Unhealthy perfectionism is often characterised by an excessive need for control. As a result, perfectionists may seem picky and highly critical of others. They’re so preoccupied with ensuring everything around them is flawless, they attempt to control situations or people. This can make relationships very tricky! So, why do perfectionists need control, and can they learn to let go?
For many perfectionists, their need for control is linked to fear. Fear of failure. Fear of being judged. Fear of disappointing others and fear they won’t be liked, accepted or valued. The same fears drive perfectionists to people please and avoid sharing their struggles or weaknesses.
But why don’t they just feel the fear and do it anyway? What’s the worst that could happen?
Well, for perfectionists, failure is catastrophic and permanent. Their entire self-worth is tied to meeting their own high standards. To avoid failure, they stick to what they know they’re good at. They avoid risk and uncertainty and choose consistency whenever they can because what they already know feels safe. And what’s the best way to ensure consistency? Controlling everyone and everything around you as much as possible. For perfectionists, controlling people and situations is another way of controlling their performance and how people perceive them.
Perfectionism often goes hand in hand with excessive worry. It’s common for worriers to have an intolerance of uncertainty. Striving for control is an attempt to cope with this. Unfortunately, this rarely works because we can never be fully in control of every situation or outcome.
Shame also plays a part. Deep down, perfectionists feel fundamentally flawed and inadequate. Due to this mindset, they tend to experience high levels of shame. For them, shame is basically the intolerable experience of being imperfect. In this sense, their high standards, obsession with achievements and constant need for control are all efforts to makeup up for feeling ashamed. However, this behaviour often creates more shame because the perfectionist’s unrealistically high self-expectations are exactly that – unrealistic.
From a CBT perspective, I understand the perfectionist need for control in terms of core beliefs and rules. We want to be in control (i.e. have more rules) so we can avoid our negative core belief being ‘true’ (i.e. I’m worthless, I’m a failure). Ultimately, maintaining control helps us feel safe. However, as we’ve already discussed, it can also have a negative impact on our lives. Here are some simple tips to help you start letting go…
If you want to let go, you need to start noticing your need for control. When does it show up? Is it only in certain situations? How does it manifest and how does it make you feel? Mindfulness can help with this. As well as becoming more aware of your thoughts, you’ll learn to let things be without trying to change them. Read my Beginners Guide to Mindfulness for more advice.
When you’re used to being in control, the uncertainty that comes with letting go can be hard. Slowly build your tolerance by experimenting with giving up control of certain things and seeing what happens. Resist the urge to keep checking and practice just letting things be.
For perfectionists, learning to relinquish control usually requires some serious self-compassion. You’ll need to allow yourself to make mistakes and accept imperfections without giving yourself a hard time. As I’ve said before, self-compassion is the best way to drown out your inner critic and build emotional resilience. Learn more in my post How Self-Compassionate Are You?