Often, people think of perfectionism as positive. After all, who doesn’t want to be perfect? Perfection isn’t attainable, though. The search for it can ruin relationships and contribute to extreme levels of anxiety and rigidity. Let’s examine an example of how perfectionism can sabotage an intimate relationship for a mother of two.
Anna (not her real name, a composite based off of several clients I have had in my practice) is a 35-year-old mom of two kids, ages three and five. She has always been a high achiever and currently is a high-performing real estate agent as well as a wife, mother, sister, daughter, homeowner, and pet owner. Anna has prided herself on her appearance, and she likes to keep her house tidy and neat. She also wants to be perceived as thin and fit, which she insists helps her make sales on the job.
Anna’s schedule is punishing. She wakes up at 4:45 every morning to go to a “boot camp” class at her gym, showers and returns to feed her kids breakfast at 7 and get them out the door to school, at which point she cleans up the house and gets to work by 9:30.
This seems pretty good, but she is expected to be at work at 9. Her boss isn’t happy with her constant lateness, and her husband is perplexed by her behavior. He asks her why she is risking her job and her boss’s approval by coming in late every day.
Anna finds it impossible to contemplate not going to the gym in the morning, and equally impossible not to clean the house for at least 45 minutes each morning after the kids leave. She insists that she has to leave the house in order before she leaves for the day or else she can’t concentrate.
Anna tells her husband it is his fault she is late every day. If he cleaned the house with her every evening, then she wouldn’t have to clean so much in the morning. She says he may be fine with getting fat and lazy in his middle age, but physical fitness is important to her. There is no way around going to the gym.
Anna’s husband feels extremely irritated and frustrated. Not only is Anna insulting his appearance (which she does out of resentment, and subconsciously to turn the topic away from her exercising), but he does clean up with her every night after dinner. He frequently tells her, “Nothing can ever be good enough for you.” Sadly, he is right.
People often think women and men like my client, Anna, have “perfect lives.” But nobody sees the level of anxiety and the sacrifices that go into making their lives appear so “perfect.”
Anna ended up being reprimanded by her boss and having an anxiety attack because she did not know how she could possibly get to work on time and accomplish everything she wanted to do. She started to get up at 3:30 a.m. to clean the house prior to going to boot camp, which led to her feeling highly out of control and exhausted, and to seeking therapy.
In our work together, Anna and I explored the origins of her perfectionism. They included a perfectionistic and anxious mom whose anxiety progressed to the point of agoraphobia. Anna learned as a child that having a spotless house and looking physically perfect were of paramount importance.
As a younger woman, before she had a family, Anna was able to keep all of the balls in the air, and received a lot of positive feedback from others for how “effortlessly” she kept everything together. But after having kids, some balls started to drop. Her therapy included a strong focus on self-acceptance, mindfulness, and learning to prioritize kindness and compassion (for herself as well as her husband and kids) over a “perfect” life.
If Anna’s story resonates with you, reach out to a therapist. Nobody can be perfect, as Anna’s story indicates. Perfectionism is often an outgrowth of anxiety. It can take down everything in its path, including relationships, career, and happiness.