I am a perfectionist. Well, at least when it comes to some things. Take writing, for example. I’m terrible at getting a new poem or story written because I want it to be perfect. Often, I won’t even start writing unless I know I have a large enough time-block to ensure the end product is perfect. What is up with that? Perfectionism makes doing nothing better than doing something? Really? And here’s the kicker–I know this behavior will get me nowhere and is counter productive, yet I do it anyway. So what can we do to stop sabotaging ourselves and undermining our happiness this way?
First, we need to realize that perfectionism isn’t really about the product of one’s effort. No. It’s more about how that product will reflect back on the creator–you. Perfectionism is more about your own insecurities more than any need for perfection. A form of self-consciousness that borders on narcissism pure and simple. Sure, we can hide behind assertions of striving for greatness or not doing anything halfway, but at the very heart of it, it all comes down to, “What is everyone going to think of me when they see this?”
Yeah, that’s right. Perfectionism turns everyone back into high-strung freshmen standing in front of their closets of uncool clothes on their first day of high school, not someone you’d ever find striding confidently from the pages of a best-selling self-help book. There is a good side to wanting to be better, or even the best, but there’s a strong, yet subtle difference between what’s healthy and what’s not. Healthy striving is self-focused, “How can I be better?” Not, “What will everyone think?”
Another factor that drives perfectionism, and this one is certainly tied to the first, is that people are judgmental. Everyone knows Geico can save you fifteen percent in fifteen minutes, and everyone knows that people can be jerks. So in light of the facts, people protect themselves by attempting perfection. Not to be a smart aleck, but, “How’s that working out for you?” It’s not? Thought so. Face it, no matter what you do–people are going to be critical jerks and it has little to do with you actually. It’s more of a charge for them than anything. Do they really care about the extra pounds you’re carrying? No. They just get a sadistic kick out of pointing it out and assigning you some character flaw.
But what about if you’re thinking, “I don’t want to be perfect. I just want to be really good. Can I be great?” Sure you can, but the same rules apply. Healthy striving focuses inward and on the journey. Unhealthy striving is concerned with what’s outside yourself and on the finished product. It’s in our biology to trust what we see with our eyes. This makes living in a carefully edited, overproduced and photo-shopped world very dangerous. People need to keep their focus on the process more. We see movie actresses, writers, or fitness models and we think, “Wow, they’re perfect.” But we forget that what we see is preceded by years of dedication, failure, and effort, which will continue if the ultra-fit starlet wants to stay that way.
Humans have come a long way and will probably go much further, but perfection isn’t in the cards. Personally, I see peril in the finding of ultimate perfection because it means a level of permanence or static existence. Is that what we want? Perhaps we’ll never know how far our path can go, how much a human being can truly achieve, until we realize that the ultimate reward isn’t any Olympian gold medal but rather the lowly race itself.