‘The Perfectionist’s Guide’: Learning to control our quest for the ideal

Produced and written by Andrea Brody

“Perfectionism is an enduring identity marker,” says Katherine Morgan Schafler. “So people who think of themselves as perfectionists, think of themselves that way throughout their whole lives. It's the same as thinking of yourself as an activist, or a romantic, or an artist.” Graphic by KCRW’s Gabby Quarante.

In her latest book The Perfectionist’s Guide to Losing Control: A Path to Peace and Power, author Katherine Morgan Schafler explains why we strive for perfection. Morgan Schafler, a psychotherapist, speaker, and former on-site therapist at Google, says it’s impossible to tell a perfectionist “not to be a perfectionist. That doesn't work. That's like telling a romantic, here's how not to be romantic.” Perfectionism is “a really important, essential, wonderful piece of who we are” but like any other human characteristic, the drive and compulsion for perfection can be both healthy and unhealthy. “If you cannot distinguish between an ideal and a goal, you are in an unhealthy place with your perfectionism,” she says. 

Morgan Schafler offers strategies and insights on how perfectionism impacts you and those around you. She offers a quiz to help identify five types of perfectionist profiles that are most common in all of us.  Unfortunately, despite gender equality, Morgan Schafler also observes a continued gender bias and that being labeled a “perfectionist” remains explicitly gendered.

“You don't hear men say, ‘I'm a recovering perfectionist,’ because men aren't taught to recover from their perfectionism. They're taught to continue striving and that it is very masculine to always want more than what you have. Women are taught that that's not very feminine. What's feminine is to be grateful for what you have and to serve others to get what they want.”

In her book  The Perfectionists Guide to Losing Control, author Katherine Morgan Schafler says “there are healthy perfectionists and unhealthy perfectionists, who are what the research world defines as maladaptive, which is unhealthy.  Adaptive [perfectionists], which are healthy, know that ideals are just meant to inspire. They're not meant to be achieved. “If you cannot distinguish between an ideal and a goal, you are in an unhealthy place with your perfectionism.”

Katherine Morgan Schafler, pictured here, says that “we need to be able to imagine something better in order to continue to improve our lives. Because if we can't imagine it, we don't know it's possible and if we don't know it's possible, why would we ever try to make any kind of progress? So I see  [perfectionism] as a really important, essential, wonderful piece of who we are.” Photo courtesy of Eric Michael Pearson

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Andrea Brody