Perfectionism is one of those ideas that has come to mean different things to different people. Some view it as a character trait that is the basis for excellence, others view it as the crippling voice of doubt and anxiety. And, both are true, because both are undeniably experienced by people.
Whatever the observed consequences of perfectionism, there is an inherent danger within it that is born of the word “perfect”. The primary usage of the word perfect today is to describe the state of something being as good as it possibly could be — flawless. And, in its meaning lies its flaw. Perfectionism cannot exist as an objective reality as it has to be defined (by somebody) and that definition is always open to change.
Often, what happens is that we form an idea of what “perfect” looks like based on our personal experiences and cultural contexts and we then strive towards that. For example, around the 18th century the supposedly most perfectly dressed men wore wigs and tights, now it is probably dark suites, or is it baggy jeans? I am not sure.
What is more likely then is that any idea of perfection reflects a sort of cultural norm of what “really good” might be, which entered your mind at some point in your life.
So, why is perfectionism dangerous? Because it can lead to the endless pursuit of something that is subject to change or does not exist at all. This can make us think that we are somehow not good enough. And, this slippery slope can lead to anxiety, exhaustion, loss of confidence and all manner of psychological pain.
What often underlies perfectionism is a desire to “get somewhere” or “be somebody”, and behind this desire is usually a false belief that your self-worth depends on such an achievement.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with aiming high and wanting to excel in your chosen field. But why would you have to beat yourself up over that? If you are really passionate about your field, you are likely to naturally engage with it in a way that becomes ever more skilful and masterful. Accolades shouldn’t really matter because you are genuinely interested in your subject, right?
“Behind perfectionism often lies a false belief that your self worth depends on such an achievement.”
Aiming for a pinnacle
Perfectionism then is more likely than not to stem from a desire to reach a pinnacle, an external idea of success or flawlessness, probably absorbed from your environment. And, paradoxically that will probably stop you from being the best that you can by introducing worry, and by distracting you from your work.
Not completing and agonising over their projects for fear that their work is not good enough is a common problem faced by perfectionists. What is very interesting is that this is exactly the opposite of the meaning of the Latin root of the word perfect. To perfect, perficere (Latin), means to complete. And, that is what usually does not happen with perfectionism. Things remain unfinished because the perfectionist is never satisfied!
There’s always more
Then there is the impact of time. Whatever your life’s work is, your views and skills will naturally evolve over time. So, there is the somewhat self-fulfilling problem of “the better future” that can come from perfectionism. Because the answer will always be – there’s more! More ideas, more skill, more mastery, all to come. We can become so stuck in waiting that we never really get around to sharing our ideas.
Perfectionism may bring different things out in different people, but it carries with it inherent dangers. Aiming high, having a vision and honing your craft are laudable intents. But if you feel perfectionism creeping in, ask yourself: Why do I feel this way? Where does my definition of perfection come from? Am I striving for somebody else’s idea of success? Or am I wholeheartedly sharing what I have to offer based on where I currently am in my life?
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This is a really great exploration of perfectionism Harsha! And as you point out it can have a profoundly negative impact on us – that nagging feeling that who we are and what we’re contributing to life is never quite enough can be very stressful and self defeating. It can also be a way of procrastinating.
Indeed! Thanks for reading and sharing your perspective, Pamina. Hope that you’ve been well.