When perfection is the goal, you're doing more harm than good.
Is there such a thing as a perfect world, a perfect spouse, or a perfect job? Almost everyone knows the answer quite well: definitely not. Nonetheless, it’s fairly common for us to wear ourselves down looking for something which we rationally know doesn’t exist.
The ideal of perfection is conveyed to us starting when we are very young, with expressions such as, “I know you can do better, I know I can expect more from you,” and, “Don’t settle for mediocrity.” With these words, our teachers and parents want to motivate us to make an effort, to develop our full potential, and to do a good job.
Their intention is good, of course, and generally speaking it helps many children to be motivated, to push themselves, and to grow. In the case of some other children, it reinforces their competitive desire to do better than others and to be the first or the best. In still other cases, such words become a suffocating burden during childhood and adolescence, making perfection the goal that they seek in every area of their adult life.
It’s difficult to acknowledge that you’re looking for perfection, because true perfectionists try to downplay the leitmotiv of their lives, and of course, they don’t consider it a problem until someone points it out to them, or until they accumulate significant levels of anxiety and/or depression. They justify their perfectionism by saying, “I’m not a perfectionist; I just like things to be done right,” or, “It’s not a big deal, I’m just being responsible.”
Learning to recognize perfectionism
Let’s look at a few characteristics that define someone with a tendency to seek perfection in an egocentric way, and who could even end up developing behavior disorders:
- Excessive self-control regarding what you feel and do. You evaluate your feelings and conduct over and over, and you don’t allow yourself to express your emotions spontaneously, because you’re extremely concerned about whether or not it is proper, pertinent, or prudent to show that you are happy, sad, or angry at a given moment.
- Rigidity and insecurity when making decisions. You look for complete certainty in making the best possible decision, using up a lot of time and energy in evaluating every alternative. You can’t accept the idea of making a mistake.
- Black and white thinking. Perfectionism and excessive idealism often are related to rigid mental structures. You think in terms of all or nothing. In your mind, things are good or bad, perfect or imperfect; and besides that, you see whatever is bad or imperfect as being catastrophic or horrible.
- A strong sense of duty and discipline. You tend to plan each and every step you need to take when you set yourself an objective, making the greatest effort possible and investing a lot of time; consequently, it is very difficult for you to work on various objectives at the same time.
- Inability to delegate or to ask for help. You always find fault—great or small—with what other people do, because you actually think that you are the only one who does things properly.
As a result of the above, perfectionists tend to suffer from high levels of anxiety. Their perfectionism is associated with insecurity and a lack of confidence; they are never happy with the results of their actions, and they refuse to accept any mistake or imperfection, equating it with a lack of personal worth. Their behavior may become rigid and controlling. However, pathological perfectionism is difficult to identify as such, because it tends to be confused with a benignly excessive sense of responsibility. It only starts to be questioned when the person starts to have health problems — signs from his body that it can’t take it anymore, that he’s forcing his organism beyond what is reasonable. Obviously, this has a negative impact on a physical and emotional level, which in turn affect their professional, social, family, and personal life. The result, paradoxically, is that he starts to be less effective than he wants.
What is hiding behind this search for perfection?
Many people who are perfectionists have powerful personal, professional, social, and ethical ideas, which rather than functioning as a guiding light — as would be desirable — become “imbedded” in their personality like a plug, blocking or hiding other aspects of their personality that they don’t want to acknowledge. Often, these hidden aspects make themselves known by causing psychological suffering, since, although we may try to hide them in the deepest part of our minds, they don’t disappear.
We can all suffer from some degree of unhealthy perfectionism. Today’s rhythm of life requires more and more haste, more efficacy, and more results. We develop a routine which, in the end, is a race in which it becomes more and more difficult to combine speed with right decisions. We don’t have enough time, and yet perfection seems to become the goal we must reach, at any cost. Nonetheless, and although it sounds paradoxical, perfection isn’t always perfect, as it can often end up implying more inconveniences than advantages for our physical and mental health.
A healthy search for perfection
The search for perfection and for self-improvement is something that, when done in a balanced way, is healthy, good, and necessary. When Jesus tells us in the Gospel (Matthew 5:48), “Be perfect, like your Heavenly Father is perfect,” it has nothing to do with the exaggerated egocentrism of someone seeking perfection as a goal in itself. Working towards a model of perfection and pursuing that ideal throughout our lives is a healthy stimulus when we use it as a means to improve both our own life and that of the people around us.
In order to approach perfection, we must learn from our mistakes. Every human being is entitled to be wrong sometimes, because that is part of our life experience, and through our errors we can learn to mature and improve in every aspect of our life. The problem is not the seeking of perfection, but the motivation that leads us to do so. Seeking perfection can be a very positive ideal when we do so for our own good and that of others, with a spiritual dimension which gives meaning to everything we do, without focusing only on ourselves.