The Perfectionism and the Turbulent Identity

Darrell’s avatar

“Practice makes perfect, but nobody’s perfect, so why practice?” asked late grunge rocker Kurt Cobain. Those words would not likely come from the lips or keyboard of Turbulent personality types, who focus laser-like on self-improvement. They would especially reject Cobain’s statement if their penchant for self-improvement has morphed into a more tyrannical perfectionism.

Assertive people aren’t as concerned with achieving perfection as their Turbulent cousins are. It’s not that they’re delusional about their blemishes or inadequacies. But these personalities possess an inner confidence that assures them that being short of perfect is fine. They will find satisfaction regardless of any reasonable flaws. Their inherent confidence tells them they are doing what they can, and that’s sufficient. And why not? What can one do beyond what one can do? Assertive people acknowledge they are not perfect but accept they are perfect enough.

We recognize people with a Turbulent personality, at least partially, by their pervasive focus on “being better.” Improvement is a constant blip on their radars. When they see their blemishes or inadequacies, they not only discover something to fix, but there can be an overwhelming urgency to do it. Society generally applauds one’s desire to be better, unless it becomes such an obsession that turns counterproductive. A broad analogy might be too many facelifts. Along that same path, Turbulent individuals may be susceptible to paralyzing perfectionism.

By the same token, it might be inaccurate to claim all Turbulent people are automatically hobbled by perfectionism, but there is clearly a tendency present among them.

Turbulent people who do not embrace balance will feel incomplete when they fail to attain perfection. Since perfection is rare, “incomplete” becomes an on-going state. This might occur even when Turbulent personalities understand that perfection is elusive and seldom necessary for success. They may realize that perfectionism is an anxious response to life to be contrasted with the similar but differently motivated pursuit of excellence.

Perfectionism, as used here, goes beyond a natural pull toward excellence. Perfectionism grasps the perfectionists in an obsessive claw and drags them toward near impossible goals that end mostly in frustration. But even while understanding the irrational qualities of perfectionism, the sense of “not enough” will weigh on Turbulent individuals. Satisfaction is then always elusive. While dissatisfaction can be motivating, it can also be disheartening if there is nothing but dissatisfaction.

Like most things in life, perfectionism is not a matter of one-size-fits-all. Perfectionism comes in degrees. At the mild end of the perfectionism continuum, perfectionists may criticize themselves endlessly over small details they failed to execute impeccably. At the extreme end, perfectionism could shroud an entire life in a pervasive sense of failure. Turbulent perfectionists may ceaselessly labor to close the gap between where they are and where they think they should be.

Those personalities prone to material perfectionism will attempt to master efficiency and organization with a ruthless focus on detail. Proper procedure perfectly executed will likely provide them one of their measuring sticks. Those inclined to existential perfectionism will try to transform into “better people” from a principled perspective. If they fail to reach perfection by their preferred measure, and they are as likely to as not, the perfectionists will be rewarded with a sense of guilt. Without an understanding that leads to a strategy to resolve their perfectionism, their guilt will likely target and damage their self-esteems.

Or, to complicate things further, among those with the Turbulent personality trait, some may hold that they must pursue perfection but, at a point in life, they may have slammed into a wall of frustration that they felt was insurmountable. Perfectionism doesn’t always manifest through obvious behaviors. Sometimes, it expresses itself through a defeatist attitude. Turbulent individuals may still believe unrealistic expectations are the only reasonable aspiration, and yet they’ve learned not to even try to reach them. They might label themselves as “losers” or other derogatory terms.

This attitudinal perfectionism often leads to procrastination, even lifelong procrastination and the tragedy of a life not fully lived. They may fear that attempts to accomplish tasks will highlight their onerous (in their eyes) imperfections – so why not delay the pain, even infinitely? Avoidance becomes the conscious or subconscious strategy of choice.

Some Turbulent personalities may be perfectionistic only on particular occasions or in some specific situations and each can take on differing degrees of severity. Life experiences may also intensify perfectionism: a childhood spent pleasing a parent who demanded perfection, for example. For some, it may be helpful to distinguish between perfectionism generated from basic temperament and perfectionism generated from life’s external influences. Such insights may be helpful in tackling perfectionism when it becomes a problem.

Strategies for Working Around Perfectionistic Tendencies

That said, there are many ways for Turbulent individuals to calm their perfectionistic urgency and relax into more realistic expectations. Here are a few.

Anxiety Reduction

Since perfectionism is often anxiety-driven, Turbulent individuals can use general relaxation exercises to help diminish some of their perfectionistic drives. There are hundreds of ways to decrease anxiety from employing physical exercise to meditation to counseling. While this would certainly address some of the thinking that fuels perfectionism, it is unlikely to eliminate all anxious feelings from a Turbulent person. Some simply are designed temperamentally to worry more about the future than others.

When considering anxiety and Turbulent personality types, the question isn’t how to get rid of all anxiety. There will likely be trace amounts running throughout the Turbulent life. And there’s nothing wrong with healthy levels of worry. It keeps people alert for dangers that might be in their futures. It can be counterproductive to try to perfectly end perfectionism by perfectly destroying anxiety.

The goal for handling perfectionism through relaxation techniques is to siphon energy away from any anxious tendencies that feel overwhelming. As a strategy, reducing anxiety can help put perfectionism in its place in powerful ways.

Gaining Perspective

Perfectionism is bolstered by black and white thinking. Things are either perfect or they’re not. Perfect is good and everything else is bad. Even people who are generally more nuanced in their thinking might tumble into a black and white thinking trap when pushed by perfectionism.

The binary choice of “flawless or nothing” is not realistic. People learning to notice when they limit themselves to a binary choice and then countering it with non-binary self-talk can gain a useful perspective. Changing “It has to be perfect, or I have failed” to “I do the best I can and put in a reasonable effort... even a noble effort. It may not be perfect, but it’s perfect enough” can return balance to a perfectionism-driven impulse or reaction.

Decide to Be Imperfect

An exercise that often helps people with perfectionistic personalities is to have them commit to doing something imperfectly. For example, people who are perfectionistic about their housekeeping might allow the bed to remain unmade... just once... or twice.

Public speakers find committing an early gaffe during a presentation reduces the fear of making a mistake for the rest of the speech. When they mangle a line in their presentation early on, they can relax because they have affirmed the idea that the crowd will not likely boo them off the stage over a simple mistake. In fact, most audience members are heartened by a speaker who stumbles but finds her or his footing again. “He’s one of us,” may be their thinking.

When pursued in safe and deliberate ways, imperfection stops being scary. Two things happen: the perfectionist discovers that the negative impact of not being perfect is minimal or even non-existent. The universe rarely implodes when someone fails to make their bed and everything is still okay despite the rumpled sheets.

Secondly, giving oneself permission to be imperfect in some way turns the compulsion of perfectionism into personal control. Sometimes perfectionism doesn’t feel like a choice, but it is. Choosing to purposely pursue “good enough” is an act of taking back control.

Practice Self-Forgiveness

Turbulent perfectionists are as capable as the next person of being loving and forgiving – but rarely when it comes to themselves. Some may correctly argue that the flaws which bring shame to perfectionists don’t need forgiving. Do humans with their inherent faults need forgiveness for simply being human? Perhaps “tolerance” is a more accurate word than forgiveness.

Either way, whether forgiveness is warranted or not, Turbulent people often need to extend to themselves the same grace they may extend to others. Learning to forgive oneself may be facilitated by journaling, repeating affirmations or any other manner of self-reflection and self-talk. Any means that soothe shame or regret and build self-esteem can be helpful for people who recognize the intolerance they have for their own imperfections. With understanding, the perfectionist takes the first step. With forgiveness or tolerance, they take the second.

Nobody would ever advise anyone to do less than their best. But perfectionism is a step beyond that. Learning to distinguish between pursuing excellence and being perfect is knowing the difference between an achievable goal and frustration. While Turbulent people are more prone to perfectionism, attitudes and perspectives are altered every day, even within the context of consistent personality traits.