"The most distinguishable characteristic of this phenomenon include the persistent striving to achieve completely unattainable self-imposed standards, and relentless, most often cruel, punitive self-criticism." (McMahon, 2014).
The above quote perhaps highlights perfectionism as a mechanism that is an ideal version that is strived for, which is unattainable and because it cannot be achieved, one is cruel to one’s self.
The aim of this article is to explore what perfectionism is, how it may develop and a brief view of how it can be worked with and hopefully moved away from.
Presenting a perfect persona
The attempted presentation of a perfect version of self, is based in that version of self as a not me’ persona. It is a defence mechanism. The aim of this defence mechanism is to hide away the real or ‘true’ me. In it not being a ‘real’ version of me, Donald Winnicott (1896-1972) referred to this as a ‘false self’. As with many defence mechanisms, this is an unconscious response to a traumatic experience.
The development of a version of oneself, which is ‘not’ me, usually starts in the early life of the infant and is rooted in a need to survive. It is often as a result of negative childhood experience(s) in relating to another (parent/Carer) when perhaps the 'true self' is perhaps rejected/not accepted in the infant’s experience.
When this happens, I believe an anger/ resentment/ rage toward the Parent/carer forms. So there are two things that happen (I am sure there may be more) and these, I believe, are:
Infant experiences rejection/non acceptance
The infant relates to the caregiver as the real version of himself. At this stage the infant presents a real version of themselves.
Infant Adapts to survive.
The infant needs it’s caregiver to survive. The infant's primary goal is survival. Therefore something has to be done to achieve this; an adaptation occurs.
The child, desperate to survive, and therefore to regain a secure attachment to the caregiver to ensure this, works hard to be what the other wants.
This is a meeting of the other’s needs.
The rejection threatens survival which is terrifying for the infant and leaves the infant experiencing themselves as not good enough (for if they were there would be no rejection!).
To ensure survival, they need to ensure the attachment. They ‘try’ to become good enough.
I believe within the above stages the infant also experiences anger and rage at the caregiver. Of course expressing this would further risk survival (as it may make the caregiver abandon the infant). So the anger cannot be expressed, it is dangerous. Expressing it would further make the real ‘version’ of the infant not good enough. It must be hidden at all costs to the infant.
This often occurs at a very young age. A time where psychological development is unable to cope or manage such overwhelming negative feelings. It is an attempt to avoid / escape from the emotional pain.
The false self is often visualised as one wearing a mask and this mask or ‘false self’ is presented to the world, rather than what is truly behind the mask. For behind the mask is the true, perceived as ‘not good enough’ self. The mask hides all the flaws, vulnerabilities, bad bits which cannot be shown, for they will be rejected.
This can often be Carried on into adulthood and can therefore create difficulties in relating with ourselves and with others. In order to constantly uphold this, to be accepted by others (or what is believed others require us to be) one tries to be the best of the best. For then, it is believed, I will not be abandoned. To avoid perceived rejection, there is a need to mask/hide the not good enough and the anger.
Striving For Perfect (or the perceived requirements of other)
In order to maintain this defence mechanism, an ever unattainable goal must be worked towards. This can become obsessive in a strive towards perfectionism negatively impacts life. It becomes all consuming. There is no space/time to 'not try'. It is a striving response to present what 'they' want me to be (or what one believes they want you to be!).
I believe that there is them unconscious anger and rage at ‘the other’ (whomever one relates to) as 'they' become the hated object (the original hate was aimed toward the caregiver) now toward anyone who 'demands' the false self (everyone). For the perfectionist it feels as though ‘They demand of me’!
Because nearly everything done by the perfectionist is ‘for the other’, any actual achievement cannot be enjoyed as it is what 'they' demand. It (any achievement) becomes 'theirs' and the achievement therefore also becomes hated/resented.
For the perfectionist there is an unconscious loop which I believe goes a little like this.
I do not feel good enough, ‘they’ will not accept the real me.
‘The other(s)’ will abandon me
Try harder, strive for ‘better’
Relate to others as the ‘better’ me.
The feeling ‘not good enough’ does not go away.
Perfectionist feels they did not do enough.
Feel that 'they' ALWAYS demand.
Unconsciously resent them.
Start the loop again.
Defence mechanisms are unconscious. By definition the unconscious is unknown to self. Until that which is unconscious becomes conscious it remains unconscious. It seems obvious, but only when unconscious defence mechanisms become conscious, can they be known. Defence mechanisms such as this can be very early (infantile) ways to survive. They are often carried into adulthood, what once tried to ensure survival, become a hindrance in life and relationships.
If they are left unconscious, they may continue to be active in *all* relationships. This can lead to difficult relationships and deep, perhaps long term unhappiness.
Working with the Unconscious
The idea is simple. Explore that which is unconscious, and make it conscious! I believe the most effective way to do this is with talking therapy. A trained professional (counsellor) is able to work with what is unknown to you. In doing so, over time and In making it known, it can be understood. If it is known and understood, you then have a choice to change this positively.
Mohan. C. (2014) ‘The “Perfect” Persona – The Unacceptable Me A Psychodynamic Exploration of Neurotic Perfectionism from the Perspective of the Experienced Clinician’. Available at: https://esource.dbs.ie/bitstream/handle/10788/1844/ba_mcmahon_c_2014.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y (Accessed 7/10/21)