By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
Perfectionists are trapped, but most don’t realize it. Don’t judge them, for most of us have cycles and patterns of our own, just as much. For the perfectionist, the cycle revolves around the question, Can I be good enough? Here’s what The Perfectionist Cycle looks like, and then I’ll describe each phase.
Phase 1: Striving
The core drive of the perfectionist is to meet some inner standard in order to attain to “good enough-ness”. This drive can take many forms: maybe they are very competitive, maybe they are a workaholic, maybe they try to please everyone, or serve everyone, maybe they try to check everything off their “to do” list. You see, the way it shows up will be as varied as there are perfectionists. This is because the way it manifests depends of what the person has determined will define them as “good enough”.
But as the perfectionist strives away, running like a hamster on a wheel, they will, like all of us, tire out, or inevitably, make a mistake. Both of these conditions is intolerable for the perfectionist, because, you see, to tire or make a mistake, is to reveal that they are not good enough. Just to fall short, or frankly, turn out to be limited, is to miss their standard. And so, when they tire or fail, they enter the next phase of the cycle; defeat.
Phase 2: Defeat
In phase two the perfectionist has discovered or uncovered that they are not able to meet their standard, or someone else has uncovered it. If someone else has uncovered it, there is either moves to protect and cover up the exposure, or there is collapse. If the failure is not public, there is often internal collapse, and sometimes a self deceptive cover up. From here, the person will either move to phase three of shame, or phase three of anger.
Phase 3 of anger
This phase is really an in-between phase, as the perfectionist tries to block or avoid their shame, and so heads to what is perceived to feel safer and stronger, which is anger. Anger at others will keep them disconnected from their shame and halt their movement. If they stay here, the anger often turns to bitterness and hardness of heart. If they turn their anger inward, they will move on to the phase 3 of shame.
Phase 3 of Shame
Now the perfectionist feels how unworthy they are because they are not good enough. Their self talk floods them with negative evaluations and criticisms. As a result of these beliefs being fanned, the person looses most of their motivation and often becomes depressed. Again, some may get caught and stuck here in their depression.
Phase 4: Give Up
Once the perfectionist is exposed to their shame they often will wallow in it. The reasoning now becomes – “Well, as long as I’ve blown it, I may as well go ahead and be the screw up I believe I am to the full.” This phase of belief may produce anything from meanness to others, to binging on food, alcohol, drugs, or pornography, to reverting to old bad habits, or deepening the depression.
Phase 5: Whip it Good
Now the shame has been heightened by the poor choices of phase four and the perfectionist has more fuel to beat themselves up over, loathe themselves and cement in them the notion that they are not “good enough” or that they are deficient in some way. And so, this is where they turn their criticism and shame on themselves in order to motivate themselves to get back to the striving phase. They feel much shame as well about how they are now not being productive and they decide that they REALLY need to prove themselves this time and so they re-double their efforts to meet the standard they had set before. And back up to phase one they return.
What they often do not grasp is that they do not actually return to the previous standard, but they have actually raised the standard even higher than the last time. And therein lies the curse of the cycle. As one continues through the cycles, each time the standard that was unreasonably high before becomes even more out of reach, dooming the striver to not only fail again, but to stay firmly stuck in the cycle and to deepen their shame. So, here’s what the diagram now looks like. I call this the perfectionist Spiral – as it swirls ever bigger.
The perfectionist will not like this part, as much as they have been looking forward to it. The perfectionist will resist the very cure that they long for – because it requires them to accept their limitations and mistakes and weaknesses. Not only do they not want to accept their flawed selves, they do not know how.
What is needed is…grace. The perfectionist need to experience grace from others and from God for it to seep into them and invite them to challenge the faulty core beliefs that they cling to, and over time, to replace them with more objective and realistic perceptions and beliefs of themselves.
The Wrap up
This break down of the perfectionist’s cycle has been brief and generalized. If you can identify with this description, I encourage you to seek out the help of a counselor in order to get free! It likely won’t be easy, but the effort you make this time around will be worth it.
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