Mel Schwartz, LCSW

The Problem with Perfection

In recent years, I’ve treated increasing numbers of individuals who are driven to distraction through their pursuit of perfection.  The desire to be perfect traps and burdens many people and imprisons them with unrelenting stress, often creating havoc in their lives. This is a very curious thing, given that these same people believe that seeking perfection is desirable. Like many operating beliefs and assumptions, when we take a deeper look, they may appear nonsensical.

Perfection suggests a state of flawlessness, without any defects. To be perfect implies a condition whereby your action or performance attains a level of excellence that cannot be exceeded. Seeking perfection at a particular task might be achievable, and certainly a student can strive to attain a perfect grade or you can try to accomplish a perfect execution of something. You can hope to bowl 300 or produce a perfect report at work. You certainly hope your surgeon does a perfect job on your operation.

Yet, the goal of being perfect in life is altogether a different story. A machine or electronic device may operate perfectly — at least for a while. Yet, over time it will begin to wear down and require repair. The very notion of perfection is rooted in the paradigm of Newton’s mechanistic universe. Humans, however, were never intended to be perfect. That’s part of the definition of being human. Consider the expression, “I’m just human.”

In our culture we move relentlessly toward greater emphasis on achievement, productivity and goal attainment. We ask our children what their grade is, not what they learned. We tend to measure our lives in terms of success and achievement and lose perspective on what it may mean to live well. This tendency ruptures any sense of meaning or balance in our lives.  We seem to lose the capacity for wonder and awe. Could you imagine looking at a magnificent rainbow and complaining that the width of one color was narrower than another?  Not only would that be ridiculous, we’d also be ruining the splendor of the moment. And yet that is exactly what we do when we judge ourselves for our imperfections. We forget that as humans we’re part of nature, as well. As such, we would benefit if we came into acceptance of the natural flow of life, which by the way happens to be imperfect.

In truth, the notions of perfect or imperfect are simply constructs of mind and have no actual basis other than thought has created them. The notion of perfection has existed since ancient Greece, but in its more modern incarnation, it is a construct of Newton’s machine. It has no place, however, in a participatory worldview. We internalize this model of perfection and imbue upon it some intrinsic truth, and then may spend our lives wastefully pursuing that “truth.”

Ironically, if someone ever could achieve this implausible state of perfection, it’s likely that very few people would tolerate him or her. For the perfect individual would be a constant reminder to all others of their own shortcomings. Not to mention that they probably wouldn’t be much fun to be with. Who would really tolerate, let alone enjoy, being with someone who was inhumanely perfect?

When I speak on this subject –the problem with perfectionism — I find that people often protest that they are simply striving for excellence and may ask what is wrong with trying to improve. My response is – there’s no problem with that at all, if it’s done with balance. But must you always be striving to improve? If so, you are forever climbing the ladder reaching to the rung above you. You never reach your goal, there are always more rungs. So you’ll be happy when?

The paradox here is that to perpetually strive suggests that you may not be at peace and that actually impedes your forward progress. In other words, the balance that is derived from pausing from the inexorable improvement permits intuitive growth. When we experience being present in the moment, our personal evolution may vault forward. However, if we are ceaselessly pushing ourselves forward, we may actually impinge the very progress we seek. To be the “best you can be,” requires that you free yourself from being the subject of your onerous demands. The over emphasis on a highly productive life is reminiscent of Newton’s machine-like ideology. Machines are intended to be productive. Humans are designed in much more complex ways, in which productivity is an important part, but not the entirety of our purpose.

American culture is driven toward excellence and the mantra of doing the best you can requires a deeper examination.  If we always value performance over tranquility or being present, we are sacrificing balance and a core value of what it means to be human. Emotional intelligence and relatedness may be sacrificed in the pursuit of excellence.  A life well lived would necessitate a harmony of excellence, joyfulness, relatedness and peace of mind. When one element obscures another, a lack of equilibrium sets in.

A Mask for Insecurity

I have often counseled people who were beleaguered by their need to be perfect. I have come to learn that their pursuit of perfection is really a disguise for their insecurity.  It becomes a statement that I’m not good enough just as I am. When we do that, we judge ourselves.

Usually we strive toward being perfect to compensate for a sense of inadequacy. People who want to be perfect usually have an exaggerated sense of their own shortcomings. They typically received messages earlier in life that they weren’t good enough.  So they decided that only by being perfect would they be beyond reproach. With such an affliction we might look at perfectionism as a compensation for earlier life experiences –wave collapses — that corrupted someone’s well-being and self-esteem. As a compensatory response, the drive toward perfection is erroneously sought as a solution.  Perfectionists tend to think that other people are somehow better or superior to them, so they need to be without flaw just to catch up. This is a terribly damaging myth.

Individuals who seek perfection are more sensitive to the judgments of others. In fact, these judgments are most often imagined. Everyone has an opinion, but elevating someone else’s opinion to the status of being a judge is really silly. After all, someone else can’t really judge you unless you confer upon him or her, the power of being a judge.

The only perfection is in being present, yet the perfectionist is never present

The closest thing to perfection is in the ability to be fully present. Without any distracting thoughts measuring or grading ourselves, we’re free to really be in the moment. It’s in that moment that we’re truly alive. Yet, the perfectionist isn’t typically present as they’re either busy critiquing the past and replaying their every decision or worrying about their future decisions. So you see the perfectionist is never really present. Isn’t that ironic?

The pursuit of perfection limits our ability to be present and literally robs us of the vitality of life. It is unachievable, unimaginable and frankly undesirable, so why pursue it? Your time would be far better spent in delving into how to transcend the insecurity that catalyzed the desire for perfection in the first place.

Analyzing, measuring and judging are the tools of the perfectionist. We might recall that these are the central tenets of Newton’s paradigm and as such we can see that perfectionism is symptomatic of that tired worldview.

Do not measure thyself!

In my work as a psychotherapist I often see individuals who are plagued by a relentless measuring of themselves. These people carry on an internal dialogue whereby their critical voice is enslaving, as they feel compelled to judge and measure most aspects of their lives. In such circumstances, these individuals rarely get to be present. Even when in conversation with others, they are only partly there, for a more private aspect is carrying on a self-critique at the same time. Their self-critical voice is embedded in a very deep and predictable groove.

Sometimes I learn that the inner dialogue actually speaks in the second person. Rather than speaking in the first person –“I” — the voice speaks even more critically by saying “You.” Rather than the thought, “I shouldn’t have done that,” you may say, “How could you have done that?” When this occurs I inquire as to who is actually speaking. There is literally a measuring voice in many people that becomes the critical second party. Sometimes this simply replicates the childhood experience of the critical parent. The greater problem is that the victim of the childhood abuse integrates the measuring voice as his or her own! I have never encountered the third person voice speaking approvingly to one’s self — only critically.

You can’t be in two places at the same time (except in cases of quantum entanglement) and you can’t engage two thoughts simultaneously. Every moment in which you measure or judge yourself is a moment you didn’t choose a better and healthier option. The state of potential is never reached. Peacefulness and mindfulness are never reached for the analyzing, measuring voice never relents. These are missed moments of valuable life experiences. If a significant percentage of your thoughts are self-critical, then indeed you have scripted that life experience for yourself. You are missing the rich experience of joyful life.

Just think about how this impacts your relationships. If you’re not present for yourself, how can you be for another?  This is ruinous for relating to others. If you feel perturbed by your own discontent, it has untold consequences for your relations with others.

Learning how to liberate yourself from this groove of negativity is altogether achievable once you set the intention. The techniques described in my posts, “Stuck in the Groove,” and “Breaking Free from the Comfort Zone,”  illuminate the method for coming out of the groove of old thoughts and feelings.

As a baseball fan, I’ve often been curious about those who sit in the stands with pencil and scorecard in hand. They make note of most every transaction of the game — a measuring if you will. Yet they miss the poetic elegance and flow of the game. If you measure yourself, you’ll miss out on the flow of life.

I’m not, however, proposing an anything goes attitude. There is a vast difference between the measuring analysis of our thoughts or a reflective self-evaluation. Evaluating is a gentler, and a subtler checking in, whereas the measuring makes a much deeper and incisive cut into the fabric of our being. Such measuring ruptures the integrity of our life experience and severs our greater participation in and with life. You cannot engage in the flow of life if you are mired in analytical self-measurement.

Listen to my recent podcast, The Problem With Perfection.

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Philip Martin

Hi Mel,
I have just joined this EQ network.
This is an excellent article, I’ll just add my 2 cents worth. Seeking perfection contains the seeds of failure and this is the true or rather unconscious aim of the perfectionist – to fail. For each event that they do, (and to bystanders it is usually an excellent result) it is not good enough, they could have done better. Their conscious mind perceives that the striving is a solution and is kept happy thinking it is doing the right thing but it is just a never ending negative feed back loop. The solution proves the point, which is the belief held of “I am not good enough” etc.
The beliefs because they are assume to be true will always dictate behavior. If you achieved perfection then the belief wouldn’t be true so it can’t be allowed to happen.
As you say ‘perfection is only a construct’, and the so ego is fooled into thinking that it is an ideal and achievable.
In truth, in this moment – nothing is missing, all is perfect as it is now, and of course immediately changeable.
Schools often espouse the students to always do the best that they can, this robs, flexibility, choice and the ability to discern what is valuable or worth the effort.
If a perfectionist asks themself, ‘who am I not good enough for?’ and then look/imagine the behavior of that person back then at that time, and think ‘what is the benefit for this person (commonly the father) to want me to believe that I am not good enough’. Now realize that you are still paying the price/cost for that person to achieve the benefit for themself way back then.
Would you rather achieve effectiveness?
Cheers

mwsmedia

Hi Philip,
Thank you so much for your acutely insightful commentary. It gives us much to reflect on.

Sam

Hi Mel,

A very thought provoking post.

I call that voice in my head The Director. Like you said, she always speaks in the second person. What I’d like to know, do you work with people who don’t have this voice/thinking-pattern? What do they do differently from those of us that do?

Cheers

mwsmedia

Hi Sam,
Yes I do work with many people whose thoughts speak in the first person. In fact, probably most people. Not sure why, but I suspect there was greater damage done to those that speak in second person. Only a guess of course. For you and those like you, ask yourself, “Who is doing the talking here?” It’s really essential to take ownership of your thoughts and begin them with I. Having done so, we can then mover toward participatory thought. That sounds like this, “I’m having a thought and my thought is telling me……………” The difference is significant. We can then see the thought and choose not to become the thought..Liberation!!!

Sam

Hi Mel,

Yes, the difference between thinking, “You’re so [favourite put-down]” & “I am so [favourite put-down]” is pretty big. And then adding in the “I am thinking I am so….” makes it possible to stop being the thought. Nice.

Do you ever work with people who have no or very little critical voice? What’s the inside of their minds like?

Cheers

mwsmedia

Hi Sam,
Yes there are times when I work with people who don’t seem encumbered by a critical voice. The other end of this continuum is the person who can do no wrong. They may appear in therapy to complain about others, but struggle on their part to be self-reflective. We need to seek the balance in the middle. A gentle self-evaluation or a subtle checking in so to speak.

Karen Braunstein

Hi Mel,
Your article is right on! I am currently on medical leave and seeing a therapist who is helping me a great deal. I relate very much to “A Mask for Insecurity”. I am really learning about myself and why I feel the way I do. Yes, it does go back to early childhood being Roman Catholic and feeling that mostly everything one does or thinks is a sin. My dad, may in rest in peace, would have us all (6 children) sit in our family room and tell us what we did wrong. I didn’t realize how much this affected me until now. I am reading “Radical Acceptance” by Tara Brach & “The Buddha’s Way of Happiness”, “putting aside your anxieties about the future, regrets about the past, and constant longing to change your life for the better, and awakening to the joy of living. Happiness is being mindful. being happy in the present moment” . I find these books really help even if difficult to read at times because I can see myself and remember my own situations. However, I know I need to understand and accept them in order for me to move forward. I am learning to be happy in the moment and stop living in the past worrying so much about the future.
Regards,
Karen

mwsmedia

That’s great Karen. You might want to read my article “Who am I?” as a follow up to the piece on perfection.

Karen Braunstein

Great! Thanks alot Mel. Great article and it is helpful reading everyone’s comments and to know I am not alone in my feelings.
Cheers!

kbvinred@gmail.com

Where do I find your article “Who am I”?

mwsmedia
Consolate

Hi Mel,

Thanks alot for this article. I am quite new in the group and this is the first topic I stopped on, to express my great interest in it. Actually I am also labelled as perfectionist, but I do not agree, that is why I would like to know at what stage it is considered abnormal to seek for the “best” you can accomplish. I also think that perfectionism could also express a great sense of caring of others, the need to offer the best to others without expecting any kind of recognition (like for the INFJ personality types). The subsquent stress could come not from the perfectionism itself, but rather from the number of things that are being perfected at the same time. The issue became then lack of prioritization in doing things. Perfectionism could also come from the sense of duty, not necessarely for self satisfaction. Don’t you think so?

mwsmedia

You’ve asked many interesting questions here. Should one always have to do the best that they can? If the answer is yes, wouldn’t that set up a compulsion? Sometimes a peson needs to be at peace and at rest, not always churning toward greater and greater productivity. After all, we are humans not machines.

mwsmedia

You ask, “at what stage it is considered abnormal to seek for the “best” you can accomplish?” I’d say if it’s always. Selectively seeking to be the best you can, at certain times, is balanced. If it always has to be that way, it sounds like a compulsion. You might want to read my latest post, Should we always do the best we can?” It’s on my blog, blog.melschwartz.com
Happy new year and sorry for the tardy response.

Gerardo Salinas

This should be an important topic of analysis in our current society, i believe it may be the key to find the sense of life and to live in a wellness state, though, we know that wellness is not a constant asset, the very nature of life drag us into the ambivalent reality of good and bad, so, we may know that seeking a constant state of wellness is a form of perfectionism too, as you said, the crisis tend to be opportunities of change, and with change we become closer to truly joy, because life is a vast spectrum.

mwsmedia

well said!

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