overcoming perfectionism

It takes one to know one. It takes one to heal another!
Lots of nurses are perfectionists.
While it may be lucky for their patient, it may not be so healthy for the nurse.
Like everything, there needs to be balance.

The book, “Overcoming Perfectionism” by Ann Smith (Health Communications Inc, 1990) is a classic must-read for struggling perfectionists. Reading her book is like going to see a therapist, as it is both comforting and restorative. Some key points are below, and if they fit? Get her book!

When is perfectionism a problem?  

When you believe perfection is possible…. and necessary for self-esteem, peace of mind, and acceptance from others.

What are its roots?

When an older generation has been dysfunctional…the next generation often adapts by trying to create a really “good” family and parents define their own self worth by the successes of their “perfectly” behaving children. Children adapt to their environment; but develop un-healthy emotional responses.

What are emotionally healthy people like?

Emotionally healthy people have a strong self worth; enjoy love, approval, success…but don’t crumble without it.  They balance work and play. Healthy good feelings are generated from the inside. 

Emotionally healthy people can be comfortable around others who are more talented and successful than they are.

Emotionally healthy people are able to teach others how they want to be treated, set limits, and express feelings as they arise.

What are emotionally un-healthy people like?

Emotionally un-healthy people let external events define how they feel about themselves. They live as victims of circumstances, validating their self worth through others, their jobs, their successes. They mask their disappointments; act as though things don’t really bother them; or just repress the memories. At times they will shut down emotionally; isolate, not trust others in order to self-protect from disappointment and hurt. They are comfortable with crisis, chaos, enmeshment, and boundary conflicts. They tend to neglect their own needs because they don’t sell healthy limits and boundaries.

What do Overt Perfectionists look like?

Self-disciplined, neat, orderly, thorough, list makers, detail oriented, no clutter, alphabetized and organized. But while perfect in one area, may be chaotic in others; as it is impossible to be perfect everywhere! They are bound to break.

What do Covert Perfectionists look like?

Compulsion to be perfect in how they think, e.g more competitive (internally) with friends and spouses. Tend to play it safe, they are not risk takers as tasks need to be done meticulously and cautiously. Tend to procrastinate and be indecisive. Fear of doing things wrong may block them from starting things. They may be the “I can’t do it” person who reacts with depression with the slightest failure.  

What is the inner world of a perfectionist like?

Intolerant and annoyed if others don’t act the way they do; eg. be on time; use proper grammar; keep order. They are hard on themselves, and very upset if they make a mistake. They keep a constant list of things they should be doing. Notice all own errors in self and others before the positives. They are devastated by criticism because the self-esteem is so fragile. They have an inner negative dialogue of guilt, fear, anger, shame and ongoing sense of inadequate accomplishments. They are driven to do important things, not unimportant things like intimacy, fun, parenting, relaxation or exercise.

What are possible consequence of being a perfectionist?      

Health problems are common in about 95% of people.

High co-morbidity with eating disorders, especially if body image becomes a part of the perfectionistic drive: health obsessed with compulsive dieting and exercising. But in some, the opposite, not caring at all what they look like, can occur.

Perfectionist Parents: Create rigid rules and order, work first-play later. They prioritize keeping the proper image for neighbors and prioritize family secrets. Fun becomes work for the children when their parents impose by doing things with, not just for the child, or just observing the child. Well meaning encouragement can inadvertently make it difficult for a child to measure up to the parent’s perfectionistic standards. Boundaries can be breached as parents smother, force togetherness, or create role reversals.       

Some children begin to think they are not loved because they weren’t good enough. Some punish children for crying or acting out; teaching to stuff emotions.  Some shame children into better behavior, “Why can’t you behave like…” “How could you do this to me?”  Some praise only attached to accomplishments.

Perfectionist Partners: Can be controlling, if they want predictability. They seek a partner who; reads their mind and knows their needs without being asked, does things the way they want, and expresses the feelings they need their partner to have. Great at the tasks of marriage, struggle with intimacy.

Perfectionists in the Workplace: Workaholics; have the tendency to do more than own job; are critical of others who aren’t doing things right; often tells boss how to run things which impacts job success.

How do children respond to dysfunctional parents? 

Compliant – do what is expected; figures out the rules and follow them.

Rebel – do whatever it takes to be attended to do; negative or positive.

Become Invisible – tune out the stress; avoid eye contact; become average and withdraw.

What are the consequences of finding out that you are a perfectionist?

Realizing your family may have been hurtful to you.

Realizing you may have hurt your own kids.

Realizing you are a very critical person and this fills you with more shame.


How do you CHANGE if you are a perfectionist?

Focus in on the moment, accept who you are right now, not who you will become if you….

Accept your family flaws and all. It is a multi-generational mess! Briefly visit the past, stop denying or minimizing your hurts as a child.    Feel the pain, ride the wave, then bury it and move on!  But don’t pass it on! As you forgive them, you will also be able to forgive yourself!

Help your child to just “be” themselves, with structure, safety and their own goals, not yours!

Accept your partner in life as they are, letting go of your need to make them perfect too! Trust them to make choices for themselves that won’t hurt you! Let go of the control and feel free to share all your emotions with each other – including guilt, shame, fear, anger, sadness, and joy! You must know who you are before you can share yourself with others.

Trust yourself and your common sense. You are competent enough and able to change. Read the book, Overcoming Perfection, by Ann Smith!

 Psalm 139: 14-15 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful,  I know that full well.  My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place, when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
(The Holy Bible, New International Version)