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Anything worth doing is worth doing well. Practice makes perfect. Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing. Failure is not an option. In today's perfection-obsessed culture, these are the maxims we live by. Yet the damage they cause can be stifling. Renowned author and expert in the field of relationships and personal growth, Ann W. Smith, author of Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance & Self-Acceptance knows this first hand.
Smith has dealt with her fair share of perfectionism and has bared witness to this all too common phenomenon in her professional life, having spent the last thirty years addressing the impact that compulsive patterns have on individuals and family. While perfectionism lacks much of the stigma attached to today's most common compulsions—smoking, gambling, sex addiction, alcoholism, and drug abuse—many of the negative consequences on self and the family system are the same.
Psychological and physical implications often include: headaches, isolation, fear of failure, sleep disturbances, workaholism, back pain, overeating, sexual dysfunction, depression, suicidal thoughts or tendencies, strained relationships, criticism of self and others, the need to be in control, and excessive guilt and shame.
In this groundbreaking book, Smith provides a path to reversing this pattern. From a unique perspective she describes differences between two types of perfectionism, overt and covert; the important role that early attachment, temperament, sibling relationships, and life circumstances play in developing this pattern, and outlines the practices necessary in order to find balance and improve quality of life.
Q&A with Ann Smith
What is perfectionism?
For some it is just a preference for order, or a drive to be the best they can be, but it is a choice. For those I write about it is a compulsive pattern of behavior and thoughts that is based on low self-esteem, repressed feelings, insecurity or shame. It is not a conscious choice and becomes a need to maintain excellence in many areas of life. It is only a problem if it has a detrimental effect on one's quality of life or conflicts with personal values.
Are all perfectionists the same?
I see two types of perfectionists. The Overt perfectionist is easy to see, they are orderly, organized and a little uptight. They may be critical of others and hard to please. Some overt perfectionists are focused on social standards and how others should be.
The Covert perfectionist does not appear perfect in many areas of life but has a mental committee of critics who pressure them to be better; very self critical and tends to make comparisons to others and does not measure up. They are especially challenged by relationships where they do not feel adequate or good enough. Coverts tend to be more self-oriented, concerned about their own performance and less about others.
How serious is it?
Perfectionism has been linked to anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. It is also related to lower relationship satisfaction and fear of intimacy.
How does perfectionism hurt a relationship?
Perfectionists are sensitive and defensive about making mistakes or being blamed or criticized. They avoid vulnerability and openness, trying not to appear flawed or bad. Since intimacy requires openness with emotions, their relationships may be superficial and focused on "doing" things for their partner rather than just being close. Some may also appear superior, expecting things to be done a certain way to the point of demeaning a partner.
How does it affect children when a parent is a perfectionist?
The Overt perfectionist may become an enforcer or teacher rather than a loving parent. Emphasis is on doing what is right or correct rather than allowing children to learn from mistakes and develop their own identity. At times it may seem that the parent's self esteem is dependent on the success of the child. Some children will rebel; others will try to comply while hiding their imperfections and doubts from their parent.
How can this pattern be changed?
I see it as a 3-stage process. First they need to see and evaluate the pitfalls of it and how it began. If it is not a problem, it doesn't need to change. If it is causing problems or is not a reflection of your values, it is important to make changes. Second is what I call "Becoming Me" where a perfectionist looks closely at who they really are – their essence. It is important to be real and slowly practice letting others see who you are. The third step is to let go of expectations and forgive yourself for past mistakes. It is a time to begin accepting yourself and others as is.
Ann W. Smith MS, LMFT, is a nationally recognized leader and expert in the field of healthy relationships frequently presenting at major conferences throughout the U.S., Canada, and Finland. As a licensed marriage and family therapist, she has spent nearly thirty years helping clients heal from the impact compulsive patterns have had both individually and on family systems. Ann is also the director of Breakthrough at Caron—a program she designed for Caron Treatment Centers aimed at helping adults achieve the quality of life they desire, improve relationships, and achieve personal goals.