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ss triple helix - autumn 2005,  Perfecting ourselves to death - The pursuit of excellence and the perils of perfectionism

Perfecting ourselves to death - The pursuit of excellence and the perils of perfectionism

Perfecting ourselves to death - Richard Winter - IVP 2005 - US$16.00 - 205 pages pb - ISBN: 0-8308-3259-9

Richard Winter is a psychiatrist and theologian who says one of the reasons why people are unsatisfied with life is because society is preoccupied with airbrushed and computer enhanced features, perfect bodies, perfect homes, designer babies.

He says that people can be grouped into 1) non-perfectionists 2) healthy perfectionists and 3) dysfunctional perfectionists. Healthy perfectionists are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. They are driven by a positive motivation to achieve. They pursue excellence. Unhealthy perfectionists are never good enough; their self-worth depends on performance; they are overconcerned with mistakes. Nonperfectionists are laid back and fun to be with but can be irritatingly lazy and unreliable. Some people are perfectionists in some areas of life only. Interpersonal perfectionists are frightened of their flaws; they fear rejection, because of what others may think of them. This can be associated with relationship problems, anxiety, burnout, eating disorders and depression. Perfectionists who have excessive standards for those around them have a tendency to be arrogant, impatient, blaming and distant. Because standards are not reached anger is generated and if directed inwards, depression can occur; if directed outwards rage with others may occur.

Winter encourages the reader to keep a journal and to use cognitive therapeutic techniques – identify habitual thoughts, learn to question them and begin to experiment with new and more reasonable thoughts:

'November 12. I go to put the dishes in the dishwasher. My husband has put the dishes on the wrong rack…

Emotions: frustration and anger.

Perfectionist thoughts: Why can't he do it the right way? The bowls should go in the wider spaces. Why can't he be systematic? Why is he so stubborn? Why doesn't he respect my opinions?

Alternative thoughts: I believe my way is better, but there are other ways to load the dishwasher. A few crumbs won't make much difference. I shouldn't let a small thing ruin all the good in our relationship. He is not stubborn about most things.

Conclusions: This is a small matter. I don't need to get so angry about it. Perhaps if I stop nagging him, he will be more likely to change. He listens to me and respects my opinion in most things…'

Winter writes as a Christian but states, 'I am aware that my readers will not necessarily share my Christian worldview.' He addresses the issue of perfectionism theologically: 'Not only can you not make yourself perfect, but you also do not have to be perfect to be accepted by God.' 'True perfection is found in developing a Christ-like character.' He quotes C.S. Lewis: 'those who put themselves in His hands will become perfect, as He is perfect.'

This is a helpful book and unlikely to offend those who are not Christians. It is well written and referenced, useful for those who have a problem with perfectionism or are trying to help those who have.

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