When Karen left her keys in the wrong place, she was furious with herself. When the inevitability of error was pointed out, she replied, 'No, there is no need for mistakes, it really is possible to be perfect. If only I was perfect then everything in my life would be fine.' Small wonder she suffered from major depression.
As a perfectionist, your best is never good enough, nor is anyone else's. It irritates you more than it should if words are misspet.
Your perfectionism is first cousin to obsession and the mother of depression.
You are much more likely to have the problem if one of your parents did. So it's passed down generations, a genetic thing, surely? None of your siblings suffer from it, yet you were all part of the same family so it must be genes, right?
Wrong. Perfectionism is caused by hypercritical early parenting, and your perfectionist parent directing it far more at you than at your sibs. You were the dustbin for this particular psychic rubbish.
Parents of perfectionist children barely reward success. They constantly find fault, urging ever better performance so that the child never feels pleased with its efforts. Withdrawal of love is only a tiny mistake away, and the child comes to think, 'If I try a little harder and do a little better, if I become perfect, my parents will love me.'
In studies observing perfectionist mothers and daughters together, the mothers intensely scrutinise their daughters' behaviour and obstruct independence and assertiveness. In most cases, the mother is very self-belittling as well, setting herself equally unfeasibly high standards. What the father is like makes no difference.
When followed over time, those whose mothers were like that before the age of eight were more prone to be harshly self-critical, depressed and dissatisfied in adolescence and young adulthood. The girls have learnt to be like their mums. They are also at greater risk of obsessive- compulsive and eating disorders.
Of course, society's to blame as well. In a recent survey of 900 18- to 24-year-old women, over half wanted to be slimmer, and 40 per cent did not like their lover to see them in the nude. The barrage of media images of slender beauties is depressingly normal and, for most women, normally depressing.
There is also unprecedented pressure to do well at exams and in careers. These social trends put adults with perfectionist potential as a result of their upbringing at even greater risk of fulfilling it.
Not that all perfectionism is a bad thing. I once had lunch with John Cleese, who said that if he had any special gift it was refusing to accept that the work was finished long after everyone else had gone to the pub.
Like him, most high achievers have the pathological perfectionists' love of painstaking effort, being well organised and intolerance of shortcomings in self or others.
What spares them from perfectionism is acceptance that their best is all they can do and, therefore, is good enough.
· Write to Oliver James at email@example.com.