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A lot of people with BPD, or borderline personality disorder, seem to struggle with perfectionism. With other illnesses, sufferers experience perfectionism that is focused on their external environment, which helps them regain a sense of control and may serve to ease their anxiety.
With BPD, perfectionism is focused inward—in other words, on one’s own qualities or traits. People with BPD may be extremely hard on themselves when it comes to academics, work performance, social performance (whether we’re funny enough or intelligent enough or entertaining enough), or anything related to other interests, such as sports or the arts. We’ll monitor ourselves to a painstakingly excruciating degree, accepting nothing less than what we deem to be “perfect.” We must be wildly intelligent AND accomplished AND attractive AND adept at social situations. If we don’t succeed at reaching the obnoxiously-high standards we set for ourselves, if we detect just one misstep or flaw, we fly into a flurry of anxiety, depression, inner-directed rage, and frustration.
Why do we care so damn much about being perfect? Well, if we’re “perfect” in all dimensions, then and only then will we have unequivocal evidence that we are worth something, not just to ourselves, but to others. People are more likely, after all, to like those who are well-rounded, good at things, or generally not miserable failures in life. If there’s anything to remember about BPD, it’s that we are veeeeery desperately seeking the approval and acceptance of those around us, because that is what determines our self-worth. And being perfect conveniently gives us an identity we’ll actually like, so we build up this ideal (yet false) self-image, which is fantastic for people who struggle with identity problems, but ultimately we’re setting ourselves up for disaster, because the very definition of a perfectionist means you will never be satisfied with yourself. It doesn’t matter how much evidence we have to the contrary: if there is one teeny, tiny thing that suggests we aren’t perfect (someone doesn’t laugh at our joke, or we miss a question on an exam, or we receive gentle constructive criticism at work), then it brings us all the way back down to feeling completely and utterly worthless. We love ourselves or hate ourselves, and since no one is perfect (save for Neil Patrick Harris) we almost always hate ourselves.
This brings us full circle when you think about it: it’s yet another example of our black-and-white thinking. We must to learn to accept ourselves, flaws and all. We have to understand that self-worth isn’t all-or-nothing, nor is it erased by a single mistake. As this wisdom flies in the face of everything we’ve learned, it’s a bit tricky to master.
You may be thinking, “Well okay, that sucks, but at least it means you’re good at things, right?”
Oh, wouldn’t that be nice, but no.
Perfectionism doesn’t actually guarantee that you’re going to be perfect. You may be a hell of a lot more motivated to do whatever it takes to be perfect, but that doesn’t mean you’re necessarily more likely to be. Perfectionism just means that you’re obsessed with being perfect. It doesn’t mean that you are.
Tequila Mockingbird is an undercover correspondent for Painted Brain News and a member of UCLA’s Active Minds program.