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Perfectionism as arrogance?

December 23, 2009

We’ve all probably heard the old “perfectionism is really narcissism and arrogance in disguise” thing. I know I’ve heard it repeatedly, including from a couple of therapists bent on Setting Me Straight when I was younger.

In some cases, that may well be a reasonable interpretation, especially if the person is extending those unrealistic expectations to others around them and trying to control other people. In a lot of other cases, it’s just another way of blaming the person for the things going wrong in their life.

Back then, it gave me yet another negative quality to kick myself over; how dare I be so arrogant, especially if it might be affecting people I care about? How could I continue Letting People Down like that?

I am talking about the type of preemptive perfectionism based in shame and guilt from emotional abuse and invalidation. This is the same kind of “perfectionism” a lot of battered women fall into. If you can do things in a way which is more likely to suit (unreasonable, often varying and conflicting) expectations, people might not jump on you as much; any deviation from these expectations indicates something terrible about you as a person. Other people have been sure to let you know just how many things are All Your Fault; it’s not something you’re just making up out of thin air. After a while, you start policing your own thoughts and actions for the other person or people.*

What a person caught in this situation really needs is to hear how arrogant and hurtful they’re being.

The big problem here, besides the original abusive behavior? It does not work. To state the obvious, some people are never going to be pleased, no matter what you do or don’t do–and they are frequently the ones most vocal about your perceived shortcomings. Whatever hidden rules it seems you just don’t know about might well exist, but only in the other person’s head; keeping looking for them and trying to Do Things Right will not get you anything but more grief.

Brushing past ideas like “what is this self deemed to be responsible for so many things?” and “even though it can be really scary, there’s a limited amount of control each of us can really have over what happens around us” (not in a learned helplessness sense; BTDT!), what was the most important realization in my situation? Other people have no more right to impose their will over me than I do over them. It’s that simple. And it includes “professionals” who insist that they know better than the client does what they are feeling and what is motivating them–controlling behavior in itself.

I also don’t have to do the work of people who don’t mean me well for them, by internalizing unrealistic demands. I do not have to engage with them. I don’t have to help people harm me, but have a responsibility not to do so. I have a responsibility to try not to harm myself, just as I try not to harm other people.

I really do not have to carry the rattlesnake inside my shirt. When I was younger, I thought you had to pick it up and carry it around anyway, knowing full well you were liable to get bitten. (Then probably have to listen to complaints about your stupidity and thoughtlessness in doing so, actually.)

Mostly I’ve been able to stop blatantly standing in for other people in emotionally abusing myself, but it only occurred to me about six months ago just now much the combination of perfectionism and demand sensitivity/resistance has been holding me back from doing. That includes having a pleasant and clean house to live in, and practising musical intruments or singing where anyone else might be able to hear me. As the Squalor Survivors page on perfectionism sums it up, “Apathy can result from perfectionism when a person knows he or she will never measure up 100%. Rather than risk failure, paralysed perfectionists resort to complete inertia.” Then feel ashamed for doing so, I could add.

When a fit of perfectionism hits, I have been applying the stranger standard: Would I blame a total stranger on the street for this, much less someone I care about? It does help.

It also helps to apply some mindfulness, and try to bear in mind where the panic I feel is coming from–and that it will go away. Fighting it only makes the situation worse. Whatever is distressing me is based in perception, and is infinitesimal in the scheme of things. The main problem is “grasping after perfection”. Applying some pragmatism is crucial. So is cultivating lovingkindness (metta) toward yourself. Duyukta or the Middle Way yet again seems to be the key. 🙂

Still, this mental habit wasn’t trained in overnight, nor will it disappear that way.


* This is a larger-scale problem, especially for women. Anything we say or do, and no matter how we look, somebody will vocally find fault with it. There is no way to win, if we continue trying to play such harmful games by hurtful rules. Look at this horribly blaming approach to pregorexia, which is sadly far from unusual.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 23, 2009 5:41 am

    “perfectionism is really narcisssism and arrogance in disguise”

    Whoa, never heard that one.

    That does strike me as a really, really bad thing to tell people, not just because of what you mention about perfectionism stemming from a history of abuse or neglect, but also because a lot of depressed people are perfectionists.

    Indeed, even the obnoxious perfectionist who demands that other people be perfect, too? That person might well have chronic, low-level depression that’s never bad enough for them to go “Oh, I’m depressed” but is bad enough that the world always seems really crappy to them, and they take it out on everyone around them.

    So, yes, calling this person an arrogant twit would probably not be the best move, either.

    • urocyon permalink
      December 23, 2009 2:30 pm

      Exactly, even when the person takes it out on other people, in an awful lot of cases. A couple of my relatives fit into that pattern, and it’s annoying, but I can see where it’s coming from.

      Good point about depression leading to perfectionism, in general!

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