Perfectionism and Its Limits

Once your adolescent with OCD gets to college or into a job, he may notice that many around him view his old nemesis, perfectionism, as an asset. And, in many respects, the ideal of perfectionism is a strong part of the prevailing American work ethic. However, as the parent of a child with OCD, you can help your child remember that the reality behind this picture is often quite different; that an unbridled perfectionism can lead a young student or worker to procrastination and failure, as much or more often than it brings about success.

Dr. Steven Phillipson of the Center for Cognitive Behavioral Psychotherapy in New York City, addressed the difficulty of diagnosing adolescents with this OCD tendency when society rewards much of the behavior which is in fact tormenting the young person:

Being a straight “A” student, studying for hours, and having a perfectly arranged bedroom are all attributes that most parents would seem to die for. However, although seemingly commendable, these behaviors are far from what is common behavior in adolescents, and therefore should serve as a warning signal for both adolescents and their parents.

Dr. Phillipson points to the tendency of these adolescents with OCD to develop unrealistically rigid and stringent moral guidelines, which they then use to judge themselves and their peers harshly. He points to other dangers resulting from this sort of scrupulosity, including depression, suicidal ideation, and extreme and intolerant political and religious stances.

This “all or nothing” attitude characteristic of perfectionists and those with OCD has recently been examined in students attending an Australian technical college. In a formal study, 252 students who thought of themselves in this either/or perfectionist fashion were found to be less likely to learn from their mistakes when they performed assigned tasks, and more likely to develop mental health problems, than their counterparts without this attitude.

An American study looked at OCD habits in adult staff members at a California college campus, U.C. Davis. The college staff members who participated in the study were self-defined perfectionist employees, and many complained of feeling burned out. During the study, they were taught the principles of ERP to determine the effects of learning these techniques in a workplace setting (as opposed to a strictly therapeutic setting). The goal was to help these employees achieve a more reasonable or “good enough” approach to their work. To carry out their exposures, the employees left work undone, went home on time, and even let their desks become disorderly — only to discover that their work product actually improved after several weeks of ERP and group therapy.

Perfectionism presents a paradox: As a lifelong strategy it is ineffective and unachievable. Perfect is not the right goal, because perfect is by definition not humanly possible. Not only does it make it harder to get things done right and on time, it makes the doer unhappy.

Excellence is a much better goal in all areas of life. Excellence is achievable. It assumes the doer is doing the very best he can at whatever he tries. By contrast the perfectionist never feels pride or the satisfaction of a job well done because he never believes he's done it well enough. It is flawed, filled with errors. This is something all young people and adults dealing with OCD must remember or be reminded of on a regular basis. Perfectionism is an enemy, not an ally, whether at home, at school, or in the workplace.

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