The Dangers of Perfection

Apparently I caught somebody’s attention with my recent article where I explored the possibility that ‘too much’ perfection can cause psychological problems such as obsessive behavior.

Most of your responses centered on the prospect that perfectionism could also lead to addictions such as alcohol, drugs or food. I’ll admit that I had to sit back for a minute and give this some thought. After a little investigation, all I came up with was that there’s not yet enough specific research to narrow this claim.

So I had to resort to my own experience with clients over the years. Based on patterns I’ve seen, I do believe that perfectionism, if left unchecked, can cause addictions. Self-defeating or self-destructive behaviors like addiction are the consequence of contradictory or self-defeating beliefs.

Perfectionism does not always lead to self-destructive behaviors, but I believe that under certain conditions it can. Some of those conditions arise from mistaken ideas like, (1) “It’s always bad to be wrong. Errors are disasters.” (2) “Errors make me look foolish in front of others, and that’s a catastrophe.” (3) “Life should be easy and comfortable. Any departure from this is a disaster.” (4) “Knowledge should be automatic. If I can’t make it so, then I’ll pretend it to be so.” (5) “If I don’t know everything all at once, then I don’t know anything.”

Consistent thoughts such as these can lead someone to seek an ‘escape.’ We humans are pretty good at coping, and addictive behaviors can provide an escape, i.e., the serenity and rationality that is otherwise being undercut by faulty thinking.

It’s commonly assumed that perfectionists are people who strive for excellence. Maybe they go a little overboard in their quest, but their intentions are good. Many will even say that they’re proud of their perfectionism — that it means they do everything right. Neither of these assumptions are necessarily true.

One of the false beliefs underlying perfectionism is the notion that everything should be effortless and easy. In fact, this is what seems to motivate perfectionism. It’s not excellence that the perfectionist is seeking, as much as comfort and ease.

I’m reminded of the old saying about a ‘champagne lifestyle on a beer budget.” If you take that and extend it to all of life, then you can begin to understand the mentality of at least some perfectionists who want things to be fabulous and beautiful. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. When confronted with the inescapable reality that it’s not quite so simple to be excellent every hour of every day, this kind of perfectionist will become angry and chronically frustrated. Drug, alcohol and other addictions — the ‘escape’ I wrote about above — can grow out of frustration and chronic irritability.

Typically, substance abusers lack a coherent orientation toward what is real. A focus on reality is what allows one to aim high while still keeping his or her metaphorical feet on the ground. Some perfectionists relentlessly aim high, but they eschew the ‘feet on the ground’ part. They strive for artificial highs to deliver what they will never achieve by ignoring reality.

Alcoholics and other addicts often tell me how fabulous and/or brilliant they are/were, prior to their addictions taking hold. They sincerely tried to aim high and to get the great things out of life, but unfortunately they went about it in a way that evaded that all-important focus on reality. They spend so much time shooting for the stars that they miss what’s on the ground.

This sort of pattern often arises in my interaction with clients. I’d love to see researchers in clinical psychology and addiction put what I’m claiming to the test. Unfortunately, current research takes it for granted that alcoholism and drug addiction are simply ‘medical’ diseases, and that free will and psychology are irrelevant.

Twelve Step programs such as AA have their good and bad points, but they all focus on the role of an indefinable ‘Higher Power.’ Sadly, all this groundless distraction tends to overshadow any serious examination of faulty beliefs. And it’s a shame, because the lack of research that dares to ask the right questions may be the primary reason why medical science and psychology still know so little about the causes of (and the cures for) addiction.