keep holding on to “perfect?"
First of all, we are programmed to “be all that we can be.” We are also taught that “pushing yourself” is the best way to accomplish this goal—except that pushing often evolves into punishing in the form of self-criticism without limits. Since this strategy often achieves impressive short and medium-term results, it seems like a reasonable pathway. It’s not. Using the medical profession as an example, the burnout rate amongst physicians is over 50% in every state in the US and has risen between 5-10% in the last five years. The burnout rate in neurosurgeons, in one study, demonstrated that it was over 65%.2 The same driving energy that pushes you up the hill takes you down the other side. Striving for perfection becomes a deeply established programmed pattern of thinking and behavior.
A second reason is that the victim role is so powerful that humans will do almost anything to create and hang onto it. Since perfect is unattainable, you are able to remain a victim of imperfection indefinitely. It is self-flagellation. The DOC Journey is about letting go, allowing yourself to repeatedly “fail,” and continuing to move on. Perfect does not allow for failure. By the way, much of your capacity to create a wonderful life is dependent on your ability to deal with adversity successfully and efficiently. Your body will spend less time being exposed to threat physiology. Also consider, “what is failure?”
Third, your self-critical voice is part of the powerful unconscious brain that is not subject to conscious interventions. There is a phenomenon called “the ironic effect” that sabotages your best intentions. When you try to focus on noble ideals and concepts, your brain focuses on ways that you might not attain them. In other words, the more you try to think about something positive, the less you will think about it. You’ll develop anxiety from the futility of your efforts. We tend to take these voices personally and we should not. They are your brain's automatic programmed patterns. We can “talk” to them as much as we want but there is no one there. It is tragic that we try to quiet these voices that are just repetitive circuits. The more well-intentioned of a person you are, the louder they are.
Perfectionism is rampant
Eighty-five percent of people in chronic pain have not forgiven the person, employer, other driver, etc. who caused their pain. Interestingly, the person they are the most upset at is themselves.3 If your intention is to live a life filled with peace and joy, how can you accomplish it by holding onto resentment, especially if it is directed at yourself.
Starting a new life
I was talking to a friend of mine who had recently lost his wife. He was a high-level professional and trying to meet someone to start a new life. Invariably, his internal dialogue was “inadequate,” “boring conversationalist," "narrow interests," "unattractive," and the list went on. Then, it came out that he placed these same labels on his dates. What he wasn’t aware of is that your mind attributes to other people and situations what we feel about ourselves. The term for this behavior is projection. So, when you are in a judgmental mode and expressing it to others, you are revealing to the world the way you feel about yourself. This is particularly true when you are upset (in pain).
Hard on his family
I was talking to one of my colleagues who had experienced a lot of success using the approaches in The DOC Journey with a marked decrease in his anxiety and stomach pains. He found the expressive writing and relaxation tools the most helpful. He had also read Dr. Luskin’s book, Forgive for Good.4
He had returned from vacation and stopped the expressive writing since he felt so good and relaxed. The day he walked back on the job, his symptoms returned. It came out in further conversation that he is extremely hard on himself. He was an ex-baseball player who almost went pro. I asked him if he was critical of his kids. He admitted that he was. I pointed out that he was not going to be any easier on them than he was on himself and that in the big picture, he was not being that nice to either. What he held up as “high standards” was really intense perfectionism. Was this really the world he wanted to create for himself and his family? It is the antithesis of creating a haven of safety. Dr. Luskin is clear that forgiveness has to begin with forgiving and accepting yourself. We all sort of know this, but down deep, we don’t pull it off very well.
So what is the solution? These are not pathways that you can intellectually solve. They are mindless endless loops. Your body is also chemically reacting to these thoughts and creating multiple mental and physical symptoms. Suppressing them makes the situation even worse.
The key is to become aware of the depth and nature of your critical self-talk and create some “space” between you and these circuits. Writing your thoughts down fosters an awareness of them and also creates this needed space. Then you can use your conscious mind to redirect your attention to more pleasant choices. Just understanding the magnitude of the impact that perfectionism is having on the quality of your life also helps.
Finally, decide to be happy. You have to use repetition to reprogram the unconscious. This is different than positive thinking, which is a form of suppressing. It entails creating a positive vision. You cannot get to happy while remaining perpetually judgmental. Then, choose to program your brain with positive alternatives and solutions. Paradoxically, you will possess an endless amount more energy to achieve your goals.
I hold a Q&A session a couple of times per week. Perhaps the most common topic that keeps coming up is “not feeling good enough” and self-criticism. I joke that we could call our roundtable, “The perfectionist’s club,” except it is not funny and actually is tragic. The accomplishments of this group are remarkable, yet there is a limited capacity to enjoy their successes. Perfectionism is what was the essence of my personal demise.
Creating a vision of excellence is much different than having “high standards.” You understand and accept where you are along with your resources. Then you create a plan to pursue your vision of what you want your life to look like. This involves filling your brain with positive solutions as well as accepting and processing the inevitable failures. This is a different journey from wasting your energy flagellating yourself for your inadequacies and failures. If you are not willing to fail, then don’t attempt the journey. Paradoxically, you will have an endless amount of additional energy to achieve your goals. Happiness is only possible while pursuing a vision of excellence.
Questions and considerations
- For many of us, perfectionism takes the form of a relentless self-critical voice. Have you ever considered that is part of the hardwiring of your brain that you cannot influence?
- Consider how much time and energy you may have spent trying to satisfy or outrun these robotic circuits. You can’t do it. You don’t have to do it. There are techniques to separate your identity from them and be free to live your life.
- There is a big difference between perfectionism vs. a “vision of excellence.” One is self-flagellation and the other unleashes your energy to pursue your dreams.
- Many people have told me that they are not perfectionists. They just have “high standards,” or “only the best is good enough.” Perfectionism is a disguise of anger but there are a lot of ways to disguise perfectionism.
- At the end of the day, perfectionism is one of the most illogical aspects of the human existence. It does not exist.
1. Burns, David. Ten Days to Self Esteem. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 1993.
2. Kurapati, Rajeev. Burnout in Healthcare. Sajjana Publishing, 2019.
3. Carson JW, et al. Conflict about expressing emotions and chronic low back pain: Associations with pain and anger. The Journal of Pain (2007); 8:405-411.
4. Luskin, Fred. Forgive for Good. Harper Collins, New York, NY, 2003.