When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem
Stones In Equilibrium

When Perfectionism Becomes a Problem

I’ve always considered myself to be a bit of a perfectionist. Whenever I had to do something that mattered, I would put body, mind, and soul into doing it. I’d never contemplated doing anything by half measures and would sometimes work myself into quite a state to have everything just right. When I finally wised up to the pitfalls of perfectionism, I was able to cope with it from a place of understanding, though the need to be a perfectionist never left me.

According to webster.com, perfectionism is, “the disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable.” It’s a word that can be both awe-inspiring and anxiety-inducing. To aim for perfection is indeed a lofty ideal but to actually achieve it is oftentimes beyond our human capacity or control. When we can accept the fact that it’s impossible for imperfect beings to reach true perfection, we’ll be able to bridge the gap between our expectations and our limitations.

Psychologists say that perfectionism is known to have both an adaptive and maladaptive side. According to Patricia DiBartolo, PhD, a professor of clinical psychology at Smith College, “Perfectionism can be a healthy personality trait.” To paraphrase her, “adaptive perfectionists can be intensely self-motivated and organized as they strive for excellence, but also generally accept when they miss the mark.”

From that statement, it can be understood that seeking perfection is not a problem. There is nothing wrong in pulling out all stops to get the best results. If we wish to succeed at whatever we do, we must approach our work with the highest level of competence, leaving no stone unturned in seeking the best outcome. In doing this, adaptive perfectionists will enjoy every minute of their endeavors and will be philosophical if the results turn out to be less than perfect.

Unfortunately, the maladaptive’s reaction is another story altogether. Having walked in these shoes, I can identify with some of the negative emotions. To paraphrase Dr. DiBartolo, “A maladaptive perfectionist, on the other hand, can accept nothing other than flawlessness, and it can spiral into a life-altering problem.”

In another article in psychologytoday.com, Psychologist Jennifer Kromberg writes, “…being a perfectionist isn’t about things being perfect; it’s about thinking things need to be perfect and vigilantly pursuing it. Emotionally, this means that instead of living your life in a place of self-acceptance, perfectionists are on a continual treadmill chasing the elusive feeling of having everything in their lives be “right.”

Here, we see that what is perceived as less than perfect results can send a maladaptive perfectionist into a tailspin of emotion. Picture the guilt, the anguish and the self-flagellation that follows when everything didn’t go according to plan. For the maladaptive perfectionist, less than perfect is never an option. Such a person will always be in a perpetual tizzy of needing everything to be perfect. They will hyperventilate and agitate and most certainly sweat the small stuff.

Living under this kind of pressure is detrimental both physically and mentally. As Julia Naftulin wrote in an article in health.com, “Being a perfectionist isn’t always something to brag about—it can lead to depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems.”

So, are people born as perfectionists or is this a learned behavior?

According to an article in abajournal.com, new research has suggested that perfectionists should blame their genes more than their upbringing. However, perfectionism can definitely be a learned behavior too. The reasons bandied about for this is are: societal pressures, fear of failure, self-hatred, low self-esteem and a slew of other things.

To me, what’s important is not where perfectionism came from but how those who suffer from the maladaptive effects can avoid living in an alternate reality. If a change of perception is not exerted by a strong will, then medication and therapy will inevitably be the next step. For me, faith in a Supreme Being stood me in good stead and helped me to put things into perspective. Allah (God), our Creator, is the only One who is without flaws and is perfection personified. We can aspire for flawlessness and perfection but we’ll never be able to achieve it because we are not like Him.   

As Muslims, our faith doesn’t preclude us from striving for perfection. In fact, we are advised to approach everything with Ihsan. Ihsan is translated interchangeably as excellence or perfection. In a Hadith, the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), said, “Verily, Allah has prescribed perfection in all things.”

Similarly, a verse of the Qur’an tells us,

“Verily, Allah enjoins justice, and perfection and giving help to relatives, and He forbids immoral sins, evil and tyranny. He admonishes you, so that perhaps you may take heed (16:90).

In another Hadith, the Angel Jibril came in the form of a man to question the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). This was to ensure that the Prophet (pbuh) had grasped the tenets of the religion. One of the questions Jibril asked was, “Tell me about Ihsan.” The Prophet’s (pbuh) answer was, “It is to worship Allah as though you see Him, and though you do not see Him, you know that He sees you.”

The underlying lesson here is that we are required to strive for perfection but attaining perfection itself is not obligatory upon us. I believe the reason for this is evident. As human beings, we all have different aptitudes and capabilities. Hence, our endeavors will have varying outcomes, based upon our unique personalities.

According to 40HadithNawawi.com, there are four components of Ihsan that we are required to fulfill:

1) sincerity

2) completeness

3) tastefulness

4) correctness

Once we approach any task with these four essentials, we will have done our part. All that our Creator requires of us is to make the effort. If we fail to achieve the desired results despite our exertions, this is what He has willed. The outcome of all matters is in His hands. As we are told in the Qur’an, “…with Allah rests the end (and decision) of (all) affairs (22:41).

The takeaway message here is that we should try our utmost to do what is best within our circumstances, but don’t castigate ourselves over what we cannot control. The One who is Perfect encompasses everything we do and takes our human weaknesses and errors into consideration. Having unrealistic expectations or trying to live up to impossible standards is a rocky road to travel.  

Written by Farah Zaman,

Farah is the author of the YA mystery, The Moon of Masarrah and the soon-to-be-launched second book in the series, The Sign of the Scorpion. She loves the written word and has been writing poetry, stories, and articles since she was a teenager. Her favorite pastimes are gardening and traveling. Farah lives in New York City with her family.  

Her blog: //farahzamanauthor.com/blog.

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