Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC
Tuesday, July 17, 2018
become the person you were meant to be...

The Dark Side of Perfectionism

Note:  All names and identifying information have been changed.


Perfectionism. The word melts deliciously off your lips like fine chocolate. “Perfect,” you say when someone gives you the answer you want. Perfectionism is applauded and worshiped in our driven society. Thanks to your perfectionism, you excelled in school, and later earned scholarships and opportunities that aren’t available to everyone.


Unfortunately, one of the problems with perfectionism is that it lives next door to Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If the boundaries aren’t contained, the perfectionism can easily spill into OCD. It starts gradually, and looks like a positive attribute, until somewhere down the road you are chained to thoughts and/or actions that eat up more and more of your time.


Ken’s business is doing unbelievably well. His financial backers are astounded at the speed of his success, as they thought it would take him a few years to make the profit he has made since opening seven months ago. During the twelve years the backers have floated new businesses, they have never seen one take off like Ken’s cell phone franchise.


What his backers don’t know is that Ken is obsessed with perfectionism, which has begun to include spending an inordinate amount of time rearranging his merchandise. It started as an extension of who he is and his commitment to excellence. But soon he developed a compelling need to make the merchandise more attractive each day. He moved around the phones repeatedly, organizing them in different ways. Sometimes he arranged the phones by color, other times by the age group or gender he felt would select them. Then he arranged them by size, brand, and serial number. He started to get frustrated with himself, and wondered why he was able to check off fewer tasks of his “to do” list each day.


Last month, Ken’s sales were down for the first time since opening. This is due to his failing to provide the superb customer service like he did in the past. The reason is that he is too busy reorganizing his merchandise. Ken is starting to experience some of the symptoms of OCD. These include:


·        Checking doors, locks, stoves, etc. more than once or twice


·        Hoarding objects most people would throw away, such as old papers, plastic bags, or clothing


·        Thoughts that won’t go away, often with themes of violence or aggression


·        Cleaning repeatedly, to the point that it is a gross waste of time


·        Counting objects such as tiles, ceiling squares, etc.


People like Ken usually don’t get help because they seem to have their lives in control. In fact, the roots of the disorder include a profound need to control. They are often very successful in the eyes of the world, and this makes it more difficult for them to seek help.


If Ken doesn’t get help soon, he will begin to get depressed. He may start to be late wherever he goes because of his rituals, compulsions, and obsessions. At home, he may start to arrange his pillows perfectly in the center of the bed, reorganize cupboards, clothes, line up the paper towels in a straight row, and so forth. As the problem grows, the amount of time allocated to arranging, reorganizing, counting, checking, washing, or obsessing consumes more of his day. If he doesn’t get help, he will get more depressed. His career and relationships will dramatically decline. The desires to organize, check, and wash seem as real to you as your need for a glass of water on the hottest day of the year.


People with undiagnosed OCD usually wait until they feel about a quarter of an inch from insanity to get help. The obsessions-only form of OCD has another facet in that the sufferer is flooded with thoughts such as extreme violence and aggression, or committing horrendous crimes. These obsessions feel very real to him. He is terrified that even though he has always been considered a good person, he will commit these heinous acts. He knows that if he shares this with a professional, he will most certainly get locked up. So he keeps it a secret until he snaps. The truth is that people with OCD will not follow through with their horrible thoughts. They are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that they will do so, but it is not the truth.


Research shows that it normally takes 13 years for someone to get a diagnosis for OCD. Fortunately, there is hope, and people with OCD can get back to normal. I have had the honor or helping many people get to the other side of OCD. It has been rewarding for me for many reasons, but probably the biggest reason I enjoy working with OCD is that several years ago I suffered with the disorder.


Most of the literature emphasizes treating the symptoms and not the causes, but I believe that my experience has tapped me into the causes and that I can usually treat them successfully. The bright side of OCD is that it happens to people with very high IQs, and once the perfectionism is tamed, a rewarding and joyful life is possible.




© Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC, 2005 - 2020. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Cherrie Herrin-Michehl, MA, LMHC with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.