There are countless “aha” moments in Ann Smith’s revised, updated version of Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance and Self-Acceptance, so much so that even the most well-balanced reader will gain valuable insights. If not about themselves, then most certainly about others.
Smith’s profound understanding of what she terms covert and overt perfectionism is as much a result of her life experiences as her academic and career journeys. As a result, her discussions about the patterns of perfectionism are so clearly and accurately explained that it is impossible to close this book without a greater understanding of the deep-seated habit.
We all fundamentally understand that the early attachments in our lives drive the way we learn to connect. What Smith does is articulate how those early attachments influence every part of us moving forward, including our penchant for perfectionism.
“What we’ve come to discover is how critical our early years are, especially from birth to age five, for how our brains are wired in terms of love and connection throughout our lives,” she writes. Smith makes the spectrum of emotions, actions, thought processes, and belief systems each of us operate under seem logical and even predictable. She justifies the different ways everyone experiences life by explaining the roots, and in so doing she gives us the tools to understand and alter those parts of our personality we haven’t been able to fix.
As background, Smith explains three types of parenting and their effects. The fortunate child gets what attachment researcher Donald Winnicott coined the “good-enough” parent. These parents aren’t perfect, but, if they can learn to nurture while gradually allowing their children to develop into their own individuals, they raise kids with a good chance at a well-balanced life. But parenting at the extremes leads to problems. Too much attention smothers a child, making it difficult for that little person to grow up without feeling vulnerable and uncertain about going it alone. Too little attention creates abandonment issues; these children search forever for the attachments their young brains craved, struggling to find any connections to help them mature into their futures.
From this foundation, our efforts to achieve perfection are put into play. Smith talks about covert perfectionists, who “can be their own worst enemies, carrying around an internal, critical parent and waging an invisible battle in the form of intrusive self-talk and constant pressure to be better or ‘good enough.’ ” The overt perfectionist, on the other hand, “appears well put together: self-disciplined, neat, orderly and prepared for anything.” But this can be the consequence of painful life experiences and an effort to over-compensate for suffering or lack of love.
Smith describes the many faces of covert and overt perfectionism with familiar and ultimately predictable examples of how adults struggle to make things appear “perfect.” She shows that whatever perfectionist poison we or our loved ones suffer from as adults can be traced back to that undetected childhood pattern of too little or too much attachment. We may grow into workaholics to the point of ignoring family, or become alcoholics to numb the pain in an effort to make everything look “normal.”
Like children, adults have a range of ways to deal with the pain of a dysfunctional childhood. And because, like children, adults need attachment, too, grown men and women deal, in a host of ways, with their irrational quest for perfection. Some minimize, for instance, while others find comfort only in crisis.
When such troubling quests for an ideal and unachievable life are so clearly explained as they are in Smith’s book, it becomes easier to try fixing the problem. That such complex issues can be understood and even dealt with by reading a single book is a remarkable testament to this intelligent, empathetic, and life-altering therapist. Smith not only has the ability to stop a dysfunctional cycle and change lives — she does so without underestimating the challenge.
Overcoming Perfectionism: Finding the Key to Balance and Self-Acceptance
Health Communications, Inc., March, 2013
Paperback, 240 pages