perfectionism as neurosis

Perfection has both the conventional idea of trying to be the best, and under healthy conditions adjusting those scales when necessary.  In the more neurotic sense the definition changes:

Neurotic perfectionists – never feel that they have done their job well enough. They are very intolerant of mistakes and extremely self-critical” (BBC Science & Nature)

I would argue that a lot of “normal” perfectionists play with the neurotic line to a varying degree.  One of the terms brought up in defining what pushes a person into the neurotic track is the misery or despair that is felt when the person fails to succeed.

This is fascinating to me because while the links to OCD behavior or eating disorders seem more obvious, the example that leaps to my mind is the Underachiever. An underachiever is usually a person who does not perform as well as expected or as well as the IQ indicates. It’s a frustrating definition because most people assume the underachiever is the one who is to blame.

Perhaps the most upsetting part of being an underachiever with a lot of potential is the accusation, first from your parents and then from yourself, that you are somehow doing “it” intentionally. Parents, teachers, counselors, and even siblings express their frustration on your behalf: “If you would just do your homework, you would be so much happier!” (Josh Shaine)

What’s interesting, and this is brought up both in the underachievement article, as well as in an NPR piece on perfectionism, is that there are often 2 sources of these kinds of feelings for people.  One is external (usually coming from an equally perfectionist parent), and then the internal.  The idea that this can cause a sort of paralysis of action is what’s truly frustrating.  The biggest perfectionists may not be the ones out there making incredible advancements and claiming the most success, more likely the biggest perfectionists are paralyzed by their incapacity to actually achieve what they need in order to claim success.

I read a few comments on about the NPR show in particular, and I was a little dismayed by the dismissiveness of a comment on the basis of class issues.  I’ll post the whole comment because I don’t want to take the person out of context.

Oh, please spare a thought for the poor, beleaguered rich yuppies who can’t keep up with the Joneses or stay a size 2 well into middle age!

I grew up in a decidedly blue-collar family, I’m hardly raking it in hand over fist as an adult, and I’ve suffered from debilitating social anxiety plus depression most of my life. Can’t really say I feel all that sorry for these people. The kids they push their competitive neuroses onto? Sure, at least for those kids who aren’t in turn pushing it onto others. Themselves? Not really. So many of the things they angst about speak to a serious lack of interest in anything except status and money. By the time you’re in your 30s, you should be able to at least begin to start discerning what you really want out of life from all the b.s. that society throws at you.

I’ve worked in corporate environments for years and I’ve seen so many of these people. They look good and sound good, but they’re boring as hell — complete life-script followers, and exceedingly concerned about what others think of them. Yawn. Oh, well, at least their shrinks are making good money off them.

Now can we please have an On Point segment about mental health among the poor and the dwindling middle class, or is that just too alien a concept for the typical NPR listener to relate to?

I am usually one of the first people to jump on the “why can’t we see the privileged class issues we’re ignoring here,” or “Hey, here’s the real serious problem.”  I don’t think that quite works here.  I believe the commenter is downplaying what the show was getting at, and projecting it onto a much smaller subset of people than is actually applicable.

These aren’t just the people who work and look perfect, and that was the point… these are also the people who can’t actually make it. Not to mention, just because someone looks and acts perfect doesn’t discount internal anxiety or misery that they’re experiencing.  Does income or social background suddenly make some discomfort or pain worse than others?

To look at the underachiever situation in the essay… the underachiever in that situation was sent to a prep school.  There are plenty of blue collar family underachievers who don’t get that benefit.  The point here is that sending the person to a “privileged” school doesn’t even begin to address the issue, so while the family may have more resources at their disposal, if they’re not looking at the problem for what it is, they aren’t going to have an approach that enables higher functioning anyhow. The person still ends up with some sort of self-fulfilling prophecy as a failure.

I write this as someone who wrestles with this stuff every time I’m supposed to sit down and write a paper. Every time I get back a good grade I throw a fit that the person grading it is stupid and mustn’t see what an idiot I am, or they missed this that or the other shortcoming. It doesn’t help that I’m in an institution that thrives on grade inflation. I don’t think growing up privileged has done much to help me.  The things that did help me were free, or close to it (a 10 week program for $30 is pretty cheap) and usually in the form of finding good people and social communities that provide friendship and support. The people I have met through these groups come from a huge swatch of backgrounds with similar threads of feelings that go beyond economic background.

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