Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control

By Allan Mallinger, M.D., and Jeannette Dewyze 

Published June 1, 1993

ISBN: 978-0449908006

Recommendation: Avoid | Ok | Get It | Must Have

Why Read This Book?

Can you relate to any of the following people?

  • An individual so driven to meet professional and personal goals that they feel guilty or undisciplined when abandoning themselves to a few hours of undirected leisure
  • A person so preoccupied with making the right choice that they struggle to make simple decisions that others find pleasurable, such as purchasing a computer or deciding where to go on vacation
  • A thinkaholic who bogs down in painful worry and rumination as they consider all the things that could go wrong
  • A procrastinator who feels angry at his laziness, unaware that they are unable to start tasks because their need to do them flawlessly makes them loom impossibly large

According to the author Allan Mallinger, M.D., if the answer is yes, then you might be an obsessive-compulsive personality type. Note, this is different from obsessive-compulsive disorder – a mental illness where patients are consumed with specific ritualized behavior or thoughts.

 

Obsessive-compulsive personality types have a powerful, unconscious need to feel in control – of themselves, of others, and of life’s risks. They do this because of an overriding concern for safety and security.

 

In this book, Mallinger argues that control is the primary driver for perfectionism, not the drive for excellence.

What’s It About?

Based on his 20 years of practice as a therapist, Mallinger views perfectionists as individuals who view the world as hostile and uncertain. They feel vulnerable and exposed. To survive, they feel they can’t disappoint others, must be beyond criticism, and can defend against unforeseen issues by their environment. Control provides them with a sense of safety and security they desperately crave. However, the price is becoming hypervigilant, working extremely hard, and constantly seeking mastery.

 

With his patients, Mallinger found that helping them identify and understand why this “Myth of Control” exists was productive. As a result, the book isn’t in a how-to format but more on promoting awareness and insight. He does, however, provide specific recommendations to address particular perfectionist challenges.

 

Traits of Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Type as Connected to Perfectionism

 

Mallinger lists the following traits as typical in obsessives with a strong need for control and to be “perfect:”

 

  1. Fear of making errors
  2. Fear of making a wrong decision or choice
  3. Strong devotion to work
  4. Need for order or firmly established routine
  5. Frugality
  6. Need to know and follow the rules
  7. Emotional guardedness
  8. Tendency to be stubborn or oppositional
  9. Heightened sensitivity to being pressured or controlled by others
  10. Inclination to worry, ruminate, or doubt
  11. Need to be above criticism
  12. Cautious
  13. Chronic inner pressure to be productive every minute
  14. Using “should” in place of want

 

So, what differentiates the above from normal individuals? Mallinger argues for perfectionists these traits are operating at a high level. Left unmanaged, they cause significant psychological distress in life, work, or relationships.

 

But perfectionists do this because for them, the world is a scary place. Extreme control is their stress response mechanism. To protect themselves from the chaos, order must be imposed no matter how high the price.

 

[In this post, I use perfectionists and obsessives interchangeably though Mallinger tends to stick to using obsessives to describe both]

Control Provides Safety and Security

 

To survive, Mallinger writes that everyone needs some level of self-control and mastery over their environment. But for obsessives, there is a disproportionate need for control – one that is driven and rigid, rather than reasonable and flexible.

 

He captures the above through his “Myth of Control,” which is the perfectionist belief that:

 

If I try hard enough, I can stay in control of myself, of others, and of all the impersonal dangers of life (injury, illness, death, etc.). In this way, I can be certain of safe passage.

 

Mallinger believes the roots of this myth stem from childhood. It comes from people who are terrified by their “vulnerability” in a threatening and unpredictable world. To maintain a sense of calm and navigate sanely through this life, they must ward off or deny this awareness.

 

[Note, vulnerability to a perfectionist is different than to a nonperfectionist. Perfectionists are hypersensitive to criticism, failure, and uncertainty. So, what may seem minor to most may seem epic to the perfectionist.]

 

The book describes two other constructs that expand on this perfectionist belief system: the Perfectionist’s Credo and the Cosmic Scorekeeper.

 

The Perfectionist’s Credo is:

  • If I always try my very best and if I’m alert and sharp enough, I can avoid error.  Not only can I perform flawlessly in everything important and be the ideal person in every situation, but I can avoid everyday blunders, oversights, and poor decisions or choices.
  • It’s crucial to avoid making mistakes because they would show that I’m not as competent as I should be.
  • By being perfect, I can ensure my own security with others. They will admire me and will have no reason to criticize or reject me.  They could not prefer anyone else to me.
  • My worth depends on how “good” I am, how smart I am, and how well I perform.

 

The Cosmic Scorekeeper:

  • Many obsessives quell their anxieties about life’s potential catastrophes via the Cosmic Scorekeeper.  At some unconscious level, they convince themselves that terrible things will not happen to them because life is fair.  They can’t bear to face the reality that they are at least at the mercy of something haphazard or random since it conflicts with the all or nothing thinking of obsessives.  After all, imperfect protection is the same as no protection at all.
  • This “fairness doctrine” helps them maintain their illusion of control via the Cosmic Scorekeeper.  This entity enables obsessives to believe that they can control their destiny via being good vs. bad. “They can guarantee themselves safe passage by making the Scorekeeper owe it to them by accumulating a track record of self-denial, sacrifice, industry, diligence, honesty, and loyalty rivaling that of a saint. They try to avoid behaviors, feelings, even thoughts that will subtract points from their stockpile of sacrifices.  They avoid selfishness, lust, dishonesty, laziness, hedonism. Even enjoying themselves costs them points!”

 

What’s interesting is both beliefs are action-oriented. This observation is significant because the typical stress responses are flight or fight. If an individual feels vulnerable, they can choose to flee, in which case give in to their fears or stand their ground and fight.

 

The Perfectionist Credo and Cosmic Scorekeeper promote the fight camp. They promise that if one works hard, is disciplined, and makes sacrifices, they will get safe passage. By taking firm control, one imposes order on the chaos and can navigate a safe path through their fears.

 

When Control Becomes Self-Damaging

 

Where perfectionists go wrong is taking control to extremes. Mallinger writes :

 

In the obsessive’s worldview, where conscientiousness is king, it’s better to be fulfilling one’s duty than satisfying one’s own needs.

 

Perfectionists prioritize not making mistakes and not looking bad in front of others above all else.  As a result, many suffer from the endless agony of having to do everything well- an unnecessary imperative that can ruin even the most enjoyable activities. Their logic is the ends justify the costs.

 

Unfortunately, perfectionists are blind to the collateral damage that such tight control inflicts. And these show up in many areas.

 

Performance Pitfalls

 

Despite being conscientious, obsessives self-sabotage their performance in various ways:

 

  • Procrastination: perfectionists are scared to start since their list of to-dos went from a molehill to a mountain, or they focus on perpetual research and planning that never translate to action.
  • Poor execution: they focus on getting the details of one step so perfect that they lose track of time and rush through the remainder of their work tasks, creating an inferior product.
  • Lack of completion: they always find other things that need to be considered, so they keep pushing deadlines back and never finish.
  • Inability to decide: overwhelmed by the information they collect, they have difficulty figuring out what to prioritize and go into analysis paralysis.
  • Miss the big picture: they rabbit hole on a potential risk or fixate on an issue with nonperfect data that they miss the point of why they collected the information in the first place.
  • Lack of growth: they don’t try new things as it pushes them outside their comfort zone.
  • All or nothing thinking: they don’t consider any intermediate points. Either they’re all in or out.
  • High effort in all things: it doesn’t matter if it’s a memo, email, or quarterly report. Every task is treated as requiring Olympic level effort; again, this creates overwhelm and exhaustion.

 

The result is a lot of stress and effort for work that is less than what they are capable of.

 

Personal Emotional Toll

 

Perfectionists struggle daily from the weight of a massive inner rulebook, overgrown sense of duty, responsibility, and fairness. This shows up in different ways:

 

  • Being rigid and inflexible: to manage the chaos, obsessives feel that they must follow their rules exactly with no exceptions or substitutions; to change invites risk, which in turn invites failure and that is to be avoided at all costs.
  • Prone to high anxiety and stress: living up to high standards and being error-free is mentally, physically, and emotionally demanding and exhausting; also, being aware of what can go wrong creates a persistent anxiety
  • Being unable to relax: Mallinger writes, “Their reluctance to interrupt the work, in turn, comes partly from their knowledge that if they lose their momentum it will be hard to start up again.” Because they demand and require so much, perfectionists feel they can’t afford to take a break.

 

Relationship Issues

 

Not only are obsessives hard on themselves, but they also judge others by strict standards outside of performance.

 

An unfortunate side effect of the “fairness doctrine” generated by the Cosmic Scorekeeper is perfectionists can become unusually harsh and angry under particular circumstances:

 

They feel no compassion when they hear mishaps befalling those they consider unworthy or “bad,” and they resent it when honors or other good fortune come to someone “undeserving.”… If, as is so common, the obsessive has been a decent, conscientious, honest person and has consistently denied himself the many pleasures in life, he will have earned IOU’s by the thousands. And yet the chances are his life still contains plenty of rough spots. He has to work hard; he gets ill several times a year; less deserving people all around him are becoming more famous or rich; his financial investments haven’t always panned out; not everyone likes him or appreciates what a good person he is; and he often feels unhappy or depressed. … He may become bitter about all of this, as if he’s been misled by the Scorekeeper or betrayed by life in general. If he suffers a major personal setback, the result can be a blinding rage.

 

In other words, because they sacrifice so much, perfectionists feel they are “owed” more compared to others.

 

Other areas in relationships where the obsessiveness makes an impact include:

 

  • Pickiness: obsessives with their high or demanding standards make people feel that they can’t do anything right
  • Demand resistant: their need to control where and when they want to work with others makes it difficult for people to interact with obsessives
  • Guardedness: obsessives pose emotional barriers that make it hard to be intimate with them
  • Rigidity: obsessives are set in their ways and dislike even minor changes to routine
  • Excessive orderliness: obsessives make people feel guilty if they are not at the same level of organization as the obsessive
  • Workaholic: obsessives don’t devote much time to relationships and more to work, which they feel they have more control over
  • Indecisiveness: obsessives can’t commit because they are either afraid of missing out on someone better or scared that they might have missed something about the person

 

    How to Fix It

     

    Mallinger recognizes that the obsessive personality type underlying perfectionism strives for the common goal of safety and security via alertness, reason, and mastery. He acknowledges that these traits favor not only survival but create success and admiration. The problem is having too much of a good thing.

     

    In perfectionism, these virtues become liabilities because they are too rigid or excessive.

     

    The answer is to be more forgiving and accepting of the vulnerabilities that make one human. Living in constant fear is unhealthy, but control can’t always be on, nor is it 100% foolproof. One needs to revisit how they operate.

     

    The book offers the following suggestions:

     

    Getting Things Done

     

    • Focus more on progress than being error-free; do the most sufficient work possible, given the limitations of deadlines and legitimate requirements of health, family, social life, and leisure pursuits.
    • Cut down on things that aren’t needed.
    • Aim for good enough (if one finishes early, one can refine then); don’t rabbit hole on details.
    • Timebox on tasks; sometimes, running out of time forces a decision to be made by default, and this makes the perfectionist feel good since they were “forced” under the circumstances, so any error is not really their fault. This technique is a hack but effective.
    • Recognize that by avoiding areas where mistakes are made, one misses growth opportunities.
    • Mitigate decision paralysis by choosing a path and not second-guessing. Mallinger writes “…. if the main obstacle is a fear of decisions and commitments, data won’t help. In fact, you will just use this additional information to justify your paralysis. You’ll waver, anguished, until external matters decide for you or until you can’t stand vacillating anymore and jump in or out on impulse.”

     

    Dealing with Rigidity

     

    • Recall why the rules and rituals are there in the first place. They are there to help you achieve something. Following them is to be helpful, not stressful. If adhering to the routines causes more pain than benefit, then modify them.
    • Ask what is terrible about making a small change. If modifying the demands doesn’t have dangerous repercussions, then why not? See if the outcome is as bad as predicted. Often, things aren’t as dire.
    • Recognize there is value in flexibility and adaptability. There is a balance between robustness and efficiency. If rules are to cover every possible contingency, then they are too burdensome to follow. There will always be exceptions, so being rigid fails to address reality’s complexity.

     

    Addressing Worry

     

    • Worry and rumination are unproductive since they waste time and energy. If one blames them on external events, one misses that these are an individual’s reactions to these events, not the events themselves. It’s possible to take the same event and reframe its context in a different light. For example, consider using a setback as a learning opportunity for lessons learned.
    • Another solution is thought-stopping. The first step involves acknowledging that worrying and ruminating are voluntary actions. Once one is aware of the worrying/ruminating thought, Mallinger recommends wearing a rubber band around the wrist and then pulling on it to cause it to snap. At the same time, say “Stop!”, inhale deeply, relax, and state, “Worrying (or ruminating) won’t help.” While simplistic, Mallinger says that doing this for about a month conditions the brain to be less worrying.

     

    Becoming Less Guarded

     

    • Recall that no one and nothing is 100% dependable.
    • Don’t be tripped by thoughts of extreme thinking; events rarely go in that direction.
    • Try to be conscious that one’s guarded behavior is likely to cause the very rejection, isolation, and unloved feeling that one fears. People find it difficult to connect to someone who doesn’t show any emotions or vulnerabilities. It takes determination and patience to be less guarded.

     

    Finally, as much as the notion of fairness is appealing, there is no Cosmic Scorekeeper. The universe is sadly indifferent. So, if one makes sacrifices with the expectation of a payoff, they may be severely disappointed.

     

    The reality is bad things can happen to good people. And while control mitigates risk, it isn’t foolproof, and there are no guarantees. One needs to balance the costs of control with the benefits it provides.

     

    Cons: Gaps & Issues

     

    Too Perfect provides many useful insights into a perfectionist, but the book has 5 issues. The first is one of tone. Specifically, it lacks empathy if you’re a perfectionist. Written by a therapist who is not a perfectionist (well, at least doesn’t mention being one), the book can be condescending.

     

    Mallinger states things like “common-sense decision making” or stop having “irrational beliefs.” It comes off like all perfectionists have major psychological issues. Perhaps they do, but a less judgmental word choice would have been preferable.  To a perfectionist, their behavior “makes sense.” So, this can be a turn-off for some readers, making it harder to get to the useful tidbits the book provides.

     

    The second issue also relates to the lack of empathy. Mallinger’s “objectivity” makes him blind to a significant aspect perfectionists face but is not addressed. And that is they are often their worst critic. The book offers little guidance on dealing with that. Other books mention self-compassion as a remedy. But Too Perfect takes the more analytical stance of “you shouldn’t be doing that as it’s bad for you.” (my quotes). It doesn’t sympathize or state firmly that the road to recovery involves forgiving oneself. Perhaps, Mallinger felt as a therapist that was getting too involved.

     

    The third aspect is not factoring in the experience or surroundings of the perfectionist as a potent driver for their behavior. For example, one may engage in perfectionist behaviors because they don’t want to be that slacker in the office or that underperformer in the group. They don’t want to be that other person because their behavior is such an anathema that they behave in the extreme opposite mode. The Cosmic Scorekeeper touches on this topic but why being a “slacker” is wrong isn’t. (Usually, this is coupled to the need for praise and seeking the admiration of authority figures).

     

    The fourth issue is its brief coverage of “all or nothing” thinking. This belief is a core problem for many perfectionists.  They get it in their heads that conditions must be perfect to start on something. But since conditions are rarely perfect, the result is they never do it. For example, if the goal is to exercise for 25 minutes, an all or nothing thinker focuses on hitting the target rather than settling for any amount. The goal isn’t 25 minutes – the goal is to get in shape through exercise, and 25 minutes was simply a picked target. Exercising for 10 minutes, if that’s all the time available, is better than 0. Doing is better than being perfect. Yet, the book doesn’t emphasize this point.

     

    Finally, for a book on the negatives of obsessiveness, Too Perfect obsesses about perfectionism being about obsessiveness. There are different theories on the basis for perfectionism: anxiety, neuroticism, conscientiousness gone bad, parents, shame, etc. But they are not covered.

     

    If Mallinger claims that his solutions are applicable even if obsessiveness is not the root cause, it would be reassuring.  Unfortunately, he does not.  So, the reader is left with the question, “Will these remedies work if my perfectionism isn’t obsessive-based?” (My view is they are probably still applicable, but he cites no scientific evidence)

     

    Too Perfect postulates that perfectionism comes from too much control exerted by obsessive personality types. While in part true, this may not be the complete picture.

     

    Summary/Recommendation

     

    Essential points covered in Too Perfect:

     

    • Perfectionism stems from obsessive-compulsive personality types who have a powerful, unconscious need to feel in control of themselves, others, and their environment. They do this because of an overriding need for safety and security in a world they view as hostile and uncertain.
    • Many of these control behaviors in moderation lead to success, mastery, and admiration, but it is the extremeness and the rigidity to which perfectionists carry them out that causes problems.
    • Areas impacted include:
      • Performance hits
      • Personal emotional toll
      • Relationship problems
    • Mallinger feels by understanding the limitations and myths around control enables perfectionists to cope with their problems better. Fundamentally, control can never be 100% foolproof, and one must weigh costs against the perceived benefits control supposedly brings.

     

    As a recommendation, Too Perfect rates as Ok/Get It. Ok in the sense that if you are a perfectionist, there are better books out there that provide a more well-rounded view of perfectionism and provide scientific evidence for their solutions. However, the notions of the Cosmic Scorekeeper and Perfectionist’s Credo were incredibly insightful. Both captured the thoughts and feelings of myself while reading.  In particular, recognizing that the universe has no obligation to pay you back IOU’s makes you wonder about the self-sacrifices you are making.

     

    The rating of Get It is if you’re someone who lives or must deal with a perfectionist as it provides critical insights into how they see the world. As books on perfectionism tend to be perfectionist-centric, there is value in having a book that views the problem from a nonperfectionist perspective.

     

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