In my last two posts I’ve been exploring how Rescuer, Victim and Persecutor roles affect relationships with people who are compulsive. In today’s post I’ll describe what’s often happening beneath the surface that leads perfectionists to become persecutors.
When someone behaves badly it’s usually because that’s the best way they know how to handle their anxiety. With people who are compulsive this takes a particular direction.
The Inner Perfectionist Persecutor
People with compulsive personalities were born with meticulous dispositions. It’s actually a valuable talent that’s helpful to all of us. But if their early or current environment has left them feeling insecure, they will become even more meticulous to try to calm their anxiety.
They become perfectionistic to try to silence fears of rejection or criticism, and this perfectionism becomes an internal Persecutor, a critical inner voice which gets louder whenever they feel anxiety. This voice feels that it’s their job to insure the person’s security through perfection. In the back of their mind they believe that if they’re perfect, they’re less likely to get in trouble or be abandoned.
Outta My Way
If anyone gets in the way of a compulsive or perfectionist achieving the perfection that they feel they need, they may become angry.
When Sam gets angry it’s because he’s getting more pressure at his engineering job. He gets critical not just of himself, but of everyone around him, including his wife, kids, and support staff. Perfection has always been his solution to problems. And if anyone gets in the way of his tasks, he gets furious because they’re blocking him from feeling secure.
To him, trying to get everything just right is not only the reasonable thing to do, it’s also the moral thing to do. He usually isn’t aware of the anxiety beneath it.
If an assistant makes a mistake that slows down a project, Sam will scold him because he fears it will make him look bad. And so it might, but the persecution and punishment he aims at his assistant do not fit the crime.
He gets angry at his wife if she interrupts him with a question when he’s trying to work: “Can’t you see I’ve got to get this done?” Inside he’s very anxious about failing, but anger feels safer to communicate than vulnerability.
Don’t Let Me Down
If the partner of the perfectionist isn’t reaching for perfection along with the perfectionist, it may feel like a personal abandonment to the perfectionist.
If Sam’s wife forgets to pick something up from the grocery, that feels personal to him. It feels like she doesn’t care about him. “You know how hard it is for me when I don’t have a good breakfast in the morning! I won’t be able to work.” He gets angry at her and they both feel persecuted.
Giving the Feeling To Someone Else: It’s a Thing
There is a deeper level to this dynamic which makes it even more powerful.
If you’re the perfectionist, and you find yourself behaving in ways that you regret, it may be because you’re trying, unconsciously, to get rid of the lovely feeling of being persecuted by an internal perfectionist by putting it into the other person.
This may sound a little strange to you but as therapists we see it all the time. We refer to it as projective identification. This cumbersome phrase is less important than understanding that this is one of the ways that we can all try to defend against feelings that seem intolerable.
Please Understand Me. Or Else.
Another way to understand this is that the Persecutor is unconsciously trying to let the people around them know what it’s like to have an internal Persecutor making their life constantly miserable.
Through their words and actions they get others to experience what they’re experiencing all the time, an intense internal pressure to be perfect.
This is not consciously intentional. Even though they can’t articulate it, they feel like a victim to an internal Persecutor who torments them with criticism and doomsday scenarios. We all want to be understood, and getting someone else to feel our pain is one way to do it. But not a very good one.
“How can you possibly let me down by not keeping the house clean? Don’t you know what I’m going through? I can’t think when things are out of order. You’re a terrible wife.” This doesn’t just communicate information, it makes the other person feel the inner experience that the perfectionist is going through, however destructive it becomes.
Taming the Inner Persecutor
So what can we do about this internal Persecutor, as either perfectionist or partner?
For the Perfectionist
- Recognize the critical voice as a distinct part of your personality.
- Try to understand what role it has played (e.g. protecting you from the criticism or rejection of others?).
- Question whether you really need to be so perfectionistic.
- Don’t expect others to live up to your level of meticulousness.
- Communicate with “I” statements rather than “You” statements: “I’m really worried about this work project and my internal persecutor is giving me hell. I’d appreciate it if you straightened things up.”
For the Partner
- Don’t take it personally.
- Remember that perfectionists act like persecutors when they feel anxious and persecuted inside; they’re really yelling at themselves.
- Insofar as you can, respond to the underlying anxiety.
- Don’t allow yourself to be a victim: set appropriate boundaries.
- Beware of trying to rescue the beleaguered overachiever.
Becoming Perfectly Imperfect
Yes, I know. It’s never so easy. But with persistence, the help of a therapist, meditation, support group, or diligent reading and journaling, you can eventually build new neural pathways that help you to override the old ones. But give it time.
Enlist your drive in becoming perfectly imperfect.