Perfectionism is essentially defined as an obsessive and unrealistic concern with being perfect, performing extraordinarily highly, consistently scoring ahead of the curve, and appearing above criticism to others. It’s living a life where one judges one’s actions with a magnifying glass, rarely satisfied with the performance. It can lead to performance anxiety and other “maladaptive” behaviors. It sucks, basically. It has a bit of a silver lining – one can turn out a great piece of writing, look friggin’ great, or really impress someone – but it’s a high price to pay. One perceives oneself as “missing” the bulls-eye twenty times for every hit. It’s sort of like living with a critical parent in your head. As I write this, not far from midnight, I am tired and barely able to accomplish the task, but I won’t go to bed, feeling like I am not trying hard enough, or not tough enough to hack it. In this blog, I explore perfectionism, and point out that it is related to values.
“Perfectionism attaches to what is valued in the culture,” noted Gloria Steinem. She is wise to point out that perfectionism begins in relationships with early caregivers, and is maintained through social relationships. Perfectionism would fade quickly if one were stranded on a desert island.
It is curiously related to excellence, success, personal growth, satisfaction, fulfillment, meaning, virtue, character, and failure. I think it runs in families, in one way or another. It can best be thought of as comparing things (such as oneself) to the perfect example of that thing (or a perfect human being). So, goddesses, vintage cars, 3-Michelin star restaurants. Models have the perfect physical appearance; Nobel laureates are the perfect professionals; Dan Brown and Tom Clancy are very successful authors; cooking is compared to what Bobby Flay can do in a half-hour; wealth is tens of millions of dollars.
It’s not all bad; it is like a functional and adaptive personality trait that just goes too far: “…creative people work very long hours, far longer than the average person’s eight-hour day. Many of the great creators, such as Michelangelo, are notorious for working almost night and day. Creative people are also often perfectionistic and even obsessional. They must work on a topic, project, or idea until they ‘get it right’”I’ve yet to meet an absolute perfectionist whose life was filled with inner peace.”
I try to think of myself as “good enough.” I am fairly sure that my perfectionistic tendencies has a genetic component, but was certainly nurtured in my troubled home life growing up. In high school I was fairly obsessed with what others thought of me, and considered myself to have quite a self-esteem problem. I tried very hard in school, and eventually began to succeed. Now, I can deal with a B on a test, am pretty much okay with going gray, and know that I am not the world’s greatest husband, writer, student, son, or neighbor.
On good days I tell myself “It is what it is” and “You are supposed to be enjoying life, first and foremost.” Many days I worry I am not productive, healthy, virtuous, successful, wealthy, smart, good-looking, fit, emotional, or creative enough. Exercise, diet, relationships, a medication, and keeping busy seem to help. I wish I stopped more to smell the roses, had fewer regrets, and were more successful. I try to note some wise quotes about perfectionism, such as this by Hawthorne: “Happiness is a butterfly which when pursued is always just beyond your grasp, but which if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.” Not to be outdone, the transcendentalist and Unitarian-Universalist of great renown, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said: “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it within or we find it not.”
Example: a mentally healthier person would think: “This blog is turning out well. It’s neat that I memorized that Hawthorne and the Emerson quotes, and were able to use them adroitly.” Then, I thought: “Gosh I wish I were as accomplished, intelligent, and famous as Emerson.” It is almost an absurd thing. It’s not as crazy as hoarding or drug usage, but it’s not an easy thing to live with. I know for a fact that I will finally complete this blog, go lay in bed, sit there and think, and get back out of bed, naked, and come to my computer, eyes squinted, and write another line or paragraph because I thought of something that just absolutely has to make it into this blog.
Amanda Ruggeri created quite a list for the BBC of the side-effects and negative results of perfectionism: “The drawback of perfectionism isn’t just that it holds you back from being your most successful, productive self. Perfectionistic tendencies have been linked to a laundry list of clinical issues: depression and anxiety (even in children), self-harm, social anxiety disorder and agoraphobia, obsessive-compulsive disorder, binge eating, anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, insomnia, hoarding, dyspepsia, chronic headaches, and, most damning of all, even early mortality and suicide.”
John P. Weiss wrote an interesting, intimate portrait of this (minor) affliction here. A couple of the best quotes are: “My creative compulsions and desire to achieve, grow and succeed are relentless. Not to mention, exhausting. Every time I push the envelope to be perfect in one area of my life, another area invariably suffers.” And: “Perfectionism isn’t all bad, if you approach it properly. Setting high personal standards and working toward goals in a pro-active manner is a good thing. Giving your best effort is fine. The problem is when you take it too far. When you become neurotic and endlessly obsessed.”
Jessica Stillman adds this: “The consequences of this incessant sense of failure and worry are grim. Perfectionism ‘can contribute to serious health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, fatigue and even early mortality.’ Or in other words, you can stress yourself into an early grave.”
James Francis Cameron: “People call me a perfectionist, but I’m not. I’m a rightist. I do something until it’s right, and then I move on to the next thing.”
Emmie Lee Dean: “Worst thing about being a perfectionist… Everything you do might look amazing in someone else eyes but in your heart never truly satisfied.”
Stewart Stafford: “Perfection is an illusion. Yet perfectionists demand it from others while being far from flawless themselves. The margin of error of the human condition is often our greatest area of excellence and discovery.”
Brene Brown: “Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it’s a shield.”
Instead of thinking of myself as a marginal writer, substandard male, somewhat attractive person, or guy who didn’t get a master’s degree from a prestigious institution (don’t get me started on the Ph.D. thing!), I would do well to think of the idea of experience points.
Experience points is a thing in Dungeons & Dragons. I played it compulsively when I was a teenager. I guess that is an exaggeration, but not by much. As you may know, you play a character, and your guy (gal?) does stuff. When they do the stuff very poorly, they die. When they perform marginally, they don’t get anything. But when they do well, or are lucky, they get awarded a certain number of experience points. Get enough of those, and you get some good things, such as advancing up one level (higher levels bring rewards and advantages).
So here’s how thinking of experience points can be functional and adaptive for me. Instead of feeling like I am a marginal [fill in the blank] or that I am not a very successful or impressive [fill in the blank], I should reframe it as “Hey, you’ve been around the block a few times; you’re 44; you have done quite a few things and you do quite a few things. You’re a generalist; you are more of a jack-of-all-trades than a specialist. You don’t have a Ph.D., but you do keep very busy and have taken dozens and dozens of classes beyond your bachelor’s degree. Your dog isn’t perfect, but you rescued him and he loves you very much and you really create a good life for him.”
In other words, I have done enough things in life to gain a decent amount of experience points. I haven’t run a marathon, but I do exercise; I’m bald but it is what it is ― no one is untouched by aging; I don’t get to date any more women now that I’m married, but I do have a date for every holiday now! In D&D terms, I am on the tenth level, whereas some people are on the 1st level. In real life, I can cook, my marriage is good, I am fairly healthy, and my vision is good (I have glaucoma), and some folks who are indeed professors of psychology or philosophy can’t say as much! Or, as Stuart Smalley says, “I’m good enough; I’m smart enough, and doggone, people like me!”
Another strategy is to try not to compare myself and everything out there in the world to a perfect example, but instead, an average specimen, performance, or trait. So, if I ask my wife what she thought of the meal (I cook dinners for us), she would tend to say “It’s good; not quite enough salt”; I would ideally compare myself not to what a perfect or even a professional chef would do; I have never had any professional training. I would do well in such a case to compare myself to an average, passable, or untrained chef; the food doesn’t have to be perfect ― 99.9/100 ― it just has to be better than what the average meal is. Or with humor, it doesn’t matter truly if a person thinks I am just the funniest person around, or that a comment was the most hilarious thing they heard all month; just being somewhat entertaining and fairly quick with a joke puts me above the curve. I’m referring to “normal curve” or histogram is a good picture of how things lie on a curve from worst to perfect. Anything above the mean is good. My website might not get 10,000 visitors a month, but it gets 1,000, and that’s a start. More than most people, because most people haven’t spent years and tens of thousands of dollars creating one from scratch.
So why do I write that perfectionism is a problem with one’s values? If you have caught my drift from the above list, and get my point about “experience points,” you might also see that in pursuing perfectionism, one is valuing perfection, not the activity, experience, thing, or person in question.
For example, let’s say one goes on a vacation. Everything seems nice and up to par, until my wife and I go to dinner on the second night. Let’s say the server is a real tool; everything is below my expectations. Say I speak with him, and the manager gets involved, and it isn’t exactly amicable. Maybe I tip a low amount and my wife disagrees with that, or is embarrassed by the fracas. This is a values problem because I am focusing on how far from perfect the dinner is. I get irritated and feel irritable if I view the situation in comparison to perfection. The sunsets, the beaches, the museums, my wife – all these pale in comparison to the focus I have on what a no-good, lazy, incompetent, p.o.s. the waiter is. This is perfectionism, and it shows that I am not valuing the right things. I’m off my game. Life is then harder than it really should be. Much of this has to do with attitude, and perspective, and expectations. And of course, perfectionism.
I will leave you with a few more quotes about this very intriguing and somewhat depressing topic:
Amanda Ruggeri: “The rise in perfectionism doesn’t mean each generation is becoming more accomplished. It means we’re getting sicker, sadder and even undermining our own potential.”
Izey Victoria Odiase: “Don’t aim for perfection. Aim for ‘better than yesterday’.”
Vironika Tugaleva: “There is no way to genuinely, powerfully, truly love yourself while crafting a mask of perfection.”
Paul Hewitt: “In the literature right now ― this astounds me ― people have said that self-oriented perfectionism is adaptive. People will make that claim, and they’ll just ignore the fairly large literature that says that it’s a vulnerability factor for unipolar depression, anorexia, and suicide.”
Amanda Ruggeri: “In one of my earliest memories, I’m drawing. I don’t remember what the picture is supposed to be, but I remember the mistake. My marker slips, an unintentional line appears and my lip trembles. The picture has long since disappeared. But that feeling of deep frustration, even shame, stays with me. More often than I’d like to admit, something seemingly inconsequential will cause the same feeling to rear its head again.”
Psychological researcher Katie Rasmussen: “As many as two in five kids and adolescents are perfectionists; we’re starting to talk about how it’s heading toward an epidemic and public health issue.”
John P. Weiss: “In childhood, the allure of perfectionism is forestalled. Temporarily, anyway. But before long, adolescence comes along, and we cave in to all those pressing concerns about looks, status, popularity, etc. It only gets worse in adulthood. We pretend not to care, but we do. It’s only when sickness, old age or impending death come knocking, that we figure out what’s really important. Namely, the simple joys of daily living. A nice cup of coffee. A good book. An unexpected visit from a good friend.”