Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Jeannette DewyzeToo Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control by Jeannette Dewyze

Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control

byJeannette Dewyze, Allan Mallinger

Paperback | June 1, 1993

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For many of us, perfectionism can bring life's most desired rewards. But when the obsessive need for perfection and control gets in the way of our professional and emotional lives, the cost becomes too high. Although many of us appear cool and confident on the outside, inside we are in emotional turmoil, trying to satisfy everyone, attempting to direct the future, and feeling that we are failing.
In TOO PERFECT, Dr. Allan Mallinger draws on twenty years of research and observations from his private practice to show how perfectionism can sap energy, complicate even the simplest decisions, and take the enjoyment out of life. For workaholics or neat freaks, for anyone who fears change or making mistakes, needs rigid rules, is excessively frugal or obstinate, TOO PERFECT offers revealing self-tests, fascinating case histories, and practical strategies to help us overcome obsessiveness and reclaim our right to happiness.
Jeannette Dewyze is a freelance journalist. She was a staff writer for the San Diego Reader for 30 years. She cowrote Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control with Allan Mallinger, M.D.Allan Mallinger is a practicing psychiatrist in San Diego, California, and the coauthor of Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of ...
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Title:Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of ControlFormat:PaperbackDimensions:224 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 0.47 inPublished:June 1, 1993Publisher:Random House Publishing Group

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0449908003

ISBN - 13:9780449908006

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ONE   The Obsessive Personality   When we would pursue virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves.… We find fault with perfection itself. —PASCAL,  Pensées   This is a book about people who are too perfect for their own good.   You know them. You may be one of them. And if you are, you have much to be proud of. You’re one of the solid, good people of the world: honest, reliable, hardworking, responsible, exacting, self-controlled.   But for many people there is also a dark side to this perfection. The very traits that bring them success, respect, and trust can also cause them serious problems. These people aren’t fully able to savor relationships with others and with the world at large, nor are they at ease with themselves in their universe. Consider:    The person so driven to meet professional and personal goals that she can’t abandon herself to a few hours of undirected leisure without feeling guilty or undisciplined.  The person so preoccupied with making the right choice that he has difficulty making even relatively simple decisions usually regarded as pleasurable: buying a new stereo; choosing where to go on vacation.  The person so finicky that his pleasure is spoiled if everything isn’t “just so.”  The “thinkaholic” whose keen, hyperactive mind all too often bogs her down in painful worry and rumination.  The perfectionist, whose need to improve and polish every piece of work chronically causes her to devote much more time than necessary to even inconsequential assignments.”  The person so intent upon finding the ultimate romantic mate that he seems unable to commit to any long-term relationship.  The person so acclimated to working long hours that she can’t bring herself to cut back, even when confronted with evidence that the overwork is ruining her health or her family relationships.  The procrastinator who feels angry at his “laziness”—unaware that the real reason he is unable to undertake tasks is that his need to do them flawlessly makes them loom impossibly large.   These are just a few of the behaviors common to people who have the personality type that psychiatrists call obsessive. This term and the related term, compulsive, have crept into our everyday language to a striking degree. This person is “obsessed” with baseball. That one is a “compulsive” shopper. Recent articles and books have also made the lay public aware of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), the malady that drives its sufferers to such acts as repeated hand-washing, checking routines, or other paralyzing rituals.   When I use the term obsessive, however, I mean something quite different. I’m referring to a personality type, not to an isolated behavior or clinical disorder like OCD.   If there is a single quality that characterizes obsessive people it is a powerful, unconscious need to feel in control—of themselves, of others, and of life’s risks. One of the primary ways in which this need manifests itself is perfectionism. A whole family of personality traits is rooted in these two needs—to be in control and to be “perfect.” These include:    a fear of making errors  a fear of making a wrong decision or choice  a strong devotion to work  a need for order or firmly established routine  frugality  a need to know and follow the rules  emotional guardedness  a tendency to be stubborn or oppositional  a heightened sensitivity to being pressured or controlled by others  an inclination to worry, ruminate, or doubt  a need to be above criticism—moral, professional, or personal  cautiousness  a chronic inner pressure to use every minute productively   By my definition, someone is obsessive if his or her personality is predominantly colored by traits from this family—in any combination. Many of these traits, when they aren’t exaggerated or rigid, are valuable qualities. It’s hard to imagine someone succeeding in our society today without some degree of self-discipline, for example, or some desire to work hard and avoid errors. But some people are “too perfect.” The obsessive traits in their personality are so dominant and inflexible that these virtues actually cause a host of problems.   In my practice I see new examples of such self-generated anguish every day. And at the same time I see how unaware most obsessives are that they’re harming themselves; they recoil from any hint that their heavy burdens could be self-imposed. Most have grown up believing that you can never be too careful, hardworking, thorough, prepared, or organized. In fact, they’re often proudest of the very traits that cause them the most harm.   Rarely do my obsessive patients come to me because they feel there’s anything wrong with their attitudes or lifestyles. Instead they come seeking help with some specific symptom or external stressor. Maybe they’ve begun suffering from baffling anxiety or gastrointestinal ailments. Or they may be having trouble coping with some distressing life event: a serious career reversal or a work block that threatens their urgent heed to achieve. Often a spouse or lover has insisted that they get some help.   In Laura’s case, it was her internist’s suggestion that led her to me. For months this patient had felt drained of any joy or zest for life, and her sleep and appetite both were suffering. Laura initially felt baffled by her inability to simply shake off her feelings of sadness. But she was a bright, sensitive, insightful person, and was quickly able to isolate several factors that were feeding her melancholy.   Much of Laura’s self-esteem was inextricably intertwined with her image of herself as an achiever who invariably dazzled people with her accomplishments. The exemplary child of prominent professionals, she had graduated with top honors from a prestigious Eastern university, then had embarked on a business career in which she swiftly rose to become the marketing director for a highly successful new clothing retailer. Almost immediately, people within her company came to think of Laura as someone who could handle any problem or shoulder any task, no matter how difficult.   Her private life, however, was another matter. She was unhappy with her marriage and had been thinking about getting a divorce, but she felt terribly frustrated by her inability to make a final decision. She also felt totally burned out by her job. Because she had trouble delegating tasks and felt she had to be all things to all people, she really did have a crushing work load, which was made even more onerous by the incredibly high standards by which she judged her own work. Once Laura told me that she felt truly relaxed only when she was in a darkened movie theater. Even at home, she was constantly either working or feeling guilty about ignoring one chore or another.   Clearly, Laura had reasons to feel troubled, but she didn’t realize that she could behave any differently. It took time and effort for her to see how much she was contributing to her own misery. As I got to know her, I learned that Laura’s father had been a picky, judgmental man with inflexible views on the “right” way to do everything. Laura thus grew up believing that in order to earn her father’s love (an almost impossible task, since he was so hard to please), she had to perform flawlessly. As an adult, Laura’s continuing abhorrence of making mistakes was preventing her from taking action in her marriage, and was vastly complicating her work life. At the same time, her unremitting self-criticism soured her ability to truly enjoy any of her own substantial achievements.   Raymond, a surgeon in a university hospital, came to see me only at the insistence of his wife, Abbe, a corporate architect. Married for fifteen years, both were workaholics who had grown used to spending most of their time apart. When I met the two of them, Abbe had encountered a career crisis and needed support from her husband—support that she felt was totally absent. Abbe also charged that her domineering husband constantly “bullied” her—passing judgment on everything from her cooking to her political opinions. As a result she had come to feel chronically inhibited and constrained in her own home. Even more disturbing to her was the extent to which Raymond failed to share his feelings with her. Not only did she feel no sense of intimacy with him, she felt unloved and terribly lonely.   It was true, Raymond acknowledged, that he had trouble trusting people, even people he loved. He justified this distrustfulness by recalling the various individuals who had let him down over the years. Raymond’s childhood offered further clues into his guardedness. His father had been a stern and critical man who never seemed appreciative of any of his son’s many achievements. To protect himself from crushing feelings of rejection, Raymond had, early on, developed a thick shell. But Raymond insisted that he did care about his wife and she should know it; her needs for more overt displays of affection from him were just indications of her own insecurity. For every one of her specific criticisms he had a forceful, eloquent defense.   After just three sessions, Raymond canceled our meetings, saying he would reschedule another appointment soon. I didn’t hear from him again, however, until several months later. It was hard to reconcile the anguished voice on the phone with the aloof, intimidating figure I had met before. When he arrived at the office, Raymond told me that he had lost twenty pounds and admitted he was seriously contemplating suicide. Abbe had openly embarked upon an affair with another man and Raymond was absolutely devastated at the prospect of losing her. Nothing else in his life was as important as she was, he told me, weeping. If he had to change, somehow, in order to win her back, then he would try to change. But I could see that Raymond still didn’t fully understand that his own perfectionism, guardedness, and need for control had helped set him up for this personal tragedy. We met for several sessions and he did appear to make some progress, but then he once again abruptly dropped out of therapy.

From Our Editors

Mallinger insists that trading our competitive society's obsession with excellence for more realistic goals is the key to a saner, healthier life and offers obsessives hope and help to keep from being stranded in a mire of obsessive-compulsive behavior