Obsessive Compulsive? High Achieving?

The scourge of perfectionism.
We call it perfectionism. Nice article in the New York Times today about the way the culture encourages both obsessive attention to detail and compulsive behavior. Much of what therapists do is dealing with the damaging results of people stuck in the mindset of “black-and-white thinking”, a sad by-product of perfectionism (either it’s perfect or not).

What it looks like.
Perfection’s a good credo for knife throwers but quickly become unmanageable in day-to-day life, leading to paralysis — a tremendous inefficiency in completing tasks, and a tremendous indecisiveness for fear of less-than-optimal outcome. Moreover, there’s the depression that so often results when one doesn’t measure up to exacting standards. (As one joke has it: Is there a hyphen in obsessive compulsive?) When one’s identity is wrapped up in perfection it’s a sure recipe for misery.

When and why it crops up.
An obsessive-compulsive style, much encouraged in a detail-oriented culture, is highly correlated with such damaging behaviors as eating disorders and addiction, paranoid thinking styles, depression, and anxiety. Of course, an obsessive style, which has a clear genetic component, must be adaptive in some way. Getting things done is desirable. But when it takes over as a defense, when we use it to distract from things we’d rather not face, it can have devastating consequences.

Addiction and perfectionism.
The article makes the important point about how this logic is so damaging in much thinking about addiction. The “if I fall off the wagon, then it’s over” approach to addiction. I’ve spoken with a number of people who felt enormously shamed in their experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. In that model, after you slip up you become a “newbie” again. Shedding the “status” of staying sober. In the calculus of addiction that leads to intensely bad feelings about oneself. And that is a high risk factor for relapse. You can read the article here. Go ahead click on it. Otherwise you’ll be reading this imperfectly.

Kalea Chapman, Psy.D.

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