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The psychology behind perfectionism

April 23, 2019

After several attempts to print each individual letter onto her poster flawlessly, Jeannette looks over the now tarnished paper with its dark erase marks and trashes it all together. Her trash can is seemingly overflowing with crumpled paper. After her first successful attempt, she notices that the letters take a small decline near the end of the phrase and they aren’t perfectly in line. Although she tries to ignore it, considering the amount of wasted paper, the thought stays in Jeannette’s mind and bothers her until she rips that one up, too.

“If I were to be writing a song, [and] I mess up on the paper, and I don’t like how it looks, I’ll crumble it up and start over,” sophomore Justiss Hamilton said. “I cannot have very many erase marks on my paper. And I cannot write in pen on my math. My closet has to be aligned. It’s just daily stuff.” 

Obsessions over flaws in handwriting or the appearance of erasing marks on a paper are some of the minor, more common things that perfectionists strive to fix or eliminate altogether.

“When I’m folding laundry at work, things have to be on the table perfectly,” Hamilton said. “They cannot be wrinkled or messed up, and they have to be in line and in the colors that they’re assigned.”

On the severe spectrum of things, there are a lot of impulses that are peculiar, but necessary.

“Thinking about it, it may be a bit more on the obsessive side, but there are things, like the way my desk is situated, or how many times I have to turn the lock before I am able to unlock or lock my locker, where I specifically sit at a table or what side of a friend I’m standing on,” senior Kay McGuire said. “When my anxiety gets really bad, I start organizing things so they are perfectly placed in my brain.” 

Psychological reactions to these imperfections or mix-ups in routine trigger inner turmoil and anxiety.

It’s a full-on anxious feeling. I start to feel like a child does when their parent gets called in school and they know they are in big trouble when they get home and they can’t prevent it,” McGuire said. “I give in, even though I know it’s a waste of time to worry about it and how annoying it is to my friends, [but] I have to, because of how overwhelming it is, and it’s not like I can get over it by going back and doing whatever it is that’s bothering me. I can do it a million times and the sense of panic will be there.”

Physical reactions to something bothersome are sometimes distinct in comparison to panic attacks.

I get a little bit of tension, but I know that I have to walk away from it, and it bites me,” Hamilton said. 

Both McGuire and Hamilton said that it is easier to submit to the nagging of their brain when they notice something that they feel compelled to fix.

“I argue with myself and I cannot get it out of my head. My brain will keep thinking about that one thing,” Hamilton said. 

One symptom of perfectionism is thinking in extremes, which is more commonly known as “black-and-white thinking.”

Everything is very black and white in my head, like everything processes as either all good or bad.There is almost never an in-between because there isn’t any room for gray space. But when I forget to do one of my obsessions or something is off, it’s in much more of an extreme and it feels like the world is ending and I’m just watching it end.”

— senior Kay McGuire

“Everything is very black and white in my head, like everything processes as either all good or bad,” McGuire said. “There is almost never an in-between because there isn’t any room for gray space. But when I forget to do one of my obsessions or something is off, it’s in much more of an extreme and it feels like the world is ending and I’m just watching it end.” 

According to goodtherapy.org, perfectionism sometimes comes from a “frequent fear of disapproval from others.”

“At my old school, I struggled with making friends and being bullied,” McGuire said. “Even [with] the couple friends I had, I was never who they wanted me to be and I’m terrified that if someone doesn’t have a positive opinion of me that I’m going to end up losing everything again, even if it’s just one person. One bad opinion can ruin someone and I just can’t handle the idea of abandonment.” 

Sometimes, disapproval is more apparent at home, and this can make someone’s confidence dependent on others’ opinions of their work.

My parents [have] always wanted me to do good, and they want me to strive for perfection,” Hamilton said. “They said that if I can’t reach that, [to] try to strive for it at least.” 

Although the positives are few, and perfectionism is oftentimes destructive, sometimes, rewards for their efforts come easier for those who always strive for perfection.

“Usually, you’re prone to succeed,” Hamilton said. “You know you’re going to succeed because you know that everything has to be the way [that] it is.” 

 

 

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