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.

Perfectionism Book Preface

This is not a perfect book.

It’s written by a recovering perfectionist, but this book is not by all means perfect.

It’s not imperfect and it’s not perfect… It’s just good enough.

–The Author

clouds sun rays

I am a diagnosed perfectionist. That stereotypically places me in a cohort of people entirely focused at seeking to be the best at everything we do. As a consequence we are generally competitive and have really high standards for themselves and of others. All these are commonly seen by society as “positive traits” which creates an affirmative feedback loop for the individual, rewarding what is damaging in the long term.

Perfectionists are generally ambitious people, who are likely to be gifted in a certain area of their lives either through intellect, physicality or skill. They are generally focused on one field, subject or occupation but the goal of perfection frequently leaks to the other parts of their life.

These individuals chase perfection throughout their life and uphold it as their personal maxim – although most of them will not be aware of their actions. They won’t discover their actions, behaviour or even know why they make certain career and lifestyle decisions until they fall and witness unhappiness, stagnant or unhealthy relationships or depression.

This book is generally written for two groups of people: industry professionals and perfectionists. It is for those diagnosed (or even self-diagnosed) perfectionists who are seeking to improve their lifestyle and increase their happiness. The other group of people who would be interested in this book are the industry professionals like psychology clinicians and practitioners, researchers and students. They may find the book of interest in terms of reading about the real world practical application of advice given by a licensed clinical psychologist from the viewpoint of the patient.

The main underlying idea of this book is to release perfectionists from “thinking too much” – from thinking about the past, from thinking about the future and simply living in the present. It all sounds like a very simple concept to grasp but for perfectionists, many behaviours are embedded deeply within their behavioural construct that many of these damaging thoughts and actions simply come automatically.

When I read my own story back to myself, a small part of me found it to be a highly incredible yarn. How can all this be true? Don’t I have any common sense? Didn’t I have any friends or family that would point out my unscrupulous-seeming ways? On the surface it seems like a simple problem with a simple solution. However, when you’re trapped in a loop you simply are blind to the root problem

A perfectionist will simply act like how I have. A normal person wouldn’t. And other people may be facing other psychological disorders. But we aren’t here to talk about the other people. We’re here to talk about perfectionism.

We are surrounded by things that appear perfect. We are bombarded by images of perfection. But when you come to understand reality and what it truly means to be realistic, only then you can unravel the illusions and biases that comes with perfection.

I came across an interesting story about the SR-71 Blackbird – the long range reconnaissance US-based aircraft. The aircraft was a secret operation but the planes’ existence was known. On 22 December 1964 the aircraft flew its first official test flight with Lockheed Test Pilot Bob Gilliland at the controls. When Gilliland successfully flew that flight around the airbase for an hour at 1000 mph, the aircraft itself had 383 “open items” of which he was aware of at the time. Open items are unresolved engineering and technical issues.

A plane doesn’t need to be a perfect plane to be the best or even operational. Just like you don’t need to be perfect to be successful, loved, to be highly effective or to be happy.

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