The Perils of Perfectionism Writ Large
What is wrong with striving for perfection? Aren’t we encouraged to strive to do our best, to always improve, to learn from our mistakes, to try not to commit the same errors a second time?
As a psychotherapist, I recognized that one of the frequent sources of stress, anxiety, sometimes depression and a tendency to find faults in others, was a felt requirement to be “perfect”. The inability to achieve this unblemished state was an underlying source of self-recrimination for many. The fruitless striving to meet this standard, often resulted in anxiety and self-reproach. The quest is a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse.
Two Sources: The Curse
The primary, outer-directed source of a drive for perfection, seems to have its roots in the dynamics of personal relationships. Somehow, during the developmental years, the idea of “perfect” became associated with feeling accepted by others. Often, a child, when listening to adults trying to instill a sense of striving and responsibility for hard work, interprets these admonitions as a stipulation that “success”, as defined by the adults, is synonymous with being respected or loved. The striving for perfection then becomes a defense mechanism to ward off criticism and gain acceptance. Children rarely voice their interpretations, primarily because they don’t realize they are interpreting, but rather believe their feelings and thoughts to accurately represent reality. As a result, adults may be unaware that their well-meaning intentions are being subtly misunderstood.
It may also happen that one or more significant adults in a child’s life, do make this link intentionally. Parents and teachers often tell children that they are “proud” of them. The wish behind expressing this sentiment is encouragement and pleasure for the child’s success.
Some children, however, may ask themselves a related question. “If you are proud of me when I succeed, how do you feel about me when I fail? If this concern is put directly to the adults, (which it is typically not,) the adult response is usually self-correcting. “We are proud of you whether you succeed or fail. We are proud that you try”. Again, some children may then worry about whether they are “trying hard enough”. This pressure may be just as harmful as the quest for achievement. How does one prove, to oneself or others, that one has tried hard enough? The only proof would be a manifested perfection, thus trapping one in an endless loop.
And some adults believe that the use of negative reinforcement and withdrawal of love and approval is a good motivator for children. This approach is typically a disaster for the inner world of the child. Some adults, insecure and resentful, may actually sabotage their children’s efforts at success just as the ancient gods who devoured their own offspring.
It may also happen that the adults influencing the child, have unresolved issues of their own with performance, related to their own self-worth. They may have been conditioned to this way of thinking by those people who raised and educated them. In this case, they may raise or teach children consciously, or unconsciously, with the same set of standards that they brought with them out of their own childhood. They may believe this is the right way to shape a child since it was done to them. They may be unaware of, or not believe in, other approaches. Thus, they parrot the manifestations of their elders from many years ago.
It may also be that an insecure adult, with their own perfectionistic issues, sees the child, not as an individual with a life separate from themselves, but as an extension of themselves by which they fear they, the supervising adult, will be judged by others. After all, “perfect people should be perfect and perfect people raise perfect children”. If their child may not be judged perfect by others, that becomes a personalized reflection on themselves. Thus, the child is pressured to perform for the sake of the adult’s self-esteem. In this case, the child’s interpretation that they are only loved and valued if they live up to the adult’s expectations, is actually accurate. Such a child may either rebel and deliberately fail, to assert their independence, or become a defensive perfectionist like the adult they are trying to keep pleased.
If the latter is the outcome, such a child often grows into an adult who, themselves, project their perfectionistic standards onto those around them. “If I am to be perfect, then you should be perfect also, especially if people associate you with me.” Then, in my mind, your performance becomes a reflection on me, and I impose my need to be perfect as frequent criticism of others who, in my opinion, are not. This obviously creates tension and unhappiness in relationships, which itself a sign of imperfection, thus increasing the pressure for myself and others connected to me to look perfect.
If sufficiently conscious of their inner world and capable of a degree of self-honesty, the person striving for perfection typically knows they are not perfect. They then have to lie to themselves or others to pretend that they are. No mistakes or errors are allowable. If insufficiently conscious to recognize their own inconsistencies, they only see imperfection in others. Such people appear as narcissists and hippocrites to those around them.
Two Sources: The Blessing
On the blessing side, the longing for perfection may represent an inherent internal striving to literally be the best I can be … for myself. This standard does not compare results with others nor is it contingent on recognition by others. It seems to be a feeling-knowing that I have more potential than I am using or have developed. I may experience a sense of obligation, even if I don’t know to who or to what, to live up to the potential I believe I was born to grow into. This can become a guiding life principle, but one for its own sake, not for recognition, although that may occur, from the outside world. In current language, many refer to this as striving for the “personal best”.
Where then is the problem with this second source? It is the assumption that the goal is achievable in the way I image it, and that my worth, in some way, is dependent on achieving my aim. In a way, internally-directed perfectionists are visionaries. They can see into the dimension of The Perfect, but they mistakenly believe that the Perfect can exist in ordinary life.
What is “Perfect”?
What do I mean by the dimension of The Perfect? Websters dictionary defines Perfect as “being entirely without fault “.
Ask yourself if you have ever envisioned the perfect day, the perfect moment, the perfect outcome, the perfect relationship, the perfect life? Where do you go to find the image of this ideal? You go to your imagination, the image-making capacity in your mind. Our brains allow us to form pictures and thoughts and to use those pictures and thoughts as guides to our manifestations in the outside world. In this visualized dimension reside all possible idealized images of what could be, and often of what cannot, in actuality, exist in our material world. The dictionary meaning of Ideal states, “existing as a mental image or in fancy or imagination …conceived as perfect; existing only in idea.”
In the realm of ideal images, circumstances are always ideal. They are ideas in the mind.
The word “idea” is a late 14c concept meaning “ archetype, concept of a thing in the mind of God … pure immaterial pattern, of which the individual objects in any one natural class are but the imperfect copies … a concept of what ought to be differing from what is observed”.
In the arena of my mind’s eye, everything is represented in its theoretically perfect, ideal form. This is the nature of this dimension. This is the source of inspiration and creativity. The images “seen” here are perfect because there is no wind, no rain, no time. There is no erosion. Nothing can change because it is already fixed in an ideal form.
Bringing these images and ideas into the actual life I am leading, encounters difficult problems in translation. Artists are universally frustrated during this process as the world we live in is not perfect. To paint what I see there or score in music what I hear there, or to construct the perfect relationship or to create the perfect image of myself I imagine there, requires dependence on the natural or trained skill in my body and the tools and material necessary to reproduce the ideal which I have envisioned, if it is to take a manifested form. If it has to do with idealized non-material qualities, that translation is dependent on the development and stability of my Being, my emotional and psychological capacity to express, without deviation, my sense of the ideal. If I am trying to impose my standard on others, they would have to be willing to conform to my vision of their ideal self and then meet the same barriers to consistent manifestation of the ideal.
To be an internally-driven perfectionist requires that I find a way to accept the limitations on re-creating, in this world, what I have seen or sensed in the higher world of ideal possibilities. The acceptance of this limitation is usually a long, painful and confusing process to the extent that I feel like a failure, (less than perfect), if I continue to believe that I should be able to recreate on Earth what I have seen in the Heaven of the Ideal templates.
Ironically, the perfect solution is to accept imperfection as a law governing the level of our life on Earth. Here, things are always in motion. Other people have their own ideal images that they pursue, and which are not necessarily mine. Typically, there are many different ways to solve a problem, create a work of art, have a relationship. Which is the perfect? Have you noticed that as one grows older and has more experiences, understanding changes? What seemed perfect in the past, may not seem that way now. What seemed perfect then, with time, changes. The Ideal is fixed. Reality is fluid.
Acceptance of reality as it is, does not mean I need to like it. Acceptance does not mean I cannot try to shift conditions to more approximate my image of what would seem best to me. But I also need to distinguish wishes from possibilities and possibilities from impossibilities. I must find an attitude that allows me to disengage my sense of personal self-respect from my achievements, whether real or wished for.
In a real sense, the part of me that strives for perfection is that very young child who first made this interpretation. It is the young child who first felt the call to be my “best”, to achieve something in life. An adult body has grown up about it, but it still remains, struggling in the Sisyphean attempt to achieve the impossible. If that child had someone to correct its misunderstanding, someone who would encourage its searches without linking outcome to the child’s worth and love-ability, I would not be suffering from perfectionism today. The cure is to talk with, reassure this child inside me, that their wish is noble, but reality demands a more practical approach. I must show the child how to separate its sense of self from its achievements. In the process of learning to raise this inner child, I grow towards a more perfect understanding of reality and my place in it. I can also then become more compassionate and forgiving, not only towards my child, but the children in all those around.