Striving to Perfection

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Our fascination with perfection is damaging individuals and society. A lot of people are perfectionists. They do their damnedest to do the things that they do as perfectly as possible.

No matter how ideal perfectionism might sound for someone with first-rankness, the reality is that it can be mutilating, even a precursor to mental illness. Research shows that perfectionism seems to be on the increase, particularly among younger workers, and frankly is something that should cause concern for us.

I’ve never really understood why anyone would think perfectionism is something to be pleased about. I’ve watched people cry themselves to sleep over a mistake, and I remember my embarrassing slip-ups for years after everyone else involved has forgotten them. I’ve left three novels languishing, each over halfway or quarter way complete, because I’d feel my own writing was never good enough to satisfy myself and I was sure no one else would find it readable, either. But, now I’m doing my best.

The word “perfectionism” is overused and often misunderstood.
There’s a difference between striving for excellence and perfectionism. One is an asset, the other’s a handicap.

What you may consider as perfect I may see as totally imperfect — and vice versa. How we judge perfection is entirely based on our own backgrounds ,societies , experiences, beliefs, expectations, and numerous other factors that are not quantifiable.

People commonly confuse perfectionism with having high standards, attention to detail, and a commitment to excellence.

It is entirely possible to have high standards without being termed a “perfectionist.”

Perfectionism at its core?

According to Merriam-Webster, the medical definition is:

A disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially : the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.

We all know people with higher-than-normal standards, people who like to be right, people who are ultra-competitive and need to win. But are they all perfectionists? We tend to lump many different personality types and behaviors under the perfectionism label.

(Check out “The perfectionism trap: How to avoid burn out, anxiety and stress”). Psychologists point to a swirl of contributing  factors: the rise of social media and its stylised, cropped versions of other people’s lives, tumultuous job markets, an unpredictable economy, standardised school testing at an early age.

True perfectionism tends to be imbedded in a fear of failure, which can lead to a host of other problems. It’s also often about a need to be accepted, as if people won’t care for the person if they are less than perfect.
Yet many people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to find and create perfection. This can occur on a lot of different levels, too. Some perfection that people seek is tangible, while some is intangible.

Whether you are attempting to create a perfect desert, perfect novel, perfect family, perfect love life, perfect self-talk, perfect experience, etc, this can become easily overwhelming. When that happens, it can cause you to see anything less than perfection as failure.

A perfectionist will remain rigidly clinging to a standard they’ve set for themselves, even if the context or situation has changed, or that standard has surpassed “aiming high” to reach “virtually impossible.”

Let’s just address that at first hand. If it is not perfect, you are not a failure. Because perfection, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder, you may never truly achieve it. And even if you do, you may probably be the only one to see it as such.

Perfectionism can lead to mental health problems, including eating disorders, depression, anxiety and even suicide.

We all bear some responsibility to turn off the heat by recognising that no one is perfect and we have no right to expect anyone to be. That starts at the top, with our salacious delight when role models fall from grace.

To be clear, I wouldn’t call “true perfectionism” a strength. However, striving for quality and aiming for excellence are strengths.

Rates of perfectionism among undergraduate students in the US, Canada and UK were analyzed from 1989 to 2016. They found that today’s college students were more likely than cohorts from previous generations to report perfectionism.


Nobody’s perfect /we are perfectly imperfect

Various gurus, inspirational leaders, self-help writers, and so forth, will tell you that you are either totally perfect, or nobody is perfect. The truth, however, is that perfection is totally subjective and dependent on your unique perceptions.

It’s not just that perfectionism is on the increase, but that people are facing “multidimensional perfectionism,” meaning that people feel pressured to meet increasingly high standards across a widening range of metrics.

Some people believe that perfectionistic traits can be motivational, helping a person reach for excellence. Others argue that any level of perfectionism is problematic. At best, a tendency toward high standards can mean that a person will regularly produce quality work. At worst, expecting nothing short of perfection from yourself can have painful psychological side effects.

It becomes a problem when:

You can’t take criticism.

Perfectionists tend to react negatively to criticism because they equate criticism with failure and failure with worthlessness. They may also avoid delegating tasks because they fear no one else is capable of getting it right.

You’re motivated by fear of failure rather than a desire for success.

High achievers tend to reach toward their goals because they’re driven by a desire to succeed. Perfectionists push themselves because they fear how others will perceive them if they’re anything less than the best.

You equate success with happiness.

Perfectionists believe they can only be happy when they achieve perfection. But, because they’re rarely perfect, they’re rarely happy. Their constant getting worked up about failing to meet their own impossible standards can lead to health problems such as depression, eating disorders, and anxiety.

There’s nothing wrong with aiming high, but shooting for perfection should cause you to feel inspired, not anxious.

We are all totally imperfect. We all have flaws, make mistakes, don’t quite hit our marks, and are limited in just what we have influence and control over. On the other hand, we are perfect. We are here on this planet, each of us worthwhile and unique, giving to the world around us, capable of creating incredible, amazing things. So we can say we are all perfectly imperfect.

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