OCPD perfectionism originates from a good place, excellence.
When you have excellence in a particular area in your life, you will naturally have higher standards in that area. Maybe you’ve got excellence in cleanliness. Maybe you’ve got excellence in morals. I have excellence in story telling.
What this means is that you have a clearer picture in your head of how amazing things could be. You see all the small details that make up that beautiful end result. Your mind downloads all these strategies on how to produce that end result. It’s not easy bringing things up to your high standards. So naturally, you’re a very hard worker in this area. And when your vision of excellence comes to life, it fills your heart with excitement and other people also go “Wow!” Excellence is an amazing quality to have and it can really bring a lot of positive changes to the world.
It does come with some challenges though. If in your head it is so clear that things could be much better, there is a gap between how things are and how things could be. The existence of this gap can be quite emotionally disturbing. When children first experience this, their natural instinct is to remove this disturbing feeling right away. “I don’t like how this feels. I need to find a way to make it go away.” So what many children will attempt to do is close this gap, not by bringing their bar down – because you cannot unsee the excellence that has already been implanted into your head – but instead, by bringing how things currently are up.
Now on the outside, this is going to look quite promising. You’ll see that your child is working very hard. You might be like, “Wow, my child already has such great work ethic!” But it is very possible that, underneath it all, anger and frustration may be beginning to well up inside of him because, no matter how hard he tries, it seems like that gap just won’t go away. This anger may grow until it causes the child to finally explode. By this point, the child decides that it’s just not worth it to keep going. He gives himself immediate gratification in the removal of this discomfort.
Immediate gratification is not good in the long run. By doing this, this child foregoes his opportunity to build up his tolerance for this discomfort. So if he continues to do this throughout his life and no parent or teacher stops him, he may grow up to be an adult who is equally incapable of handling this difficult emotion as his child-self. It will overwhelm him and cause him to have an all-or-nothing approach to his work. This is called perfectionism.
Perfectionism is the dark side of excellence. Rather than being pulled by your love for excellence, you’re pushed by your anxiety and displeasure of that “gap.” There is no grace. No room for error. Along the way, there’s so much stress and frustration. Perfectionism is so outcome focused that you are likely to antagonize yourself and everything else that seems to get in your way of removing that gap. So perfectionists often get angry at others. And even when perfectionists get their way, their satisfaction is very short-lived. It lasts just until another “gap” reappears.
Highly sensitive people and gifted children and adults are most likely to be affected by this.
If you want to set your children up for success, help your children experience delayed gratification. When their anger begins to boil inside of them, help them calm down. Show understanding of this frustration that they feel. Encourage them to invest their time into activities that will help them achieve their vision of excellence, such as practice. And encourage them to return back to their work, try and try again, and think positively all the way through.
If you’re an adult who struggles with perfectionism, push yourself to do the same thing too. It’s never too late.