Understanding Perfectionism : Powerful Practice, Misaligned Concepts
Updated: Oct 20, 2020
The word 'perfect' has been in our lives since we were young. Be it at home or school, we were always encouraged to seek perfection in our actions or results. Things were always good or bad, and good things could always be better.
Using our formative academic years as an example. Even the way we were graded, be it F to A+ or 0 to 10/20 or else, showcases the idea that there is a scale that measures the value of what we do. Out of all the possibilities, getting full marks is usually the end goal. We also call it getting a 'perfect' score.
However, the underlying message, although surely unintentional, escapes the constructive concept of completeness and settles in the potentially destructive concept of faultlessness.
Let us be real here: this concept does not only appear in the academic world. Perfectionism is a culture of social evaluation that is practiced both indoors and outdoors, and that usually permeates into a habit of self-evaluation as well. This article is not about blaming parents, schools or society at large; but rather it is meant to draw awareness to processes that might not be helping us as much as we think and that might be hurting us more than we care to admit.
This idea that perfect means being 'without fault' is a dangerous concept that hurts us in uncountable ways. How often do we keep delaying our personal and professional projects because we feel/think it is not the perfect time or the perfect presentation for them? How often do we criticize the people we love because they do not fit the ideal we have for our relationships? How many times a day do we downplay who we are and what we do, because we do not comply with the necessary requirements to be considered a perfect score?
This is not a concept that envelops only the lives of artists, writers, actors and academics, but it is a concept that lives in all of us in different intensities. Some people are very conscious about it and are consistently immersed in a perfectionist mindset. Others may not be conscious about it at all or practice it on rare occasions and in a single specific area of life.
I am going to refrain from using qualifiers such as 'good' or 'bad' and 'right' or 'wrong'; and instead refer to things as either 'functional' or 'dysfunctional'. Things either work for our benefit (and others' benefit) or they do not. Two practices can be comprised of the same elements and still one be functional and the other one dysfunctional.
Take fluid intake, for example. According to this short and informative writing piece from Mayo Clinic, a functional quantity of fluid intake (including drinking water, other beverages and food) is an estimated 15.5 cups of fluids for men and 11.5 cups for women. However, a fluid intake of 30 cups of fluids a day, might end up hurting you more than helping you and it would be a dysfunctional practice for your body. Two similar practices having the same elements, but the way they are executed can determine their functionality or dysfunctionality.
In order to work around the shortcomings that we can experience in a perfectionist mindset, it is important for us to learn how to discern between the functionality of its elements and the dysfunctionality of its conception and execution. For this purpose I have separated the perfectionist mindset into three major misaligned concepts that we will look into.
1. The pursuit of faultlessness.
The original core motivation behind this concept is the desire to bring something to completion in its highest form possible.
This motivation on its own can be very constructive and functional. However, in a perfectionist mindset this motivation is accompanied by a misaligned concept: the idea that Completion and Faultlessness are one and the same.
Completion = Perfect = Without fault.
This conceptualization brings us to an impasse: both in the actual completion of the goal and the enjoyment of it. Our energy stops being employed in the present time and instead lives in the ideation of a future that is almost always not realized and fails in comparison to the high rigid expectations we constructed in our minds.
Even though this practice teaches us the value of seeking betterment. The way we conceptualize it in a perfectionist mindset ends up creating a lot of suffering along the way. The idea here is to re-employ the practice sans the misaligned concept. To do this we include a new concept were "Completion is NOT faultlessness". Something can be complete and also have flaws. To better understand this, you can look into the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery called Kintsugi (or Kintsukuroi). This technique "mending the areas of breakage with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum". There is beauty and power in imperfection.
2. Critical one-sided fixation on 'negative' details.
The core motivation in this second concept is to be on top of all aspects concerning the target goal/project.
This motivation leads to an increased awareness of details and creating an active relationship with them. In the perfectionist mindset, the motivation is accompanied by the misaligned concept that the only aspects of a goal or project that need observation are those that we categorize as 'negative' or 'wrong'. Hence the fixation on any aspect falling in those categories becomes a sudden expenditure of energy on our part being used to 'correct' them.
It is important to note that if this concept reminds us of the previous one, it is because all of these misaligned concepts work in unison and separating them is meant to be a way to support the reader to better discern between them. As for what makes them different, the first concept had more to do with the nature of the finished project/goal, this second one has more to do with the nature of our own focus and how we expend our energy in our relationship with the project/goal.
The problem that arises from this type of one-sided focus on everything that is not working is that it makes the process both physically extenuating and emotionally draining. By focusing only on what displeases us, it is logical to assume that we end up creating that same state of being judgmental inside of us. Adding to that, the frustration that comes from trying to 'fix' that aspect and 'failing' over and over again. The hopelessness that comes from the repeated 'failures'. The sadness and anger that may come from our own conjectures of what that means for ourselves and our own 'shortcomings'. Stress, anxiety and so on.
While the practice teaches us the value of careful observation and compromise with the project and/or goal; the misaligned concept transforms it into a hunt for apparent shortcomings and hidden deceptions. The objective here is to reframe the concept of observation to include what is deemed 'positive' or 'worthy of recognition' and to separate ourselves from the idea that the 'negative traits' that we see in the project or goal are extensions of ourselves.
3. Indefinite procrastination.
The core motivation for this third concept is to allow for the maturation of the target/goal. Maturation is a process that involves coursing a span of time, in a particular rhythm and meeting certain conditions. That way, if an adequate time is given, conditions are met and the rhythm respected, the outcome should be right around the corner.
However, in a perfectionist mindset, this is not always the case; conditions may become unmeetable, the rhythm interrupted and time stretched beyond its limit. The misaligned concept that transforms this motivation is: time is enough of a resource for maturation to occur. This misaligned concept is the same as the saying: "Time heals all wounds". This representation of time is not accurate. Poetic yes, but accurate, not so much. Time is the way we conceptualize things like movement and change, but for transformative purposes, other conditions must be met as well. The same goes for the maturation of a goal. When misaligned, we tend to let things play out more often than not. "I will get to it when I feel inspired", "I will wait for when its quieter", "I am not ready to have this important conversation yet", "I just need to do a few more finishing touches later", "let me do another revision first". In this state of illusion, it is preferable to hold something indefinitely than to present something to the world that is anything but 'perfect'. This thinking results in missed deadlines, opportunities and a lack of determination as a whole. The practice of letting things grow to maturity deconstructs into a dependency on time both (1) as a savior of our potential suffering and, (2) as a justified means to escape the need for completion and succumbing to the fear of failure.
Here the idea is to demote time to its actual properties as a unit of measure, instead of overwhelming it with psychosocial and magical ones. This means time needs to have a deadline, there must be conditions set in place for the goal to be completed and there must a rhythm to how to go about the goal. Time is not magical.
Rounding up, we can see how all three misaligned conceptions have valuable motivations behind them as well as valuable established practices. The key here is to transform our execution of these practices by first re-aligning our concepts. It is easier said than done though. It will take effort and consistency from you part. Even though your understanding might have changed somewhat and you are more aware of what is happening within you, it is important to remember that "old habits die hard". It is almost 100% guaranteed that you will slip into 'perfectionist mindset' mode every once in a while and sometimes even more frequently that you would want. Is that bad? No. It is a part of life and we accept it. Instead of resisting it because you are not doing it 'perfectly', stop fighting it and simply shift your execution to meet your new conceptions. Like a good friend of mine says: "Choose again."
As a way of finishing this piece, I want to remind you that the ACT of learning is as much 'knowing' as it is being 'active'. If this article has helped you get a better understanding of the internal processes of a perfectionist mindset, I urge you to use this as a starting point to do small changes in your behavior. Like I said, you do NOT have to be 'perfect' at transforming your perfectionist mindset. Start small, choose one aspect and be consistent at it. Give it time, respect its rhythm and be intentional about it. You are free to keep reading other articles, but remember: the ACT of learning is as much 'knowing' as it is being 'active'. There is no point in keeping it as a mere idea.
The views expressed in this article are not to be taken as hard truths, but rather as flexible guidelines. These views are merely personal conjectures based on my own experiences, my coaching background and/or existing coaching theorems.
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