Therapist Katherine Morgan Schafler’s research reveals perfectionism is a phenomenon, not a disorder …
The night before our wedding, my husband and I decided to sleep separately, so that each of us could spend the evening in the most relaxing way possible before our big day. I returned home from the rehearsal dinner at around 10.30pm, walked my dogs while responding to emails, and then worked out. After working out, I took a shower, rewrapped the gifts I was giving to my bridesmaids (the gift wrap from the store graffitied the paper with so much tape, and it was all too kitschy in the first place), filed some clinical notes, edited my vows in bed, checked my emails again, and then drifted off to sleep a touch after 2am. It was, by all accounts, the perfect night.
Perfectionists are not balanced people, and that’s okay. I’ve been working with perfectionists for years in a range of settings, including being an on-site therapist at Google, working in residential treatment, counselling in an addiction rehab centre and in my own practice in New York. In my new book, The Perfectionist’s Guide To Losing Control: A Path To Peace and Power (Orion Books) I’ve identified five types of perfectionists, as below.
The biggest discovery I made about perfectionism is that perfectionists are seeking wholeness, not flawlessness. From the Latin perficere (per: completely and ficere: do), something considered “perfect” is that which is completely done; it exists in a state of completion, wholeness, perfection. When we describe something as perfect, what we’re saying is that there’s nothing we could add to make it better. Nothing more is needed because you can’t add to something that’s already whole. We so effortlessly acknowledge perfection in children, nature, our best friends, and yet when it comes to ourselves, so often, all we can see is incompleteness. I wrote this book to offer readers a new perspective: you are already whole. You are, in fact, perfect. You don’t need to try to become something you already are. Letting go of control and stepping into your power looks like understanding that everything you achieve in this life is just the clapping after the song; you are the song.
1. CLASSIC PERFECTIONISTS
How they present: Reliable, consistent, and detail-oriented; they add stability to their environment. Left unchecked, they struggle to adapt to spontaneity or change and they can have trouble connecting meaningfully with others.
Claire entered my office seamlessly, swaying through the door like a red velvet curtain at showtime on opening night; gloriously on cue. As is the case with classic perfectionists, there was something ceremonious about Claire, who at 22 had legally changed her name because the original spelling didn’t include the e at the end, a detail that irked her intolerably. As she described to me, “From second grade on, every single time I wrote my name, I died a little on the inside. Cumulatively, I’m sure it’s taken two years off my life, but it’s fixed now.” Everything about her was so clean and crisp, as if she’d purchased all her belongings earlier that morning and started a brand-new pop-up life. I think she made my couch cleaner just by sitting on it.
Highly self-disciplined, classic perfectionists are adept at presenting in a uniform way, making it difficult to take their emotional temperature. Are they thrilled? Enraged? Having the best orgasm of their life? Who knows. They’re either stoic or smiling as if they’re about to have their picture taken. While it’s easy to interpret this engagement style as inauthentic or closed off, it’s anything but. Classic perfectionists aren’t trying to be impressive or distance themselves as much as they’re trying to offer to others what they most value themselves: structure, consistency, predictability, an understanding of all the options so as to make an informed choice, high standards, objectivity, clarity through organisation.
2. PARISIAN PERFECTIONISTS
How they present: They insist on proving themselves – “singing for their supper” – even when nobody’s asking them to. Left unchecked, they prioritise other people’s pleasure and comfort over their own.
Lauren texted me before our session: “running 10 minutes late. sorry, worst day.” Tall and beautiful (and caught in the rain), she came in soaked, looking like a Barbie doll that had been unceremoniously left in the backyard during a storm. I took her coat, and in between the time I took it and turned around to hang it, she started crying while apologising for crying.
We discussed a meeting she’d had earlier that morning, which she perceived to have gone disastrously. When pressed, she acknowledged that the idea she presented dominated the conversation, and the team chose to spotlight her work at an upcoming conference. I waited for her to finish before I said: “Help me understand the problem.” Lauren blurted her response out in exasperation: “Because I can tell she doesn’t like me, and I hate it!” Parisian perfectionists want to be perfectly liked, an “achievement” other types of perfectionists don’t prize. When a Parisian perfectionist is having trouble connecting to someone with whom they want to connect, it can all feel for naught.
3. PROCRASTINATOR PERFECTIONISTS
How they present: They excel at preparing, can see opportunities from a 360-degree perspective, and have good impulse control. Left unchecked, their preparative measures hit a point of diminishing returns, resulting in indecisiveness and inaction.
Layla planned extensively for her departure from work. She read every book on career transitions she could find. She identified multiple other professional paths she could see herself pivoting towards. Layla also regularly attended networking events that she got nothing out of. I could so easily imagine her standing in an awful sports bar, surrounded by seven-too-many TVs, smiling, and waiting. “Layla” written in blue Sharpie on her sticker name tag. A Styrofoam tray of cubed warm cheddar next to half a sleeve of Ritz crackers that are still in the torn-open bag. What a waste of this brilliant person’s energy. The worst part? She knew she was squandering her time. Layla was fully aware that she’d done everything she needed to do, except choose a date to leave. Procrastinator perfectionists wait for the conditions to be perfect before starting. Dwelling in hesitation, they live alongside the void that forms within you when you don’t do the thing you most want to do.
4. MESSY PERFECTIONISTS
How they present: They are superstar idea generators, adapt to spontaneity well, and are naturally enthusiastic. Left unchecked, they struggle to stay focused on their goals, ultimately spreading their energy too thin to follow through on their commitments.
I rarely give “homework” in therapy, it’s not my style, but Pei-Han was an exception. I challenged her to stop watching documentaries for 90 days. I practically begged her. Pei-Han was a messy perfectionist through and through, so anytime she watched a documentary on anything (the hotel industry, sushi, migrant workers), she’d lunge herself full speed ahead in the direction of a new documentary-inspired goal, all the while trying to juggle the multiple other objectives she was attempting to achieve – online training for yoga teacher certification, applying for residency at Brooklyn Arts Council, decorating her apartment in preparation to become an Airbnb Superhost, the list continued. Pei-Han couldn’t help the way her brain lit up like a fireworks show when she became emotionally attached to a topic she found interesting. Messy perfectionists are in love with starting. Unlike their procrastinator perfectionist counterparts, nothing brings a messy perfectionist more joy than beginnings.
5. INTENSE PERFECTIONISTS
How they present: Effortlessly direct, they maintain razor-sharp focus on achieving their goal. Left unchecked, their standards can go from high to impossible, and they can be punitive with others and themselves for not achieving impossible standards.
On the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street in Manhattan’s financial district stands a classic 1960s building where I once had an office. Like several buildings in the city, the security at 140 Broadway requires you to confirm your identification at the concierge desk in the lobby so that you can receive a badge to enter the electronically guarded elevator bank. Dawn spent the first five minutes of her session explaining to me why the security system was “inefficient and idiotic”. The more she spoke, the more her annoyance morphed into antagonism. The antagonism wasn’t directed towards me, or herself, or the security personnel downstairs. It was an antagonism against the void. The antagonistic energy behind intense perfectionism isn’t always existential; intense perfectionists can be provocative. They are wild cards; some demonstrate extreme self-control, while others are reckless (temper tantrums at work, making impulsive decisions out of anger, etc.). Their off-the-charts work ethic is more like a work mandate and can take a steep toll on their physical and emotional wellbeing, as well as the quality of their interpersonal relationships.
SOME SELF-CONFESSED PERFECTIONISTS
“I’m a classic perfectionist and a Virgo; Virgos are serious perfectionists! I try not to be so hard on myself and my intention for my Renaissance album, was to create a place to be free of perfectionism and overthinking. A place to scream, release, feel freedom.”
MELANIE HARRISON: HOTELIER
“I wholeheartedly identify as a messy perfectionist. The concept of too many ideas and too little time springs to mind. I am obsessed with the details at the hotel [The Harrison Chambers of Distinction, Belfast]. As I am sucker for anything with a story, I have to show so much restraint at auctions, in antique shops and shopping online and remind myself that one day I am going to run out of space.”
FERGUS O’HALLORAN: GENERAL MANAGER
“I’m a hybrid of all these perfectionist types. When it comes to my work at The Twelve, Galway, I have very high expectations. There is a constant clock ticking in my head where everything seems to be going too slowly. My colleagues have learned to adapt to me and likewise, I have learned to adapt to reality somewhat.”
NICKI HOYNE: ACCESSORIES DESIGNER
“I’m definitely an intense perfectionist at work. I will throw out a whole idea if I can’t get it exactly as I want it. I aim high, comparing myself to Chanel or Dior, and then I feel disappointed and defeated when I don’t achieve impossible goals. However, I am a procrastinator perfectionist on home decor projects. I put them off and then never actually finish anything!”