Perfectionism: Mental Disorder or Relationship Strategy?


Perfectionists are those who constantly meet or demand expectations far beyond what most consider reasonable. As a result, perfectionists can appear flawless in their appearance, surroundings, or performance. In some cases, perfectionists place these harsh and exacting demands on others.

What is it like to be a perfectionist?

Many people are uncomfortable around perfectionists. Perfectionists often trigger feelings of irritation, resentment, and inadequacy in others. To intimate partners, perfectionists can be appreciated for their appearance or accomplishments but challenging for their rigidity and inability to relax.

On the other side, it’s not fun being a perfectionist either. On the contrary, it’s constant, unyielding, and lonely work. Sensing others’ reactions of irritation, envy, or judgment is hard. It’s especially painful when those closest to you are annoyed and impatient with your efforts to get things just right.

Why don't perfectionists change?

Then why be this way? To a perfectionist, it’s not a choice. Perfecting one’s appearance, surroundings, or tasks is the only way to feel comfortable and at ease. To relax and let things go feels unacceptable, even though working this hard to feel safe and comfortable can be exhausting. To the perfectionist, it’s not clear why this is, and the why doesn’t matter. It just is.
In therapy, perfectionists may learn their perfectionism is not a disorder or deficit but a relationship strategy necessary for their well-being. In particular, many learned from formative life experiences that disappointing others led to a sense of overwhelmingly negative consequences.
For example, disappointing one’s parents may not have brought their curiosity and support, but anger, criticism, or coldness. As a result, perfectionism is often a learned strategy to avoid being overwhelmed by feelings of sadness, fear, and the pain of feeling abandoned or rejected by caregivers.

Growing out of perfectionism.

While the strategy of perfectionism often develops early in childhood, perfectionists can remain stuck in this strategy throughout life. Others, including their partner, may respond to their personality with frustration and irritation. Without compassion and understanding, perfectionists bear the burden of overcoming their perfectionism and the underlying ocean of loneliness, sadness, fear, and pain on their own. Unfortunately, this is often impossible.
Thankfully, if you or your significant other struggles with perfectionism, couple therapy can be a great way out. Perfectionism is a relationship strategy for avoiding disappointment when there is no one to care for those feelings. Often, long-term patterns block vulnerable sharing and receiving of these feelings in one or both partners. Professional guidance brings awareness to these patterns and the safety to share and heal the deeper feelings. When couple therapy is not feasible, individual therapy can also help.
Lastly, if you know a perfectionist, practice bringing acceptance, curiosity, and compassion to your relationship with them. In particular, practice bringing those energies to any feelings of irritation, insecurity, or discomfort that the perfectionist triggers in you.