Perfectionism — how it can blight our life, and the ‘benefits’ it offers us. I think it gets in the way of our recognising that mostly we do pretty well.
Perfectionism can destroy any pleasure. Anything finite can be criticised for not being infinite.
Perfectionism is merciless, like Jonathan Edwards’ god — minus any possibility of redemption. The demands of perfectionism are relentless.
Perfectionism is the opposite of acceptance. This, whatever this is, is unacceptable as it is.
But why? Why should nothing be perfect? And why should we seek the perfect? It is a heroic act of imagination and will — going beyond whatever is, beyond any of our experience.
Perfectionism speaks loudly of unsatisfactory experience. And there are more than enough culprits — abusive relationships, death of loved ones, unnecessary suffering that is hard to contemplate and stay sane.
And then there are the small inconveniences that nag at us and drain our joy. Why don’t they alter the timetable? This bus is always later than timetabled! A good friend’s annoying mannerism. That little part of our routine which is so peskily unavoidable.
Our experience is unsatisfactory in some way — and so we imagine an alternative. This can lead to finding solutions and innovations that improve our world and our experience of it. It seems to me that our imaginations are very valuable resources.
The biggest problem with perfection is usually ourselves. The perfectionist knows themselves to be imperfect (judged as bad) and have more or less clarity about how they ‘should’ be.
Perfection can be appallingly precise (complete control or spontaneity, unflinching duty or unreserved compassion) or bewilderingly vague. When vague it is harder to fight — a phantom with no substance, just a pervasive sense that the perfectionist should be other than they are. (Somehow! If only someone would tell them!)
Is there any benefit to being a perfectionist? Of course not — and yes.
Of course not. It is a way of living that is by definition always conscious of what is unsatisfactory, never able to be satisfied with what is.
And yes, there are benefits I think — four that I can think of.
Firstly the striving for perfection can lead to improved performance. If we aim for the stars we may not hit them, but we may hit the moon (higher than we could have imagined). To my mind this is ‘making the best of a bad job’ — I think skills are more readily learned in an atmosphere of support, where there is freedom to fail and reflect and experiment.
Secondly, it may give us insight into our strengths and weaknesses — with the emphasis on our weaknesses.
Thirdly, I think it has the benefit of confirming ideas that we have about ourselves. We feel that we are unsatisfactory and so we find a way (or often many, many ways) to prove this to ourselves. We have the desire to make sense of the world, and our perfectionism confirms our conviction that we are imperfect (and so deserving of tedium or punishment — this unsatisfactory experience we are having).
Fourthly, at least we aren’t ceaselessly striving. To be perfect would be unceasing effort, living up to remorseless demands, on duty 24/7! We may feel badly that we are imperfect — but this is preferable to the superhuman energy we would need to be perfect.
And so our perfectionism (or our awareness of falling short of perfection) is, I think, a way to get ourselves a break. And our perfectionism (always striving to do our best) can put us beyond criticism — what more could be asked of us? And, actually, it would only be fair if a good deal less was being asked of us. Perfectionism is isolating.
It is my experience that others are usually more willing to forgive us than we are ourselves. In my experience, others’ standards for us are a deal gentler and more measured than our own. Others are more willing to welcome us, with our imperfections, than we are willing to do for ourselves.
This can be awfully disconcerting. If you are someone with long term abuse in your background you simply may not believe it at first. It may take years to accept that another does not judge you harshly (simply because you are who you are). The next step of accepting yourself as simply yourself may be even harder.
For those without an abusive background, like me, it may still be surprisingly difficult.
The Truth As I See It
The truth as I see it is that most of us, most of the time, most days, do pretty well. We care for those around us, have a reasonably satisfactory day, deal with the difficulties that come our way and manage to do what we wish to do.
The truth as I see it is that when I have learned about someone’s story, I have always been surprised by how well they are doing. Given the situations that people have come from it is astonishing how well they do.
We may not be perfect, but our achievements — especially those who battle mental illness — are certainly worthy of respect and are sometimes awe inspiring.
Have you, or do you, battle with perfectionism? I would like to hear how you have dealt with it in the comments to this post.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by