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The Four “P’s in the Pod” of Perfectionism

Rachel’s house was open to guests. As a newlywed, she often hosted Shabbos meals for her husband’s still-single yeshiva friends. Sometimes she would give her parents a break and have her large brood of younger siblings over for Shabbos. It was never a problem to squeeze in a few more chairs and pull some dishes out of her weekday set if she ran short. “Just put plenty of food on the table and everything works out,” she always maintained.

Sarah, Rachel’s neighbor, also had the occasional Shabbos guests, but the stress of hosting took so much out of her that she dreaded it. She searched her cookbooks to find unique recipes and worked for hours each night preparing her special dishes and desserts. The house was cleaned as if Pesach were around the corner. She made sure never to have more guests than she had matching table-settings and dining room chairs. She worried throughout the meal about every detail, and after the meal, cringed over all that, in her eyes, had gone wrong.

Sarah is missing out on the joy of hachnossas orchim (hosting guests). She dreads it and avoids it, while Rachel loves it and seeks it. What makes the situation so painful for Sarah? The answer is summed up in one word: perfectionism.  It is a trait that appears in different forms -- the four “Ps” in the perfectionist pod:

Perfect Performance:

People who have to perform perfectly often find themselves blocked from performing at all. Like Sarah in the scenario above, they would rather avoid the activity than put themselves under the stress of performing it perfectly. Trying something new, learning a new skill or language, applying for a job, volunteering, doing a favor for someone – the “learning curve” involved in such activities makes them painful for a perfectionist.

There are other side-effects of perfectionism as well. Sometimes this trait results in missing important deadlines. For example, a student may turn in a paper late because she revises over and over again, never satisfied with its quality. A perfectionist may also become a procrastinator out of her desire to delay the activity that places so much pressure on her.  Even relationships can fall victim to the perfectionist’s mentality; she is so focused on what she is doing and so tense about it that everything else becomes an unwanted distraction.

 If perfect performance is interfering with life, a better perspective is needed. A person has to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen if it’s done imperfectly?” Perfectionists can do a cost-benefit analysis, asking: “What may I lose in life if I don’t give up this need for perfection and what will I gain if I do let it go?”   But most of all, they can realize how much enjoyment and activity they are missing because of their unrealistic demands on themselves. As one insightful saying puts it, “Perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Perfectly Principled:

Is there such a thing as having too much integrity? The “perfectly principled” person might seem to actually be “too good.” However, it’s not the integrity that is the problem. Rather, it’s the person’s inability to waiver from these principles in appropriate situations, and the stress and guilt that spring from any little deviation that does occur. How does this play out?

A meshulach comes to Shimon’s door. Shimon opens up his wallet to give the man a donation, but discovers that his only money is a $100 bill. Finding it awkward to ask the pauper to break a $100 in order to take a $5 donation, Shimon tells the man, “I’m so sorry, but I don’t have any cash on me right now. If you’re in the neighborhood again tomorrow, please come back.” As the pauper walks away, Shimon instantly begins to berate himself. “You LIED!” He feels guilty and angry with himself whenever he thinks of the incident.

Perfectly principled people have trouble forgiving themselves when they feel that they have not been loyal to their principles.  They expect a G-dly level of moral perfection from themselves, but their real task is to work on building a G-dly level of compassion for themselves. If Hashem does not expect a person to be perfect at all times, and Hashem forgives the occasional slip, then the individual should learn from Hashem’s example and forgive himself.  Sometimes, varying from one’s principle is not just forgivable, but necessary.

Chaim pulls up at Shmuel’s house in a brand new car. As Shmuel settles into the passenger seat, Chaim asks excitedly, “So? What do you think? How do you like it?” Shmuel doesn’t like it, and Shmuel prides himself on being an honest man: “I tell it like it is,” he often says.

Clearly in this case, Shmuel would be serving Hashem better by being less than honest. There would be no purpose in his hurting his friend Chaim’s feelings by expressing his true thoughts about the car. As much as it might discomfort Shmuel to say something positive when he does not really mean it, he can permit himself to waiver from his principal of honesty because in doing so, he upholds a higher principal of keeping sholom- peace with his friend.  

Perfectly Pleasing People:

“Perfectly Pleasing” people need everyone to be perfectly happy with them all the time. People with this form of perfectionism will often repress their own feelings out of fear of causing others to dislike or disapprove of them. Only when everyone likes them are they able to like themselves. The more intensely one feels the pressure to be perfectly people-pleasing, the more intense the emotional repercussions of generating any kind of negative response from others. This results in stress, a sense of being overwhelmed, anxiety, depression and more. For instance, such a person can never say “no” to a favor, no matter how difficult it may be. Such a personality also creates problems in parenting, for what parent can – or even should – please his or her children at all times?  People who identify themselves with this type of perfectionism can assess their situation by asking, “Does my intense need for perfectionism help or hinder my goal of relating to others in the most positive way I can?”

The Perfectionist’s Projection

In psychological terms, “projection” is a defense mechanism in which a person, in an effort to disclaim his own negative emotion, projects it onto someone else. Projection is a common trait in people-pleasers, because it enables them to keep negative emotions from tarnishing their self-image. It comes out in such statements as “I’m not angry….I’m just wondering why you’re in such a bad mood!” When someone sees this pattern in himself, he is wise to ask, “What is so terrible about admitting the way I truly feel?” He also has to recognize the negative consequences of not owning up to his true feelings. Real communication cannot begin, and real solutions to problems cannot emerge, when a person does not even acknowledge dissatisfaction with the status quo.

The Stark Reality:

For all perfectionists out there, let’s face the undeniable truth: We are all human! We will never be perfect. If Hashem wanted us to be perfect, he would have created us as angels. It’s only our yetzer hara and ego that fool us into thinking that we need to be perfect, thereby setting us up for stress and pain which derail our efforts to grow in our avodas Hashem. It takes courage to let go of perfectionism, because once we shed this illusion, we face the true challenge of moving forward in life and becoming the best we can be.

Leah Field is a life skills coach trained by Refuah Institute, Machon Aluf Binah and RMT Center for Strategic Intervention (Tony Robbins & Cloe Madanes).  She can be reached via email at [email protected]