What is Perfectionism?

It’s got to be perfect, it’s got to be worth it, yeah
Too many people take second best
But I won’t take anything less
It’s got to be, yeah, perfect
— “Perfect” as performed by “Fairground Attraction”

First of all, let’s look at semantics and have the obligatory definition of the base word we are examining in this book. To be perfect is to be flawless, to be without fault or defect and to have all the desired qualities that fill a certain set of criteria. Perfection is something that is the embodiment of perfect or someone (or something) that has the highest degree of excellence in a certain area. Perfectionism is an excessively heightened standard or an unachievable ideal existing in someone’s personal philosophy or behavioural attitude which demands perfection in themselves and in others. Anything less than perfect is written off and rejected. Perfectionism is also a strong driver of ambition, the desire to achieve and having high levels of conscientiousness.

Perfection could be seen as a largely noble and worthy goal. As a personal philosophy it is the daily quest of always striving for perfection and to be the best in everything, it drives people towards betterment and ambition in their respective fields of profession and in their personal objectives. However, like a double edged sword, it does have major pitfalls. Seeking perfection at every twist and turn naturally becomes very tiresome. The journey for the perfectionist can be one of highs and lows – a mix of perfect moments, perfect achievements mixed in with failures and disasters (which are often quietly shoved under the carpet to avoid public shame). And because the primary focal point of a perfectionist is for the most part, inwardly focused, many perfectionists become narcissistic in nature and may even be thought to have Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD).

Perfectionists chase perfection everywhere in their life – generally their perfectionistic tendencies are particularly focused at one specific area to detrimental effect of the other parts of their life. Since they seek perfection, the goals they set are always beyond their reach. They like to push the boundaries in terms of the things they want to achieve, engaging in an all-or-nothing mindset and their self-talk is generally pushing them to “deliver and produce results or else”.

Areas someone’s perfectionistic tendencies could be fixated/focused on (Fixation will be dealt with in a later chapter):

  • Career/profession
  • Family
  • School grades
  • Physical appearance (e.g. weight) and clothing
  • Cleanliness
  • Athletic and sporting skills
  • Musical talent
  • Academic talent
  • Artistic talent

Their fixated attention would usually focus on something they may outwardly seem to be passionate about. And these areas are typically related to:

  • Something they were trained to be good at;
  • Something they are naturally good at;
  • Something they lacked in the past, particularly in childhood; or
  • Something they were influenced in doing from their parent’s behaviour.

Their self-worth is directly correlated with their accomplishments. Winning is a badge of honour and winning is the main driver of their ambition. If they cannot accomplish what they set out to do, they will procrastinate the activity, or quietly sweep the failure under the rug, ignoring or neglect to acknowledge the failure.

Perfectionists witness a range of problematic automatic thoughts, behaviours and feelings which we deal with in this book. They have a natural fear of failure (but not atychiphobia – which is a persistent fear of failure). They don’t want to fail, but in order to achieve anything you have to stick your neck out a little; they are willing to take a risk and give things a go as long as they have a partly delusional belief that they can do it. But if they’ve already determined they cannot be or even have the potential to be perfect at something – they will not even attempt it. They will however fear that they won’t be able to maintain the same level of success once they’ve reached their goal.

While a healthy person will look to the mirror and see their self worth reflected from within, perfectionists will look to other people handing out approval and praise. In their youth, they would have likely have been behaviourally trained to equate excellence with love from their guardians. This type of behaviour would have fed the belief that “the more I achieve, the more I am loved” which would plant the seed to grow into the belief that “love will come when I am perfect”.

Positive feedback feeds the monster of perfection, reinforcing that they are on the righteous path to the success they seek. Negativity, criticism and possibly constructive criticism would yield one of two actions: either defeat and devastation or ignorance. The remedy for any negativity or minor setback is simply to work harder at achieving perfection, continually upping the ante, setting impossibly high standards. And when they set these high standards of themselves (and others), they’re setting themselves up for failure. There is no such thing as perfection. The cycle repeats, with a series of successes and failures.

Failures and mistakes aren’t publicly acknowledged but these disappointments silently eat away at their self confidence. It’s these failures, either perceived or actual, that the perfectionist ruminates and broods upon for hours. Repeating the past action or event in a perpetual loop, thinking of ways they could have done better. They clearly remember mistakes in fine detail and chew on them, much like how a dog would chew on a bone.

Perfectionists are doomed to live this perpetual loop until they ultimately fail (which we’ll deal with in the later relevant chapters). For those who have lived through the loop many times, they would have some sense of the trap they’ve built for themselves. The way they’ve trained themselves to cope with failure or compensate for the pain, was to simply push past it, attempting to jump higher, run faster than ever before, but no matter what they achieve, they will never be satisfied. For those who haven’t fallen, they would have a lack of experience in failure, either in actual failure or accepting failure.

Their self talk would vary from the boring, normal and mundane to the extremes:

  • “Straight A’s all the way. This B is a blight on your perfect record.”
  • “I’m not any good at swimming (so I won’t even try).”
  • “I’m not going to try rock climbing because I know I won’t be great at it.”
  • “I always aim for 100%, anything less isn’t good enough”
  • “They didn’t like how I look today. I’m not pretty/handsome enough.”
  • “You didn’t achieve your goal. Time to put your head down and work HARDER!”
  • “You aren’t good enough to reach this goal.”
  • “You are an idiot”
  • “If you can’t reach this outcome, you’re worthless.”

You may notice that the critical inner voice will start talking in the second person which is something we will examine further in later chapters. They would also like to say these types of phrases:

  • “I should’ve…”
  • “I could’ve…”
  • “I would’ve”

There is a school of thought which theorises that there is a continuum between healthy normal and unhealthy neurotic perfectionism. Other literature may refer to it as optimalistic and perfectionistic. Healthy perfectionism is the sought after desirable trait that drives achievement but it could also be seen as oxymoronic, thus the option to label it as “optimalism”.

Perfectionism is:

  • an unfounded belief that no matter what you achieve you will never be good enough. You will never meet your own and other’s expectations.
  • a strict conviction that you are perfect. Behaviours, proven routines and other rituals will not be changed without a fight.
  • a rigid philosophy that doesn’t allow or accept human imperfection in terms of physical, characteristic and other attributes. In the extreme, everything is black and white, right and wrong, like how a machine would see the world.
  • the action of striving the be the best at your focal subject, to reach perfection, never making a mistake getting there.
  • an all encompassing attitude that everything you attempt must be done perfectly otherwise it equals failure. Mistakes, slip-ups and inconsistencies in your delivery constitutes failure.
  • a highly invasive habit in which you are incredibly aware to every weakness, imperfection and failings you and other people have. Other people would observe you to be a critical person – whilst the perfectionist will often see themselves as a positive, glass half full person.

Reflections

When I read these descriptions of behaviours and traits, it’s staring at me point blank. How could I have slipped through the cracks? It’s not like seeing a fortune teller or reading the horoscope and hearing very generalistic descriptions which can apply to anyone.

The Definition of a Perfectionist

Nobody’s perfect…
— Unknown

***

Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.
— William Faulkner, US novelist (1897 – 1962)

 

In job interviews (a long, long time ago!), when I was asked about my weaknesses, one of my standard answers was “I’m a bit of a perfectionist”, as I felt this was almost a good attribute of my personality. But is it really? I didn’t know it at that time yet, but labelling myself a perfectionist turned out to be truer than what I initially thought it meant.

I initially thought perfection was the ultimate state to strive for. Just like the idiom, “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing well.” And for me by doing well, meant really doing well. But I was very wrong as we’ll discover in this book.

Introduction to Overcoming Perfectionism

What’s stopping you?
What are you afraid of?
What is the source of all this pain?
–The Author

* * *

Emptiness the starting point. — In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup. My friend, drop all your preconceived and fixed ideas and be neutral. Do you know why this cup is useful? Because it is empty.
— Bruce Lee (Striking Thoughts: Bruce Lee’s Wisdom for Daily Living)

***

gusilu-empty-cup

There are many routes to depression such as genetics, imbalance in brain chemistry, poor nutrition, drugs and stressful life events. This book deals with Perfectionism and how that psychological condition (can or would) lead to depression, general unhappiness in life and quite possibly suicide.

There are three main sections of this book:

  • In the Midst of it All (Aftermath)
    This section will detail ideas and observations around behaviours after I had fallen into depression.
  • The Fall (Downward Spiral)
    This section will delve into the scenarios that would lead someone to crash and fall into depression.
  • Climbing Back to Recovery (Reality)
    This section will discuss the long journey of recovery and give some suggested ways to help you deal with perfectionism.

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Overcoming Perfectionism: Prologue

Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.
— Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher (1844 – 1900)

If you stare into the abyss long enough...

When I received the diagnosis from the test I was somewhat bemused and a little confused. I was found to have two characteristic traits on a scale determined by the psychological academic community; they were: “high perfection” and “high inner critical voice.” These findings came from left field: my therapist had previously referred me to a website run by an institute focused on mental illness connected to a reputable university. The website had a 2 hour quiz with a very intricate and had a specific set of questions asking about my thoughts around certain situations and attitudes towards certain circumstances. The findings were an eye opener and began a journey of self exploration and understanding.

* * *

Everyone lives their lives in their own bubble of reality. Everyone has their own perspectives and opinions, their own way of doing things, their own way of seeing the world, their own way of feeling pleasure and pain. In each bubble there are common ‘recipes’ for particular perspectives. For example, people who belong to the same religion would have a similar set of foundational beliefs as the common ‘recipe.’ Like any recipe, you can diverge and change it to your own taste and creativity, people’s perspectives will also diverge from the root beliefs.

The perfectionism bubble has many core characteristics, one of which is the eternal pursuit of perfection. There are positive and negative outcomes of cooking up the recipe for perfectionism: it drives strong ambition, the striving to reach goals but it can also lead to unrealistic goals being set, unhappiness, anxiety, depression and possibly even suicide.

In my bubble, I had truly thought that I was happy. I believed I was a happy, successful, efficient and productive person and I regarded the periodic depression as “normal” and systemic of my own doing and a consequence to my success. I had accepted it as a natural flow of life – when it really isn’t. Success and happiness isn’t balanced out with failure and disappointment – it isn’t yin and yang or good and evil. In the end I was so guilt ridden from my small successes I felt that I deserved the pain and suffering.

* * *

When family or friends who knew of my plight tried to console me, help me and advise me when I was in the darkest recesses of my mind. But they will never know the anguish and angst I’ve been through. If only they can walk in my shoes.

They try to empathise and make me feel better.

“I also feel sad at times.”

“You can’t always be happy.”

“Look at my life, I’ve been through a lot of (insert unhappy events here). You’ve achieved so much: (insert stuff I’ve achieved).”

“You have so many more opportunities. You are luckier than (insert story of a person or family living in a third world country).”

They will never truly understand.

* * *

What is the secret to freeing yourself from perfectionism? There are no real secrets; just a series of steps which I discovered really helped me out in my own journey. It is all about consistency in applying the solution, creating new habits. Easily said than done as for perfectionists, everything is working against them especially when they are in their neurotic and depressive stages. With high expectations to succeed in everything – even in trying to solve the problem of perfectionism: I too fallen in the trap of getting agitated and disappointed when seeing no progress.

I had an obsession for self-help books and I still do read the occasional book to expand my wisdom and perspective. If the book was about business, finance, happiness, efficiency, ambition or goal-setting I would have read it and even own a copy. Self-help books have a purpose to serve, it provides food for people who are curious, who want more in life and targeted at those who are seeking to plug a gap in their lives. A lot of self-help book wisdom is common sense but I’ve found that reading the books helps me understand and see concepts from a slightly different viewpoint.

This book is by definition a self-help book. I hope it does help you in finding happiness or in helping others find happiness in their own lives.

* * *

Watch your thoughts for they become words.
Watch your words for they become actions.
Watch your actions for they become habits.
Watch your habits for they become your character.
And watch your character for it becomes your destiny.
What we think, we become.
— Different versions attributed to many: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Lao Tzu, Frank Outlaw, Gautama Buddha, and the father of Margaret Thatcher.

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