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
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.
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.
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.