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  • Writer's picturelarahammock

Summary & Takeaways from The Perfectionist's Guide to Losing Control



I read this book because it was recommended to me by a good friend. To be honest, I didn’t know how much I would get out of it. This friend of mine is a recovering perfectionist, but I am most assuredly not. I don’t really consider myself a perfectionist in any way and, if you’ve seen the production quality of any of my videos, you would likely agree. Let’s just say that I don’t generally wait until something is perfect before I push it out to the world!


That said, I work with a lot of clients who have perfectionist tendencies, so I thought it might be useful. And holy wow has it been useful! I have taken away a lot of really important ideas from this book and I can’t wait to share them with you.


Types of Perfectionists

The author is a therapist in New York City who specializes in perfectionistic clients. She uses the following definition of perfectionist: those who — and I’m loosely quoting here “notice the difference between an ideal and reality and hold themselves accountable to bridge that gap.“ This definitely makes sense for the kind of perfectionist we are all thinking of (someone who notices that reality is not matching up with their idea of perfection and goes about fixing it). But she uses this basic concept to extend to other types of people that we wouldn’t necessarily include under the perfectionist umbrella. I will go through the types in a moment here, but each of these types are people who cope with uncertainty with an attempt to control. But what they are interested in controlling is different for each type. Here we go:


  • Classic perfectionist - They attempt to control essentially everything. This is the type we’re all thinking of. They like structure and consistency. They tend to hold themselves to extremely high standards and are overachievers..

  • Parisian perfectionist - This type wants to be perfectly liked by everyone in an effortless way. They have a sense of ideal connection and tend to be people pleasing to bridge that gap.

  • Procrastinating perfectionist - These folks want the conditions to be ideal before they get started on a project. They have an ideal notion of how something might go, and are afraid of having it ruined with the reality of actually getting started.

  • Messy perfectionist - This doesn’t mean physically messy. What it means is that these folks have a hard time following through once a project has gotten underway. They believe that they can focus on multiple things without having to give anything up, but frequently don’t finish what they started and have multiple projects in various states of completion at any given time.

  • Intense perfectionist - These people can be extremely demanding of others. Think the boss that is exacting and keeps you at the office late. They have an ideal outcome or vision and are willing to be extremely unlikable in order to bring it to fruition.


Adaptive vs. Maladaptive Perfectionists

OK – I can see what she’s trying to do here. I do believe that all of these types have some kind of ideal vision that is difficult to release, but I’m not sure I would necessarily categorize them all as perfectionists. And yet -- this is when I really started to enjoy the book. She talks about how perfectionism is not necessarily a bad thing. That, like anything else, it exists upon a spectrum of adaptive to maladaptive. Adaptive perfectionists are optimistic, motivated, and energetic. They are inspired by their ideals, rather than imprisoned by them. They can always see how things can be better and enjoy their ability to push things closer to that ideal. They are driven to excel and to grow, but not at the expense of hurting themselves or others. Maladaptive perfectionists, on the other hand, feel as though they need things/life/themselves to be different before they can feel satisfied. It is difficult for them to ever feel completely pleased and they are driven to change things in order to avoid failure or shame. They are also driven to excel, but in a way that compensates for their perceived inadequacies and that might hurt themselves or others in the process.


So, instead of thinking of perfectionism as inherently negative, it *can* be a source of power and energy. Instead of attempting to control perfectionistic tendencies through encouraging mediocrity, the focus should be on moving yourself closer to the adaptive end of the scale.


The other really interesting point that she makes is that many times the term perfectionist is used as a weapon against women. You don’t meet many recovering perfectionists who are straight men, because perfectionistic men tend to be celebrated and promoted. Instead, women who are perfectionistic, particularly outside of traditional female fields, are told that they are too much and they need to calm down. Some of this feels like an attempt to dampen female energy and power.


OK – let’s talk a little bit about maladaptive perfectionists. If you are down on that end of the scale, the author says that your thinking pattern is that you are not worthy right now. There is a lot of “as soon as …” thoughts where you hold off living until certain conditions are met. You don’t think you are perfect and worthy just as you are. And that is the work that needs to be done — healing from maladaptive perfectionism requires that you begin to recognize yourself as whole and perfect right now. The author also talks about self compassion as a primary source of healing. This is different than hollow affirmations, which she calls “emotional petting“ (I love that term). Until you have the ability to be self compassionate, you will always reject the good that comes to you or that is in yourself for fear that you don’t deserve it.


Adaptive perfectionists embrace power, whereas maladaptive perfectionists embrace control. I hadn’t really thought about the difference between the two, but, according to the author, power encourages freedom whereas control restricts. Power influences, but control dictates, manipulates, or micromanages. Power inspires people to reach further, whereas control makes people afraid to take risks.


Towards the end of the book, she gets into some of the things that I really have latched onto.


Balance

The author makes the point that we’ve almost all gotten the idea of balance wrong. We’ve been taught that we need to balance career and home life, family and friends, work and play. And this message is particularly loud for women. But when we attempt to do this, we almost always attempt to balance tasks or our to-do list. And she has this evocative quote of how we think we should be doing it: “once you finish the to-do list and match your problems to their adjacent solutions, you can expect to feel a satisfying click, like a seat belt snapping into place. If you haven’t experienced the clicking yet, it’s because you’re not balanced enough. You’re not doing it right.” She makes the point that instead of attempting to balance tasks, we *should* be balancing energy. I 100% agree with this! And that is an entirely different process.


Liminal Spaces

Another idea I really liked is what she calls liminal spaces. When you’ve spent a lot of time trying to control outcomes, as many perfectionists have, the healing process can lead to feeling a bit lost, like you have stepped off a cliff. This is called the liminal space — the space between how you used to be and how you aspire to be. This part of the book I love so much, that I have clipped out the entire section and have read it aloud to clients. I have taken to calling it the liminal hallway. It’s the space between leaving one room behind, but not quite entering the next room yet. It can feel like a lot of things, but most notably lost, empty, fearful. Anyone who is healing, transitioning, changing has had this experience of being in the discomfort of liminal space. And it’s important to embrace it. She quotes a recovery saying, “don’t give up five minutes before the miracle happens.”


Explain + Express

My last favorite takeaways from the book has to do with how the author defines emotional processing. She says it is a combination of explaining and expressing. Explaining being entirely cognitive and expressing being entirely emotional. She says that explaining without expressing feels disconnected and hollow whereas expressing without explaining feels chaotic and without insight. I love this. It is very close to my definition of wisdom which requires both thinking and feeling. I like the idea that for those people who default to a more analytical, intellectual style, pushing to feel more emotions is important. Whereas those who default to a more emotionally expressive style may want to spend more time considering the meaning and explanation of those feelings.


There are too many other things that jumped out at me to cover in this video. There’s a particularly lovely chapter on loss and what I call daily micro griefs. I kind of want her to make that into an entire book. Granted, I think so many of our behaviors are designed to avoid the very fundamental pain of loss. I’m particularly taken by her quote “You grieve whenever you have to let go of something that you’re not ready to let go of.”


So, despite my misgivings about perfectionism and the five types, this is a book that has stuck with me for a while. So many of the concepts are ones that I find useful both for myself and for my clients. It’s probably even better if you identify as a perfectionist.


This is just *my* summary and takeaways. I encourage you to read it for yourself. If you do, come back here and let us know what else touched you, spoke to you, or resonated with you. Comments always appreciated and thanks for reading!

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2 Comments


paideia
Jun 25

I consider myself a Perfectionist One-Stepper: I like to bring order, cleanliness and beauty into my world . . . one small step at a time. For example, I try to remember: any time I walk through a doorway in my house "is the room I'm leaving a tiny bit better than when I entered. Over time that answer is increasingly and effortlessly becoming "Yes." I think of it as Low-Stress Messlessness.

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larahammock
larahammock
Jun 25
Replying to

I love this and will try to adopt that one stepping for myself!

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