Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control

When control and perfectionism combine, a whole family of personality traits is produced

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been surprised at how many times “control” issues have emerged as a major issue in counseling Christians with anxiety and/or depression. (It’s been a major factor in marital counseling too.) As I couldn’t find any Christian books which dealt specifically with this subject, I bought Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control, put on my Calvin spectacles and started reading.

The book emerged out of the challenges and frustrations the author, psychiatrist Allan Mallinger, faced in trying to counsel obsessive people. Like other mental-health professionals, he found “obsessive people often are controlling or cerebral or distrustful or secretive or emotionally constricted or resistant to change or all of the above.”

Yes, they often have many virtues such as being hard-working, reliable, self-controlled, honest, etc. But their striving for excellence in themselves and others makes them too perfect for their own good. As Pascal said: “When we would pursue virtues to their extremes on either side, vices present themselves.… We find fault with perfection itself.” Their perfectionism means that are never at ease with themselves or with anyone else.

By this point, you might be thinking, “Am I looking in the mirror?” Well, here are examples of the kind of person Malinger has in mind:

  • The person so driven to meet professional and personal goals that she can’t abandon herself to a few hours of undirected leisure without feeling guilty or undisciplined.
  • The person so preoccupied with making the right choice that he has difficulty making even relatively simple decisions usually regarded as pleasurable: buying a new stereo; choosing where to go on vacation.
  • The person so finicky that his pleasure is spoiled if everything isn’t “just so.”
  • The “thinkaholic” whose keen, hyperactive mind all too often bogs her down in painful worry and rumination.
  • The perfectionist, whose need to improve and polish every piece of work chronically causes her to devote much more time than necessary to even inconsequential assignments.
  • The person so intent upon finding the ultimate romantic mate that he seems unable to commit to any long-term relationship.
  • The person so acclimated to working long hours that she can’t bring herself to cut back, even when confronted with evidence that the overwork is ruining her health or her family relationships.
  • The procrastinator who feels angry at his “laziness”—unaware that the real reason he is unable to undertake tasks is that his need to do them flawlessly makes them loom impossibly large.

One of the primary ways in which the need to be in control (of oneself, others, life’s risks) manifests itself is perfectionism. When control and perfectionism combine, a whole family of personality traits is produced, including:

  • A fear of making errors
  • A fear of making a wrong decision or choice
  • A strong devotion to work
  • A need for order or firmly established routine
  • Frugality
  • A need to know and follow the rules
  • Emotional guardedness
  • A tendency to be stubborn or oppositional
  • A heightened sensitivity to being pressured or controlled by others
  • An inclination to worry, ruminate, or doubt
  • A need to be above criticism—moral, professional, or personal
  • Cautiousness
  • A chronic inner pressure to use every minute productively

Mallinger points out that many of these traits are valuable and necessary for success. Problems arise when they become dominant and inflexible — that’s where checklists like this come in helpful.

They’re also useful because one of the greatest difficulties in counseling people with such self-generated anguish is that most obsessives are unaware that they’re harming themselves and others. Few, if any, come and say, “Hello, I’m an obsessive perfectionist with control issues!” Most come for another issue or, most commonly, because a loved one, a colleague, a boss, or a friend has encouraged them to seek help.

Having noted the symptoms, Mallinger says the next step is to trace the underlying cause or causes. I’ll return to that tomorrow, and I’d encourage all parents to tune in.

David Murray is Professor of Old Testament & Practical Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary. This article first appeared on his blog, Head Heart Hand, and is used with permission.