A lot of people have asked me what a PCS person is. It is an acronym I use in my book, Fear of the Abyss: Healing the Wounds of Shame and Perfectionism, and it stands for Perfectionism, Control issues, and Shame. It represents a type of personality, not an illness, and many people with PCS traits are very high-functioning. However, the PCS person does not have just one trait but many, including the PCS traits, that form constellations, and a PCS person bears a heavy load, one that can lead to anxiety, panic, depression, eating disorders, and other problems.
People with this kind of personality have difficulty making decisions and feel that they are never adequate. If other people stay until eight at work, they will stay until ten. If they have to give a presentation, they will go over and over it, too many times, to try to make it perfect, but they never feel it is good enough. They have difficulty making decisions, because every path has pros and cons, and they are afraid of the terrible self-judgment that would result from the cons. Subjectively, they believe they just fear others judging them--and they do--but the real problem is that the criticism of others resonates with them. Those who like themselves more do not feel so hurt by the criticism or disagreement of others.
A PCS person is afraid of disappointing anyone and afraid of being disappointed. Sometimes they are afraid to commit, because they fear that someone “better” or more perfect, can come along, and they will then be disappointed by their initial choice. They are afraid to disappoint anyone, because it makes them feel like they are not good people. Things are often seen as all good or all bad, black-or-white. While most PCS people are extremely intelligent, this black-and-white, all-or-nothing thinking prevents them from seeing the richness of different situations and choices. Some people say they are “control freaks,” but this is not malicious: They are just trying to not be caught off guard and to somehow be at fault. You can not plan a response with the unpredictable.
PCS people like to be needed, and this is ongoing validation that they need. However, as I have written in another blog, no one wants to just need. The other person wants to be needed as well, and this often leads to problems in relationships.
At the bottom of the perfectionism, the avoidance of small, neutral mistakes at all costs, is shame, that many call low self-esteem. It’s the same thing. The attempt not to have any “black marks” at all, the perfectionism, is a defense against feeling very imperfect. While no one likes rejection very much, the PCS person feels that someone else has “discovered” his or her supposed badness when he is rejected.
Many PCS people do not reach out for help until there is a crisis, when their anxious perfectionism isn’t working in the current situation. They can become very depressed or anxious suddenly, and will tell you sincerely that they don’t know where it came from. It is hard to be this way, and the energy it takes to keep the shame at bay is tremendous. It makes other people the cruel judge when the judge is actually internal. While many say shame and perfectionism go hand in hand, which is true, they are not the same or equal in importance. The perfectionism is a symptom that defends against the shame, the terrible, nagging feeling of not being good enough, of not being smart enough, nice enough, something enough. The perfectionism and other symptoms discussed above become problems in their own right, but they are still defenses against the shame.
Because of this, it is important to decide how you address the problem to get some very well-deserved relief. If you aim only at symptom reduction, telling yourself over and over you don’t need to be perfect, the emotional pain will remain and the symptoms will need to be constantly driven away, almost by brute force. If you face the sad and painful feelings that make you feel you need to be perfect, you will have the sadness, process it, and come to be free of the anxiety and the conflicts with others the perfectionism causes. A symptom that is not needed, will not be there. Addressing the underlying issue allows you to make decisions that are not based just on running from painful feelings. It is the running away that causes the problems.
To read about PCS people should not cause you anxiety. Reading about them should just show you that, if you have these anxieties, you have choices and a lot of hope for significant improvement. PCS people are usually extremely kind, responsible, and intelligent, but they often suffer in silence.
Aleta Edwards, Psy.D.
I am a psychotherapist in private practice, with a strong interest in shame and perfectionism. I will periodically post my thoughts about these topics and other observations relating to emotional health.