Practically Perfect in Every Way

Perfectionist.

You’re such a perfectionist.

Are you cringing after reading that? I am.

Perfectionist is rarely used in a positive context. As a put down, it’s a polite stand-in for rigid, controlling, procrastinating, slow, nitpicky, paralyzed. Even when people try to use it in a positive context, it rarely casts a favorable light. “Your strengths? Well, you’re a perfectionist . . . that can be a good thing.”

The Roots of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is basically the flip side of catastrophizing, with a side of control freak. Let’s face it–not a positive character trait.

I say this as a lifelong and unreformed perfectionist.

And because I’ve been a perfectionist for as long as I can remember, I’ve given a lot of thought to the why’s and how’s of it. Perfectionism is believed to be rooted in childhood. We somehow get the idea in our heads that we’re valued for our achievements. As we grow older, we base our self-worth on the approval of others, convinced that if we can do things perfectly, we’ll be loved and accepted. If we fail, on the other hand, we must be worthless.

This is the classic explanation of perfectionism.

For me, the problem with this explanation is that I never quite felt like it fit. It’s in the right ballpark. I do seek approval from others, though just as often, I couldn’t care less. I put a big emphasis in my life on my accomplishments. Doing well is important to me and I often believe there is a standard of perfection that I should live up to, or at least aim for.

What I don’t see in myself is the worthlessness. I’m hard on myself when I fail, but I bounce back quickly. My fear of failure is low. I’m willing to put myself out there and see what happens, even when I know that the risk of failure is high. It’s rare that I feel worthless, even when I screw up in a big way.

Multidimensional Perfectionism

As I researched perfectionism, I came across more nuanced models. For example, some psychologists believe that there is adaptive perfectionism, which motivates us to strive for success without the negative impact on self-esteem that the classic maladaptive perfectionism carries.

Others classify multiple types of perfectionism based on the object of the perfectionist thinking:

  • self-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for one’s own behavior, appearance, achievements, etc.

  • other-oriented perfectionism: setting irrationally high standards for others to conform to

  • socially prescribed perfectionism: believing that others (particularly significant others) have irrationally high standards for one’s self to conform to

When perfectionism is broken down this way, I see myself in all three categories. The Multidimensional Personality Scale (MPS) backs up my instincts. The average scores are 1s and 2s. My averages are 4s and 5s. In working through the questions on the MPS, I began to formulate a new theory about why so many autistic people are perfectionists.

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The Link Between Autism and Perfectionism

I think autistic perfectionism has some additional dimensions to it, beyond the classic model of “if I’m perfect, people will love me.”

First, our tendency toward black and white thinking can create an appearance of perfectionism. If I sit down to write an essay for English class with the idea that I will either produce the perfect essay or I will produce garbage, that looks a lot like perfectionism. But what if I think about my essay that way because I’m not good at thinking in shades of gray? What if it doesn’t occur to me that between perfect and garbage, there exists pretty bad, below average, acceptable, pretty good, very good, excellent and nearly perfect?

It might seem like splitting hairs to differentiate between straight-up black and white thinking and perfectionism, but I think doing so can illuminate an important difference. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I truly think the only other option is a terrible essay, what I need to work on is remembering that there are other possibilities. If I’m trying to write the perfect essay because I think that doing anything less makes me a failure as a person, I need to work on my self-esteem.

Personally, I think my perfectionism a mix of the two, weighted more toward black and white thinking, which may be why I don’t have the feelings of worthlessness that commonly go along with perfectionism. If anything, I have the opposite problem. Often I’ll finish something and think it is perfect, until someone tells me otherwise. I’m so certain that I haven’t made a total disaster of it that the only other option is I’ve done a stunningly good job. Bizarrely, my perfectionism cuts both ways, again because I haven’t accounted for things like “really well done” or “good enough” or “close but not quite” in my potential outcomes.

The other factor that feeds perfectionism in autistic people, I think, is rooted in our childhood experiences with failure. As I read through the questions on the MPS, I realized that my strong agreement with statements like “I usually have doubts about the simple everyday things I do” and “People will probably think less of me if I make a mistake” is rooted in decades of living with undiagnosed ASD. Decades of knowing that something was off. Of feeling like I had to work a lot harder than other people to keep up a semblance of normalcy. Of trying to hide all the little ways in which I not only wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t even “normal.”

Passing, after all, is a kind of perfectionism in itself. It may even be possible to make an argument that our subconscious need for approval is an upshot of the pressure to pass that we feel from childhood.

Autistic perfectionism is like the deluxe bonus edition of perfectionism: subconscious need for approval plus black and white thinking plus social/internal pressure to pass. And like a lot of deluxe bonus editions, this one isn’t really worth paying extra for.

68 comments

  1. askanaspergirl

    This makes so much sense. I’m definitely in the black-and-white thinking + catastrophizing leads to perfectionism camp. I think for so long I got used to handling things on my own that it was difficult for me to imagine what might happen if I didn’t have everything together. When I’m at my most anxious, I’ll find myself feeling scattered and resultantly self-conscious.

  2. HC

    For my experience, the negative side of ASD perfectionism goes hand in hand with issues in cognitive empathy. I think I’ve learned only in the middle of grad school that what I think it’s perfect is not the same as someone else thinks, and in most case it’s that someone’s view that matters, not mine (eg. the teacher, the boss, etc.). Grad school is way too late! I could have graduated both degrees with a better score if I had investigated what the teacher wanted out of an exam instead besides the course content. Some of my BSc teachers did so proactively. None of my MA ones did, and I had trouble. Just as example, how was I supposed to know that explaining all the theory in bullet points and then making a reference to the case was preferable to explaining the case in a coherent narrative, focusing on the case’s characteristics? Is it a failure in abstraction from the class curriculum? Because my classmates didn’t have as much trouble as I did.
    End of the story, since I started working, I have made a point to ask to my boss “What is *exactly* that you want now and what are the *background* and the *purpose* of this project?” every time I need to do something new. Better be safe than sorry – even if it is late.

    • musingsofanaspie

      This makes a lot of sense. Asking for specific direction, especially in the area of purpose and background is a really good tactic for learning new tasks. I seem to have a knack for creating my own weird and incomprehensible ways of doing things.

    • autisticook

      I’m having trouble with asking managers for the background and purpose of a certain task, because they seem to think it’s because I want to argue against them. It’s not. Well, not always. But knowing the purpose helps me understand and get motivated, even if I don’t agree. I haven’t figured out yet how to present that need without seeming like I’m argumentative or confronting or even too demanding.

      • HC

        I do that straightaway, like “could you please tell me a bit more about the background?” or “does person xy have some specific thing in mind?”. In the end, the purpose is of doing a better job without wasting time, so I feel more than entitled to ask such questions. If you think about it, it’s within the manager’s job to answer such questions, because he or she is the bridge between who does the work and who gets the result. I know I’ll be perfectionist in my work anyway, but it must coincide as much as possible to what the customer wants, whether I like it or not.

  3. ischemgeek

    Yes, yes, yes.

    For me, it’s definitely black and white with a side of catastrophizing and a garnish of black-and-white thinking parents. If I was less than perfect to them, I was garbage, and combine that with my own tendency towards black and white thinking and catastrophizing, and you get pefectionism for me.

    Funny thing: I’m not a perfectionist towards anyone else. Other people can be pretty good/ really good/excellent/etc without being garbage, but for me, if I don’t do it right – i.e., perfectly – it’s worse than not doing it at all and why did I bother if I wasn’t going to make sure I got it right.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Parents can definitely play a huge role in this. :-/

      It’s interesting that you don’t expect things to be done a certain way by other people. I’ve had a big problem with this for most of my life. It’s not so much that I expect them to be perfect. Just that I expect things to be done a specific way and have trouble allowing for people who don’t meet that expectation.

      • ischemgeek

        We-ell… depends on the thing (I’m known to re-arrange the dishwasher if someone else loads it, but if it doesn’t affect me immediately, I don’t really care).

        • Barry

          Yes! I’m firmly of the belief that no one can stack a dishwasher as well as I can :)

          Yet, I’ve never thought of myself as a perfectionist. Certainly, how well I do something has absolutely no bearing in my self worth and I don’t place similar expectations on others unless they are paid to perform a task, in which case they had better do a better job than I can. For example when it comes to plumbing or motor mechanics, any novice apprentice would do a better job than I, so I wouldn’t bother to attempt those tasks. On the other hand, when it comes to wallpapering and painting, there isn’t any tradesman that can do the job as well as I can. I used to do almost all home maintenance and renovation myself, as my results were always better than the professionals. I’m reluctantly having to re-evaluate this attitude as I am no longer as sprightly as I once was.

          Thinking about it, I often redo things that I feel “aren’t quite right”. For instance I often refold my clothes after my wife has folded them (when she can’t see what I am doing – I value our relationship too much). I just like things done my way. If that means I’m a perfectionist, so be it.

          • ischemgeek

            Re: Dishwasher: just makes sense, far as I’m concerned, to sort the cutlery as you put it in, so it’s easier to take out later. Just like it just makes sense to sort plates by size as you put them in, and to make sure the wider cups go into the wider cup area where they fit easier and won’t get scuffed or stuck. :P

            • autisticook

              That’s the point isn’t it? Our way usually makes perfect sense, even to a non-autistic person. But they don’t do it that way, because they simply DON’T CARE how it gets done. :P

              Drives me nuts. :P

            • Barry

              Actually, for me it’s no so much that it needs to be sorted that’s important It’s just that when it’s stacked my way, the dishwasher can take almost twice as many dishes compared to how others stack it, and it’s guaranteed that every item will be washed properly, whereas the way others stack it, there’s sure to be some that require additional cleaning afterwards.

        • foreveranequestrian

          I’ll rearrange things if people put them in place incorrectly, but I don’t ever expect people to do them correctly. The closest I come to perfectionism regarding others is getting really, really upset about people lying to me, even white lies. Especially white lies. Other than that, I have really reasonable and healthy expectations of others.

  4. Aspie Kent

    So many thoughts about this… yes, yes, and yes! :)
    For much of my life, I’ve been told that I need to “let go” of things, to let others do asks in their own (allistic) way rather than in the way that I think they should be done. I have varying degrees of negative response to “letting go” of such tasks, depending mostly on my perception of the extent of my future interaction with the product of those tasks. If I am likely to have to work with those products, or rely on them for my own future work, then I am all but unwilling to “let go,” which usually means I end up doing them over the way I wanted them to be done to begin with. If the work product is something that is not likely to be a basis for my own future work, or something that I will likely not have to use or refer back to at a later time, then I am usually more able to “let go.”
    A therapist offered me an interesting insight about “perfectionism,” based on the evolution of language. He shared that the usage of the word “perfect” has evolved over the past fifty years. Current usage seems more in line with this definition, from the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia: “Without blemish or defect; lacking in nothing; of the best, highest, or most complete type; exact or unquestionable in every particular: as, a perfect likeness; one perfect but many imperfect specimens; a perfect face; specifically, complete in moral excellence; entirely good.” Previous usage of “perfect” was often more similar to an alternate definition, from the same source: “Completely effective; satisfactory in every respect.” So it could be said that something that was “perfect” fifty years ago (completely effective) is not “perfect” today (of the best, highest, or most complete type; exact or unquestionable in every particular). My therapist a catchphrase as a way for me to remember not to get caught up in every little detail… “Perfect sucks, Good Enough is GREAT!” I don’t know that I will EVER agree with that, but I certainly do remember it more often now!
    Thanks for sharing!

    • musingsofanaspie

      The whole first part of your comment is why I struggle so much with group work. I sometimes have to completely separate myself from certain parts of a group project to avoid the compulsion to redo it to my standards.

      Good enough is . . . good enough. I’m getting better at identifying situations in which good enough is acceptable but I doubt I could equate it with perfect either. Even though perfect doesn’t really exist.

      • ischemgeek

        I struggle with group work in part because of that and in part because others soon see that I don’t want to let them tank my grade and so they’ll email me two days before the project’s due, “I’m swamped! Can you help me out by doing three quarters of my share?!”

        Happens way more often than can be explained by bad luck. Bonus points if they then lie to the prof to try to pre-emptively accuse me of doing none of the work before I can complain about them (not that I would because experience tells me it’s useless for me – other people can convince profs I did stuff I didn’t, but I can’t convince profs they did stuff they actually did, damn my inability to send appropriate nonverbal cues), so I’ve learned to be extremely careful to save all versions of my work and my notes and to bring them with me on a portable hard drive so I can prove to the prof what work I did.

        I seem to have an asshole slacker magnet implanted somewhere in me. Anyway, everyone makes me do at least three quarters of the work assigned is group work dynamics for me the vast majority of the time, and they try to lie to the prof about me about a quarter of the time, so I tend to avoid like the plague courses that mandate group work (oddly, I actually enjoy it at real work because others are usually better than me at seeing when I’m overthinking something).

  5. Jana

    I always laughed when people called me a perfectionist, right to their face most of the time. I knew where I was cutting corners and could easily point out the flaws to them. Then, I had people I respected tell me I should stop criticizing my work so much and just let it be what it was. You can never win it seems. Yeah, I’m naturally good at some stuff but then I have these gaping holes where I fall right down. Being humble seems to be worse than being a perfectionist.

    Often, once I figured out the proper black and white method to doing something, I would just stick to it most of the time. It was more efficient and less likely for me to make a social blunder. With autism, you often see too many ways of doing something. All my failings seem to fall into that category. They were wanting one thing and my brain raced off in the opposite direction.

    • autisticook

      Oh my god! That happens to me all the time too! I make an honest assessment of the quality of my work, and people either tell me to stop being overly critical, or they tell me to stop bragging! LOL.

      • Milli

        Being critical assessing your own performance in 3rd person perspective is certainly an ASPIEtrait. NT are building up coolness and likeability and gets hugely surprised, if one is critical to one self, as in their eyes it is unnatural to put one self down. They suspekt that you are playing some game fishing for approval or I dont know :) well for me it’s is just being honest. But NTs are not so fund of honesty like that. I wonder if they share our thoughts but just dont speak them alloud?
        Br milli

        • musingsofanaspie

          I’ve definitely noticed a tendency for people to take self-criticism as fishing for compliments and then I feel silly when I say that wasn’t what I was doing, because of course everyone will say that.

        • Lucy

          I thought I was the only one who had this logical critical thought process ( about my creative endeavors in my case ) and resultant commentary from “the peanut gallery” aka whichever NT I was talking with.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Yes! I have a tendency to only see what’s wrong with my work and get told that I’m being too modest or self-critical when I feeling like I’m just be fair/honest. It’s always refreshing for me to find someone who will agree with me when I point out something that I think is wrong with my work. :-)

      I’ve heard people say that autistic people have difficulty accurately assessing themselves (or with self-concept in general) but I think most people probably experience that to some degree. Probably some people are just better at knowing what the expected/right thing is to say when asked to self-assess.

  6. Jeff Pickles

    Long time listener, first time caller.

    I’ve found myself thinking about perfectionism a lot lately, mostly due to my quest for perfection in my special interest du jour (detailed here, if you’re so inclined: http://jeffpickles.com/posts/2013/11/perfection ). I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m actually drawn to things that allow for perfection, as if it’s the only way to scratch the itch. I’m not entirely sure if this is healthy, though with no grayscale the answer would lean to it not being so. Perfectionism with a side of catastrophizing is a very toxic mix for one’s self esteem. Anything that’s not perfect is a failure… and here’s everything that can and will gone wrong because what you’ve done that is short of perfection. But perfectionism is safe. It feels comfortable. So I keep coming back to it.

    Combined with the need for grayscales, it’s definitely something I need to work on. Breaking it down as you propose might help with this. We’ll see. I’ll give it a try after the coming weekend is over.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Welcome!

      I hope you’ll come back and let us know how your attempt went after this weekend. I suppose if you’re doing something intentionally with the idea of perfection in mind, like playing a perfect game, then it’s not necessarily as unhealthy as being unconsciously driven by an urge for perfection in everything.

      And I get that idea of safety in perfection. It feels weirdly attainable, even if it isn’t and I think that’s where the comfort lies.

  7. autisticook

    My ex said a really interesting thing to me at the start of my diagnosis. He said my standards of perfectionism are completely unrelated to how others perform. He gave the example of a test on which everyone scores 50%, and I score 80%, and I still get upset because it’s not good enough.

    Back in high school, my history teacher always commented on my tendency to leave some questions unanswered. I just put in a dash if I didn’t know the answer. He said, “If you’d just write down what you do know, if you only get it half right I can at least still give you half marks for that answer.” But I said I just couldn’t. I couldn’t give an answer that I KNEW was wrong, even if it had some parts right. Black and white thinking.

    I’m the same with fear of failure and striving for approval. Yes, I love getting approval when I know I got something right, but it’s not my main motivation. It’s knowing for myself that I got it right. That’s also why I’m not afraid of failure, I just keep going until I do get it right. Sometimes I have to give up because it’s taking up too much time, but I never give up because of low self-esteem thoughts like “I can never get it right anyway” or “Why do I even try” or “People will laugh at me for getting it wrong”. It’s also not the fear of failure that stops me from getting started on something: it’s the expectation that the projected result of whatever I need to do does not warrant the amount of effort I need to put in. This last one happens to me a lot with “official” phonecalls. Like, I’m fairly sure that my electricity company will not give me a break on paying my bill this month, so I don’t call them when I can’t pay my bill. The amount of effort it costs me to make a phone call like that and be on my best grovelling behaviour just to get a tenuous chance at having my amount due deferred to next month… not going to happen. Even though I sort of know that even if they say “well, if you pay like half immediately, and half in two weeks”, that would already be an improvement over my current situation, even if it’s not perfect.

    • musingsofanaspie

      But 80% isn’t perfect! That seems self-evident . . . :-)

      I have difficult with not doing things because I set expectations around things, like you do with the difficult phone calls. And then I just don’t even make the effort to do them because I “know” that they won’t turn out the way I want. I got nasty lesson in how untrue this can be when my husband and I were looking for a place to live temporarily while he finished up a job commitment. We were running out of options and happened to drive by a nice apartment complex that he wanted to check into. I insisted, on the basis of nothing, that they wouldn’t rent to us for 20-something days and certainly didn’t have furnished units and we had a big argument and because he was driving, he pulled in and went inside alone. Well, long story short, we ended up living there for a few weeks in a fully furnished apartment, After that, I’ve kept my mouth shut in those situations because it seems I have some irrational notions about things that are better kept to myself. :-)

      • ischemgeek

        Reminds me of in high school, we had an English test. <30% of the class passed, and I had the highest grade by 12 marks, and I was still unhappy because it was an 84% (that test was a bit of a train wreck, in part because the teacher made half of it on a unit we hadn't finished in lecture yet but he didn't want to re-make the test from the previous year so just gave it to us anyway). "Damn symbolism, why can I never get it?!" said I at home.

        By grade 10 I knew well enough to keep my mouth shut about dissatisfaction with my grades at school when I had the highest mark in the class, lest the other kids get angry with me. "What are you complaining about? You got the highest mark! Shut up!"

  8. hessiafae

    It has been exceedingly difficult for me to let go of perfectionism, especially with a control-freak mother, high achieving siblings, and executive function issues. I’m striving to find balance by understanding the value of what I do well. Although its not a marketable skill at this time, my helping friends work through issues is important, and pays off in other ways.

    • musingsofanaspie

      That combination sounds like it would make it really hard to change. Kudos for sticking with it and making the effort. And not everything has to have a monetary value on it. Lots of things we do are highly valued by people for reasons other than monetary ones.

  9. Jay

    I can completely relate to this, especially the part where you mentioned the needing approval from others, but at the same time not caring. I find that my perfectionism tends to be a bit of black and white thinking, but also due to the fact that I go to a school where they always tell us, “you are in the top percent of students, we expect great things from you,” which definitely doesn’t help my need for perfect scores (also extra difficult when I forget to do homework, and the teachers think I missed it on purpose since they know I am capable). I find this extremely damaging in group projects, since I tend to do a bulk/all of the work, hoping that no one else will screw it up. I will definitely try looking at assignments and such keeping the grey side in mind. As always, keep up the wonderful job with your blog, and thank you very much for the advice.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Thank you for delurking and letting me know you liked this post. :-) That sounds like a very stressful school environment. On the one hand, high expectations are great, but there’s also the question of how much is too much. I hope that trying to gain some internal perspective by keeping the grey areas in mind is helpful.

  10. N

    It’s so interesting that you post this now, and thanks for making it so organized and informative. I’ve been quite actively digging through my (rather messed up) childhood to understand it and especially how it relates to autism, and looking at the origins of my perfectionism/performance anxiety issues has been a big part of that exploration. As a kid (and somewhat now, although I’m working on it), I felt that my worth as a person was directly linked to how well I did things. If I failed at something, no matter how small, I was “bad”. There’s clearly a lot of black and white thinking at work here, which was made much worse by the way praise and criticism were handled by my parents. There was tremendous pressure to be far above average in pretty much everything. I was praised constantly over various things (drawing skills, smarts, school performance, reading ability), but on the other hand I was criticized heavily for other things (social mishaps, physical clumsiness, not knowing how to do certain things). Here is a really interesting read on the negative effects of certain types of praise on children: http://nymag.com/news/features/27840/ (hope it’s okay to post that here). It’s not specifically about autistic kids, but I think does still apply quite a bit. Actually, I think that my autism actually compounded the negative effects of the praise. I took things very literally and internalized all of it. And as I got older, I still had that black and white “I am what I can do” way of looking at things. I think this also has to do with delayed development of identity, too.

    I’m still trying to work on my perfectionism and the unreasonably high expectations I’ve had my entire life. They didn’t start out as mine, but they are now, unfortunately. For me, being aware of my limits and accepting them is helping. Realizing what “good enough” is also helps.

    • musingsofanaspie

      “They didn’t start out as mine, but they are now, unfortunately.”

      This is such a great observation.

      Thank you for the link. Your thoughts about how praise can go wrong in a lasting way make a lot of sense. I’ve been wanting for a while to write something about the unintended negative effects of praise if it’s overused or used indiscriminately. There’s some great research about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, etc. that I think could apply to autistic kids.

      • N

        I would love to read a post from you on that subject (no pressure though!). I thought of something else related to praise and autisticness: when I was told I was smart after getting a good grade or something, I didn’t understand it as “You’re smart, so that’s why you got the grade”, I understood “You’re smart because you got the grade.” I had a lot of trouble making and seeing connections between things (still do, to a lesser extent), so maybe that’s part of it.

        • musingsofanaspie

          I really need to write something. I have a long research paper all marked up with notes on the subject and everything.

          That’s an interesting point about how you received praise. I remember once when my daughter was in elementary school, she was having a lot of stress about her school performance and I told her “just do your best” and she burst out sobbing and said “but I can’t be the best!”. She’d completely misinterpreted the intent of a saying we take for granted that everyone knows the meaning of. I guess the lesson is that adults need to use a variety of types of praise and be careful with stock platitudes like you’re so smart and do your best.

    • autisticook

      I really liked reading the article, thank you for that link! Some things really resonated with me, like the idea that if you get praised for being smart, then taking risks will carry a possible negative consequence of not BEING, whereas praise for doing something will only carry a consequence of not DOING. It’s definitely a control issue there.

      It doesn’t entirely apply to my situation though, maybe because I didn’t grow up in the same culture (that part about the 1969 publication of The Psychology of Self-Esteem sounds horrifying to me. Not joking). I was constantly told that I was really smart, and I knew that expectations were high. But I also knew I could meet those expectations. And while I am still a perfectionist, it’s based on the same idea as I had then: I do it to please myself. I love learning new things and becoming better at them. It takes time and practice, but I don’t really mind that because I’m so interested in it. It’s very much self-motivated.

      Also, this quote: “Dweck’s research on overpraised kids strongly suggests that image maintenance becomes their primary concern—they are more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. A raft of very alarming studies illustrate this.” That just didn’t apply to me at all. I never really thought about others as relating to my achievements. When I was really young, I sometimes felt sorry for other kids who didn’t score as well on tests. When I got older, I figured out that this was because of the tests, not because of some innate inability. I think I was about 16 when I started telling people that my main achievement was being really good at whatever it was that tests were designed for. I knew that others had abilities that weren’t tested, and that they might be far better at those than I was. That still didn’t mean I wasn’t smart. Or that they weren’t. Just that we had different abilities. Like my youngest brother, who wasn’t doing all too well academically, but had (and still has) a perfect gift of making other people feel loved and appreciated. He is a true empath.

      So I don’t really see that image maintenance and competitiveness is a naturally following consequence of receiving praise for BEING instead of DOING something. I can see how it can make matters worse. But I don’t think it’s the sole cause.

      • autisticook

        Just to clarify: I’ve had my mum tell me all through my school years that I wasn’t applying myself enough and that I shouldn’t think that being smart would give me an easy ride all through life. That being smart was no excuse for not making an effort. That my aunt always thought she was so damn smart, but it was my mum who had to WORK for it who got the highest grades. And so on and so forth. And then there was my dad who always started on his “look at you two grammar school show offs” when my mum and I started talking about something to do with Ancient Greek or Latin. So… I guess I got a fair bit of “damning with faint praise” when I was growing up. But it still didn’t make me feel like I wasn’t worth anything, or that my self-worth was entirely dependent on my grades. Because both my parents always let me know that no matter how weird or quirky or off-beat I was, I would always be my own self. And my own self was worth loving. And pretty damn smart. :P

        • N

          Sorry for the late reply, and thanks for bringing your perspective to it. It’s interesting to see where we’re similar and different. I too wasn’t very competitive (I’m not sure why.. I just never have been). But unlike you, I certainly didn’t grow up with a view that I was worth loving for just being me. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that despite us both being told we were smart, effort was emphasized for you but not for me. It seems like you got both types of praise that the article talks about.

  11. Joseph Morabito

    I have Perfectionism running through my veins. Sometimes it drives me to continually hone a project that otherwise would fly the way it was hours ago. In animation, I will agonize over ‘whether it’s done or not’ for quite awhile (tweaking this or adjusting that). Then, after I render it out, I take another critical look and 98% of the time I spot errors that I must correct… then rerender it. That can happen several times, eating away large parts of the day.

    I also want to improve on what I’d done before, and at some point, that really becomes difficult… to the point that it can’t be enough to ‘not start’ a new project of that type again (that happened with portrait paintings and wooden whirligigs I’ve done).

    On the other hand… I still try and incorporate a saying I bumped into when I was about 23. “If all else fails, lower your standards.” Sure, that can easily be argued against… especially by those of us with a perfectionism streak, but it is not for ‘reasonable standards’ just the unrealistic ones that we can get ensnared by.

    As to the quote about “most of a group getting 50% and the person that got 80% wasn’t pleased”… in the sports world that is called “being a red ass.” There are some ballplayers, that can’t be happy no matter how well they did… because they ALWAYS could have done better (a baseball player could have gone 3-5, driven in the winning run, and made a spectacular defensive play, yet still finds fault with himself). Thankfully whatever level of perfectionism, black and white thinking or catastrophizing I do, it’s never gotten to that kind of level.

    • autisticook

      I mostly see it as identifying and analysing the areas in which I can still improve. That might make others uncomfortable and call me a “red ass” because my performance/score/result was “good enough” to them, but it gives me the drive to improve both myself and my work. I don’t see that as necessarily a bad thing, unless as you say it’s the cause of agonising non-stop over whether something is truly “done” and “perfect”. I can be happy with my results, at the same time as noting areas of improvement. Like this morning, I installed my first multiway light switch, after teaching myself how to do electrical wiring, and it worked. I was incredibly pleased with the result. But next time, I will work harder on hiding the wiring in an aesthetically pleasing way, instead of just functional.

    • musingsofanaspie

      What you describe as the reasonable vs. unreasonable standards is I guess what they mean by adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism. Some of the articles I read said that most high achieving people are perfectionists, but in a more productive way. I’m not sure if I buy that or if society generally thinks it’s okay to be a perfectionist if you also win and Olympic medal.

      • ischemgeek

        I think it’s more that perfectionism is acceptable if you win awards for it.

        Because I was always told to quit being such a perfectionist… until I started winning national and international competitions in a thing. Then it was all “new personal best!” and “practice moar!” and etc.

  12. feministaspie

    So. Much. This. I’ve just taken the personality test you linked to, and I also got mainly 4s and 5s. This one in particular really resonated with me: “If I do not do as well as other people, it means I am an inferior human being”. I mean, I’d just taken that as fact until I saw it written in front of me, and even now I’m struggling to see how to question it. I avoid things because I’m convinced I’ll mess up or it’ll be wrong or weird in the eyes of others, so then there’s no evidence to dispute that because I just avoided it, and so on and so forth. Vicious circles. Never a good thing.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I think the “what if look weird” type of thoughts are very much rooted in growing up autistic and knowing we’re different and that we need to conceal those differences as much as possible. Also, I was constantly messing up as a kid which was embarrassing when I was simultaneously always being told I was so smart. So, yeah, I sympathize.

      • ischemgeek

        Same here. Especially the messing up part. Now, as an adult, I know that smarts have nothing to do with executive function, but as a kid, “For a smart kid, you sure can be stupid sometimes,” from my parents or teachers when I forgot my homework/forgot an assignment/lost something/accidentally pissed someone off and didn’t know why/forgot etiquette/etc really stung.

  13. Joseph Morabito

    I think I do things in a similar fashion that you’ve described. I don’t understand why people would bother doing something if they weren’t going to do it right, and to the best of their ability from the get go. I respect people that do things as you’ve described, and find it hard to do so for people who don’t take pride in their work. I’m sure that “red ass” has more than one meaning, but the narrow meaning I’m speaking of is when people want/expect unrealistic outcomes. It’s bad enough when they are ‘hard on themselves’ but even worse when their expectations are projected on others.

    I think that “perfection” should be aimed for, and if actually attainable for a given task, expected. Where it isn’t realistic, then it’s still fair to expect the next best thing. :)

    • autisticook

      Yes! I couldn’t agree with you more. Pride in my work and a realistic expectation of “perfection”, or at least striving for it, is so important to me. I think the problem lies in determining what is still realistic and what isn’t.

  14. Laura

    I have to watch it about expressing irritation at myself when I don’t get something perfect because some people think I think too highly of myself, that I can be perfect when I know other people can’t. It bugs me when something I did isn’t right, though. *It needs to be right.* Where I am different from you is that I reach a point where I can tell myself that I have put enough effort into something and it’s as right as it’s going to get. It helps to think of my work going into a file and that the next eyeballs that fall on it will most likely belong to termites.

    Wrong grammar and punctuation and so on drive my daughter nuts. We walked into her dorm one day when she was a sophomore, her in front, her dad behind her, and me last, and we passed a poster on the wall. It had originally said, “Are you confused or have questions about your major?” and someone had fixed it so that it said “Are you confused or ^do you have questions about your major?”. My husband turned his head and looked at me significantly, and then he said to her, “Do you have any idea who fixed this poster?” “I did,” she said, without looking back. “I’ve fixed every one on campus that I could find. I can’t stand that.”

    She’s a QA supervisor at a food processing plant now, in charge of the HACCP paperwork and SOPs and so forth, for when they are audited by USDA or by the customers. Probably about the best imaginable personality for that job.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Oh my gosh, your daughter and I are soul mates. I once spent weeks sitting next to a student-made poster in a classroom that was riddled with errors and when I finally couldn’t take it anymore I penciled in all the corrections. It sounds like she’s found her dream job too.

      I can leave something at “good enough” but I rarely feel good about it. I’ll always feel like it was slightly unfinished. I wonder how much of this might be OCD-related because I’m pretty sure I have undiagnosed OCD to some degree.

      • Laura

        I think my daughter has some, and weirdly, it is related to her synesthesia. I went grocery shopping with her once. She had all of her cloth bags that she’d gotten various places. At the checkout there were pretty bags with peaches painted on them, and so forth. I remarked that they were pretty, and she agreed, but said she couldn’t use them. “Why not?” “They aren’t blue. My bags have to be blue.” And they were – they were all kind of a darkish medium blue, not quite navy. As we were going to her car, I asked, “Is that a preference, or a requirement?” She thought for a moment. “If someone gave me a bag that wasn’t blue, I couldn’t use it. …I probably have a condition.” Well, that cracked me up, and still does. She probably does have a condition. She lives alone and is happy about that, which may be a blessing. I don’t know who would put up with that kind of thing. Her cats don’t have a choice.

      • ischemgeek

        I correct grammar on posters, too. And also vandalize antivax and pseudoscience posters with references to scientific journal articles debunking them (I… might have a notepad with them that I carry around for that purpose). I figure, it’s free speech for then to spread pseudoscientific BS, but it’s also free speech for me to provide evidence countering it. :P

        • Laura

          Good for you.

          I have thought semi-seriously about carrying stickers around with me. They’d be circles with little smiley faces in the center. Around the top: “This is a plural!” Around the bottom: “No apostrophe needed!” I bet I’d go through them pretty quick.

  15. Pingback: Uncooperative Words and Where I Go From Here | Musings of an Aspie
  16. Autistic Feminist (@autisticfem)

    Thanks for posting this. It’s something I’ve thought about a lot in the past and I don’t feel quite like it fits either. I also don’t have those feelings of worthlessness. You make a good point about black and white thinking. I’ve never thought of it in that context before, but I think it also has to do with the obsessive focus on details. I can’t help but want to improve every single detail to the point that I’m content with them all. I’m not ever thinking anything has to be perfect though. It’s more that thing where you can’t pop your head out of it all and see the big picture.

    • musingsofanaspie

      That’s a great point about getting focused on details over the big picture. Definitely an autistic trait and one I hadn’t considered as a factor. I definitely have moments when I get hung up on some minor detail and can’t declare something done until that detail is just right.

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