The Unreachable Star

May 1, 2000
Is the quest for perfectionism taking a toll on you? Did you do the unthinkable today - make a mistake?

Is the quest for perfectionism taking a toll on you? Did you do the unthinkable today - make a mistake?

Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH

Are you a perfectionist? Do you feel frustrated when people around you don`t seem to care about quality, cleanliness, or details? Do you get down on yourself over any hint of human error in your work or life? Perfectionism often is a trait of the first-born and, while it is the driving force that helps them excel in many things, it can also be destructive. Those of us who are nonperfectionists work or live with people of the perfect kind.

The information offered in this article will be useful in understanding people with these tendencies. It may also offer hope to those who are caught in the interminable cycle of trying harder only to be constantly disappointed - the sign of a true perfectionist. Whatever it is, it`s never good enough ... for them!

If you think you have this mindset, you might be a perfectionist. But how deeply is it ingrained in your psyche? Dr. Kevin Leman, in his New Birth Order Book, asks several questions that determine if you or someone you know is a mild, moderate, or extreme perfectionist.

Answer each question from Dr. Leman`s Test for Perfectionism below with a "0" for never, "1" for seldom, "2" for often, and "3" for always.

- Do mistakes - your own or others` - irritate you?

- Do you feel everyone should be as driven to do his best as you are?

- Do you use the word should often, as in, "I should have taken care of that," or "We should meet on this immediately?"

- Do you find it hard to enjoy success? Even when something goes well, is it easy for you to find the things that could have been just a little better?

- Does one small mistake ruin your day - or at least your morning?

- Do terms like "good enough" and "just about right" bother you, particularly on the job?

- Do you tend to put things off because you feel you`re not quite ready to do the job right?

- Do you find yourself apologizing for certain work because you could have done it better if you had had more time?

- Whether in a meeting, working in a team, or in any group situation in the workplace, do you prefer to be in control of what`s happening?

- Realizing your deep need to have all your ducks in a row, do you insist that those around you have their ducks in the same row (think exactly the way you do)?

- Do you tend to see the glass half-empty instead of half-full?

Now add up your score. If the total ranges from 11 to 16, you`re a mild perfectionist; 17 to 25, you`re a medium perfectionist; and if the total adds up to 26 to 33, you`re an extreme perfectionist (you`re too hard on yourself and everyone else).

The results of a study done by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented support a multidimensional theory of perfectionism. This theory states, "Perfectionism exists on a continuum with healthy to dysfunctional behaviors." The results of the study on 20 gifted male and female adolescents with perfectionist tendencies noted, "Healthy perfectionists possessed an intense need for order and organization; displayed self-acceptance of mistakes; enjoyed high parental expectations; demonstrated positive ways of coping with their perfectionistic tendencies; had role models that emphasized doing one`s `best;` and viewed personal effort as an important part of their perfectionism.

"The dysfunctional perfectionists lived in a state of anxiety about making errors; had extremely high standards; perceived excessive expectations and negative criticisms from others; questioned their own judgments; lacked effective coping strategies; and exhibited a constant need for approval."

In a profession such as dental hygiene, it`s easy to see perfectionists all around you. How many hygienists run late trying to eradicate that last speck of stain on the linguals of #8 and 9? And how many are never really satisfied with the job they`ve done, knowing that it might not be perfect and hoping the perfectionist doctor doesn`t call them on it? Does your stomach turn into knots when the appointment time is up and you`re not finished? While driving home, do you go over your day in your mind, wincing at things you forgot to give or tell your patient? Can you forgive yourself for those overlapped bitewings or that cock-eyed periapical? How about that question your boss asked you in front of the patient to which you answered incorrectly? Do these human errors replay in your mind, torturing you, destroying your self-confidence and self-image?

This is the trap into which perfectionists fall. Their standards are so high, no one can reach them and human error is unthinkable. In The Perfectionist Predicament by Miriam Elliot and Susan Meltsner, the problem is stated quite clearly: "Regardless of the area in which they specialize, perfectionists strive to achieve goals that are beyond the reach of any mere mortal and measure their overall self-worth by their ability to attain them."

In short, "I am what I achieve."

How, you ask, did we get this way? It starts at birth, especially with the first child. She is expected to perform and excel. All of the parents` hopes and dreams ride on her infant shoulders. If the parents are also first-borns with the accompanying perfectionist traits, little Susy is scrutinized, criticized, and prodded to always do better. She, after all, is the reflection of the perfect parents and must make a good showing in school, sports, music, etc. But, as Leman points out, authoritative and overbearing perfectionist parents can cause a child to rebel, failing on purpose to ruin the plans of critical parents.

When Susy is barely old enough, she is taken to preschool, where she may have teachers who are as meticulous as her detail-conscious parents (who are now memorizing her report cards: "That A should have been an A+ ... and what`s this? A B+!")

Throughout her school years, Susy constantly tries to do better than her best to win her parents` love and approval, as well as the acceptance of her peers. By the time she reaches high school, she actively competes for cheerleading, music, class president, and valedictorian. Scholarships are on the line here. Her parents remain by her side, spurring her on, telling her to cheer louder, watch that key signature, and go over that speech one more time. After all, "practice makes..." I won`t say it.

If Susy survives high school and her parents, she goes off to college and decides to study to be a dental hygienist. Her world is now filled with people striving to be perfect. Her instructors don`t miss a thing while checking her work and never fail to point out something she didn`t do well enough.

She regroups, vows to do better, to try even harder, and falls into the cycle that most perfectionists live in daily ... without even realizing it. The cycle starts with unrealistic and unreachable goals. For example, "I`m going to scale this arch bedecked with Class III calculus in the 30 minutes given me and remove every speck of deposit and stain."

As Elliott and Meltsner point out, "Perfectionism is unrealistic, unreasonable behavior and a pattern of distorted thinking."

When it`s evident the goal cannot be met, it`s too late; there`s no more time. The perfectionist then realizes she has failed as her explorer catches on remaining deposits. The next step in the cycle epitomizes the philosophy of the perfectionist, "I am what I achieve; only results matter. I have failed; therefore, I am a failure."

So the frustrated and defeated hygienist promises she can do better and, next time, she will reach her goal by trying harder. She has come full circle, setting unrealistic goals, striving for perfection, failing, being depressed, vowing to try harder next time, setting unrealistic goals, and so it goes. What she hasn`t realized is that her goal was unreachable from the start. Even when her doctor congratulates her on a job well done, she shakes her head and argues that it wasn`t. It will never be good enough for her.

So what is so dangerous about wanting to be perfect? While researching for this article, I made a sobering discovery. Not only am I a self-diagnosed dysfunctional perfectionist by the guidelines set out here, but I have managed to lose a body part because of it. In David Stoop`s book, Hope for the Perfectionist, he lists several physical illnesses related to people with perfectionist tendencies: "An interesting study was made of a number of people suffering from ulcerative colitis. The researchers were looking for common factors that might explain the development of the illness. All of the patients described themselves as nervous, and almost all said they were overscrupulously perfectionistic."

Not only did I develop ulcerative colitis, but it finally claimed my colon after 10 years of medications and suffering ... the price of perfectionism. During the final two years of my illness, I was working in a very fast-paced periodontal office with 45-minute appointments. I never felt like I had enough time to do the kind of work I wanted to do for the patient. It literally ate at me! I bled for two years before my colon was finally removed and replaced with an internal J-pouch.

Other illnesses and conditions to which perfectionists are prone are heart attacks, panic attacks, arthritis, ulcers, high blood pressure, alcoholism, excercise addiction, atypical facial pain and anorexia, not to mention depression, sometimes severe. The American Psychological Association recently indicated that perfectionism may lead to a person`s ultimate destruction. The APA cited an article by Sidney J. Blatt of Yale University about "the destructiveness of perfectionism." In the article, Dr. Blatt, a psychologist, identified three types of perfectionists: other-oriented, self-oriented, and socially prescibed.

Other-oriented perfectionists demand perfection in those around them. Self-oriented perfectionists have self-imposed unrealistic goals and can`t handle failure. Socially prescribed perfectionists see society`s expectations as impossible to meet, but they know they must meet them to win approval and acceptance.

Unfortunately, self-oriented and socially prescibed perfectonists have been linked with a higher risk of depression and suicide. The thinking of a perfectionist is self-defeating as they exaggerate their mistakes in their minds and blow them out of proportion. They are their own worst enemies. They tend to "globalize" their misdeeds, making a catastrophic event out of the actual trivial occurrence, using words like "always," "never," and "completely." In a nutshell, they spend much of their lives being frustrated. They strive to be accepted by their parents and peers, but they have trouble understanding unconditional love and acceptance. They feel they must earn acceptance and live with the nagging fear of others finding out "who I really am," which leads to, "Then they won`t like me anymore." For some perfectionists, the concept of unconditional love is so foreign, they can`t grasp the thought of God loving us unconditionally. They believe they must work for His acceptance too. Their world is a conditional one and the conditions are not easily met, if ever.

Researchers of this personality type make it clear that there is a difference between a perfectionist and one who merely seeks excellence. While a perfectionist is locked into a rigid pattern of thinking and behaving, someone seeking excellence is flexible and learns from her mistakes to reach her reachable goals. As she moves towards her goals, she feels good about herself, improving her self-image and self-confidence with each new success. She knows her limitations. She also knows if her behavior doesn?t produce the desired results, the same behavior won?t work any differently the second time. She learns, adapts, and grows, avoiding the trap of rigid and self-defeating thinking. She wants to be her best and is satisfied with a second place showing, if that was the best she could do in those circumstances. The mental outlook of a healthy perfectionist and/or person seeking excellence is a positive one, with much less frustration, anxiety, and fear.

Ralph Barton Perry, a philosopher and educator, once said, OA man can do his best only by confidently seeking (and perpetually missing) an unattainable perfection.O That may be true; unfortunately, perfectionists want better than their best and they are perpetually disappointed. It?s that OunattainableO goal that?s the culprit. Somehow, perfectionists must understand what is feasible and what is unreasonable.

Some serious perfectionists feel they would rather be dead than be Osecond rate.O To them, coming in second is failing and they can?t live with failure. It?s a lot healthier to reach for the reachable star. It?s so fulfilling to collect a few of those twinkly things. Allowing yourself to be imperfect, to be human, to be yourself is very liberating. You will be free to be the real you and not what you think others expect you to be. Seek excellence, with all it?s inevitable failures that must be lived with and learned from.

But what if those perfectly unhealthy thought patterns scream at you to do better, better, better than that? Howarth and Tras in The Joy of Imperfection suggest two thoughts to live by. The first is, OI am perfectly imperfect!O And for the dysfunctional perfectionist competitor, OMy flaws are better than yours!O

Joanne Iannone Sheehan, RDH, is a frequent contributor to RDH. She is based in Huntsville, Alabama.

Living in an imperfect world

For the dysfunctional perfectionists who have seen themselves in this article as I have, David Stoop`s book, Hope for the Perfectionist, offers a few suggestions to start you on the road to a better and healthier you ... the real you. After all, life is too short and being human is more fun anyway.

- Re-adjust your personal goals ... make them reachable for humans.

- Put time limits on your activities ... don`t get obsessed. When time is up, move on.

- Do something you like to do...there will always be another chore waiting, no matter what.

- Don`t take perceived societal pressures too seriously ... live for yourself; it`s your life!

- Analyze your thought patterns ... the battle starts in the brain. What you think is what you do.

- Be open about your progress in overcoming ... share with a trusted friend, recognize benefits in altered thought patterns and behavior.

- There is nothing wrong with professional counseling ... if nothing here seems to help and you`re still unhappy and frustrated with your life, yourself, and people in general. It`s not an easy trait to deal with. It didn`t develop overnight either so it may take a little time to control.