In today’s type A society, “the perfectionist” is a lauded title. Often one step removed from genius. A fraternal twin to the savant.
The perfectionist is a rare breed of person. He is the innovator with the tenacity to see an idea through to its most complete form. She is the artist who is ceaseless to a fault. Never stopping at “good enough”; daring to push beyond greatness.
At its worst, “perfectionism” is seen as a highly coveted “flaw”. A top shelf foible.
Just think of the stock response when a potential employer asks for your biggest weakness:
“Umm… I’m a bit of a perfectionist.”
A sentence usually spoken with a twinkle in your eye and a grin on your face. It’s a cute way of saying my biggest flaw is that I have no flaws. Hire me and I might be too good at the job.
But does perfectionism really deserve this celebrated status?
Why Perfectionism Is Dangerous
Dangerous! That’s much too strong a word to use, no?
Maybe. But I think perfectionism is uniquely deceitful. Its deceit lies in that it is a flaw masquerading as a virtue.
More often than not “perfectionism” is used as an excuse for inaction. If the genius is the perfectionist’s next of kin, then the anxious procrastinator is his close cousin. Why step in the arena and get your hands dirty, when you can sit comfortably and search for the perfect idea.
This often results in telling ourselves white lies like:
I can’t begin my novel until I come up with the PERFECT subject.
I can’t improve my health until I find the PERFECT diet.
I can’t talk to that cute gal or guy until I can think of the PERFECT thing to say.
It’s not just an “excuse”, it’s a damn good one! It passes procrastination off as quality control. You’re not putting something off, you’re giving it the time and space it needs to flourish. You don’t really have a problem, you just have high standards!
We clearly recognize lying, overeating, and uncontrollable anger as undesirable traits. Yet perfectionism gets a free pass.
What’s At The Heart Of Perfectionism?
Embedded in the quest for perfectionism is fear. Fear of failure. Fear of vulnerability. Fear of losing control. And oftentimes fear of doing the dirty work it takes to make changes in your life.
Perfection is a shield against this unpleasant emotion.
The PERFECT novel shields you from the anxiety and self doubt of publishing something that may be ignored or poorly received.
The PERFECT diet shields you from doing the difficult work it takes to adjust your eating habits, and facing the negative self image you have around your body.
The PERFECT words to say to an attractive stranger shields you from the potential for rejection and embarrassment.
When someone talks about the “perfect” idea; what they really mean is one that is immune from criticism. One that, by its definition, would have to be accepted and revered. One that is failure proof.
It is your ego’s guardian angel. Its protector. It wants to save it; but it can’t.
How To Deal With Perfectionism
Step 1: Accept Imperfection As A Fact Of Life.
Perfection doesn’t exist. At least not in the world we inhabit. It may live as an abstraction, but certainly not as something tangible that you can achieve or create.
Even things we anoint as masterpieces could be improved if we combed through them enough. The “perfect” film, novel, or song could be subtly enhanced by re-shooting a scene, rewording a sentence, or re-arranging a verse.
No matter how hard you strive you will never meet this elusive standard. Lessen your burden by remembering:
Something perfect has never existed nor will it ever exist in the world.
Step 2: Question Whether Perfection Is Actually Desirable
What if you could achieve perfection? What if we lived in a world without flaws: where everyone had statuesque bodies, lightning quick wits, and genius level IQs? Is this a reality you would like to live in?
Or is there truth to the expression:” We love people because of their flaws, not in spite of them”?
In life and art there is no figure as celebrated as the flawed hero. Strife and fallibility are at the heart of the human narrative. No one has ever written a great story about an unblemished protagonist.
We relate to the faulty figure who fights to get what they want. We do this because in life we find meaning in wrestling with our imperfections. It’s what makes the human struggle, a beautiful struggle. We may be walking whirlwinds of frailty and neuroses; but dog gonnit we try our best!
Step 3: Use Perfection As A Guide Not An End Point
Some of the more contrarian readers may be thinking:
“Wait a minute! There are a lot of successful, talented people who consider themselves perfectionists. They’re not the anxious dawdlers described in this blog. What gives?!”
You know what, you’re right! There are many accomplished perfectionists. So does a healthy level of perfectionism in fact exist?
I would argue it does. But only if you view perfection as a path towards progress and not an endpoint. This means having high standards, but not letting them come in the way of getting started, moving forward, or completing something.
Perfectionism becomes unhealthy when it is used as a form of avoidance. When it becomes an invitation to beat yourself up for not living up to impossible standards. And when it deludes us into thinking that there is a pain-free shortcut to doing difficult work.
Growth comes through many imperfect attempts at something. It takes time and labor; and god knows it ain’t always pretty. But it begins with taking a courageous, crooked step; and hoping to stumble in the right direction.