Actually, I can't imagine anything more tedious than a perfect person, especially if it was someone who also demanded perfection from me. – Hugh Mackay
This should be the shortest post ever. Hands up all those who are perfect. [Pause for pretend counting] Right, so that’s one, two, three, four … none of you. Not a one. And I’m not perfect either. Okay we can all go home.
I’m reliably informed (i.e. my dad told me) that you can’t get something perfect out of something imperfect with the exception of the Virgin Mary and she had a little help there; it’s not like maths – two imperfect people don’t make a perfect person. Dad said that imperfection was like a jelly mould with a dent in it. You can try to knock the dent out but it’ll never be exactly the same as it was when it was brand new and all it can do is pass on its own imperfections. In fact one of my father’s arguments for the fact that God exists was the Ten Commandments which he said was a perfect law and as such Man was incapable of producing it: ergo God exists. Now I don’t know about any of that but I do know that my father was far from perfect and none of his children were remotely perfect either. Practice does not make perfect either.
So, what is perfection? It’s one of those words like ‘faith’ and ‘doubt’ that we get all confused about these days. There is a long list of definitions but let’s go with the top four:
1. conforming absolutely to the description or definition of an ideal type: a perfect sphere; a perfect gentleman.
2. excellent or complete beyond practical or theoretical improvement: There is no perfect legal code. The proportions of this temple are almost perfect.
3. exactly fitting the need in a certain situation or for a certain purpose: a perfect actor to play Mr. Micawber; a perfect saw for cutting out keyholes.
4. entirely without any flaws, defects, or shortcomings: a perfect apple; the perfect crime.
Even the word ‘perfect’ is not perfect; it’s vague and open to interpretation. Yet it is something we all, although some more than others as we will see, aspire to or desire.
I used to be an IT trainer/assessor about fifteen years ago. It was a hard job but it was what I needed at the time and I enjoyed it immensely, especially at the start. Once my trainees had finished their course we didn’t just toss them out on the street, we’d keep them on awhile to help them hone their skills – passing an exam is one thing but it doesn’t really prepare you for the real world – and I would get some of the students to help me out producing training materials. I had one in particular, a diminutive young woman who wore large round glasses and tended to show off just a little more cleavage than I was comfortable with, who was particularly willing. Whatever I gave her to do she would fire right back at me but it was never right. The thing was she never wanted to correct her mistakes, her war cry being: “It’ll do. Now, give me something else.” She couldn’t understand that it wouldn’t do, that if it didn’t meet my standard then there was no way I was going to present it to anyone. So I would end up having to fix everything she did. I didn’t get her. I’ve never been able to get that kind of attitude. My wife has a similar expression although she uses it flippantly most of the time: “Good enough for government work.” I know what she means but I worked for the government when I was in my teens and early twenties and I always made sure that I exceeded their expectations. My goal was to be the best clerical officer, the best trainer/assessor and nowadays the best writer I can possibly be. I know I’m not perfect but I’m not being judged by perfect people and so I want to at least feel as if I’m approaching perfection, as near-to-perfect doesn’t make a damn bit of difference.
Well, I used to be like that. Nowadays not quite so much.
Perfection. It’s one of those words that makes you think there can only be one standard: it’s either perfect or it’s not perfect. That’s not really the case though. There is absolute perfection (that would be God assuming you believe in him) and relative perfection (pretty much everything else). The Pareto principle holds that it normally takes 20% of the full time to complete 80% of a task while the last 20% takes 80% of the effort. Achieving perfection may be impossible and so, as increasing effort results in diminishing returns, further activity becomes increasingly inefficient. Is that last 20% worth the effort when you could do four other tasks with your remaining 80% of effort. “Yes,” you say, “But what’s the point doing something if you’re not going to do it right?”
Ah, ah, ahhhhh. I never said you weren’t to do it right. I’m just saying that perfection is not necessarily worth the effort involved especially when we know from the jump that perfection is unattainable. Yes, it would be nice to have the perfect tool to do the job but most jobs don’t need the perfect tool, only need a suitable tool. I have a piece of wood and I want to embed a nail in it. I need something to hammer it in. A hammer would be my first choice but I’ve used a file before and when I didn’t have a claw hammer handy I’ve used a screwdriver to dig the nail back out again. (I know, I know, I’m a Philistine.) The point is I used what I had available and got the job done. That said I do like to have the right tool for the job – we all do – but do you realise how many different kinds of hammers there are out there most of which are perfectly capable of embedding a nail in a lump of wood.
When I was in my teens and twenties I was more than a bit of a perfectionist than I am these days. I would hang onto poems for weeks on end putting in the proverbial comma and taking it out again and to what end? I’ve written already about the first sentence to my first novel which I fiddled with incessantly for about fifteen years only to find out on checking what finally ended up in the printed version was exactly what I had written with barely a moment’s consideration. Can you just imagine the hours I wasted on that? Every time I think of it I’m reminded of Grand from The Plague by Camus who obsessively works away on the first sentence of his novel convinced if he can just get that spot on then everything else will follow on:
Grand, whose job it is in the time of plague to act “as a sort of general secretary to the sanitary squads,” spends hours and hours on his literary pursuit. A deeply disturbing moment occurs when Grand’s friend Rieux finally examines Grand’s fifty-page manuscript and discovers that almost every page is covered with variations of a single sentence. One version goes this way: “One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a glossy sorrel mare along the flower-strewn avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.” Here is another: “One fine morning in May a slim young horsewoman might have been seen riding a handsome sorrel mare along the flowery avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.” As he obsessively tinkers with one adjective after another, Grand is more caught in a fixation than engaged in a process. One irony of his pursuit for the perfect combination of adjectives is that the sentence is much improved by their removal. Were one, having removed the adjectives, to take the further step of allowing the verb to make a simple declaration, then it seems to me the sentence would not be bad at all: ‘One morning in May a horsewoman rode a mare along the avenues of the Bois de Boulogne.’ – Jerry Harp, ‘On Writing’, The Kenyon Review, 21 September 2006
This is in sharp contrast to the stance Allen Ginsberg took, famously, and succinctly, expressed as: “First thought, best thought.” I am not sure I completely agree with him but I’m far more sympathetic than I once was.
Life is imprecise. Writing should reflect that imprecision. You’re just going out the front door, the phone rings and you say to your partner, “Just wait in the car; I’ll [just be a moment] [only be a second] [be with you in a minute] [see who it is].” Is it worth fixating over what you say? One thing you wouldn’t say is, “Just wait in the car; I’ll be an indeterminate length of time.”
And yet, bearing all the above in mind, there are people – just like there were people who believed the world was flat – who believe that they will only be happy in this life if they can attain perfection, to wit, the perfectionists. (No, it’s not a literary movement.)
Perfectionism, in psychology, is a belief that perfection can and should be attained. In its pathological form, perfectionism is a belief that work or output that is anything less than perfect is unacceptable. At such levels, this is considered an unhealthy belief, and psychologists typically refer to such individuals as maladaptive perfectionists. – Wikipedia
Perfectionism comes in a number of flavours and more than a few people have had a stab at trying to conceptualise the condition. In the late seventies, Don Hamachek, for example, described two types of perfectionism: normal perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort" while neurotic perfectionists are "unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things good enough to warrant that feeling". In other words perfectionism can be healthy and unhealthy, the difference between perfectionistic strivings and perfectionistic concerns. When it moves from one to the other is when you start thinking you can actually achieve perfection, indeed that it is necessary for you to be perfect. Hamachek identified six specific, overlapping types of behaviour associated with this negative form of perfectionism. They include:
- A nagging "I should" feeling
- Shame and guilt feelings
- Face-saving behaviour
- Shyness and procrastination
The dominant view by the eighties was that perfectionism was always neurotic, dysfunctional, and indicative of psychopathology. Perfectionism was linked with depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and eating disorders.
When the first print run of my first novel was sent out to reviewers a few kind souls were good enough to point out the typos they came across. I could have died. A part of me wanted to recall the books, ditch the blog, change my e-mail address and never set foot on the Internet again. I was a failure. Bit extreme much? Not if you’re a perfectionist. People were judging me by this work and I, to get all Biblical about it, had been found wanting. I was going to say that there’s no middle ground for a perfectionist but in my experience it’s mostly middle ground – waiting, waiting to see if you’ve failed again and then failing but maybe failing better (to paraphrase Beckett) this time than you did the last time. Is it not right and proper that if you’re publishing a book it should be free of typos? Yes, yes, of course, but it’s not the end of the world. The typos were fixed and the next run should be . . . well, perfect.
According to Mallinger and DeWyze (writing in 1992), perfectionists are obsessives who need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and ensure their own safety. By being constantly vigilant and trying extremely hard, they can ensure that they not only fail to disappoint or are beyond reproach but that they can protect against unforeseen issues (such as the economic downturn). Vigilance may include constant monitoring of the news, weather, and financial markets. I was never that bad but, yes, now I think about it, I would get embarrassed if I dressed inappropriately; I always dress to blend in. I’d hate if I went out early in the morning when it was cold and found myself carrying my coat under my arm on the way home because the sun had decided to show its face.
In the last ten to fifteen years, a significant increase in perfectionism research has occurred which has included the conceptualisation of perfectionism as a multidimensional construct, encompassing both intrapersonal and interpersonal trait dimensions. […] The MPS [Multidimensional Perfectionism Scale], developed by Frost, Marten, Lahart and Roenblate, is a six-factor measure that assesses four aspects of perfectionism that are self-directed and two that are directed from parents. Hewitt and Flett [also] developed [an] MPS … and proposed three dimensions of trait perfectionism: socially prescribed, other-oriented, and self-oriented.
The six factors developed by Frost, Marten, Lahart and Roenblate were:
- Concern over mistakes
- Personal standards
- Parental expectations
- Parental criticism
- Doubts about actions
and if we look at the three proposed by Hewitt and Flett we can see that perfectionism isn’t a simple thing:
Socially prescribed perfectionism is the belief that other people hold unrealistic expectations about us; other-oriented perfectionism is where we expect others to be perfect and obviously self-oriented perfectionism is where we expect ourselves to be perfect. Needless to say it is possible to have a mix of all three.
There have been other attempts at diagnosing perfectionism, splitting it between adaptive versus maladaptive constructs. These categories (including a non-perfectionist group) were devised by Slaney and colleagues who devised the APSR test (Almost Perfect Scale – Revised) that included three subscales: Standards, which includes the setting of high standards; Order, which examine the need for structure and organisation; and Discrepancy, which examines the perceived discrepancy between one’s standards and his or her level of performance.
The AMPS scale (Adaptive/Maladaptive Perfectionism Scale), devised in 2002, is a 27-item, self-report questionnaire for children with four subscales: Sensitivity to mistakes, Contingent self-esteem, Compulsiveness and Admiration.
[A]cross the different conceptions and the different approaches, the majority of studies have produced evidence in favour of the position that perfectionistic strivings are associated with positive characteristics—particularly when overlap with perfectionistic concerns is controlled for (in the case of dimensional conceptions) or when perfectionistic concerns are at low levels (in the case of group-based conceptions).
The bottom line then is that researchers are starting to come around to what Hamachek had in mind when, right at the start over thirty years ago, he suggested that two forms of perfectionism be differentiated: normal perfectionists and neurotic perfectionists.
Translated to the present conceptions, normal perfectionists are individuals who show high levels of perfectionistic strivings, but are not overly distressed by the issues that are combined in the dimension of perfectionistic concerns, namely concerns over mistakes, doubts about actions, feelings of discrepancy between actual achievements and high expectations, self-criticism, and the fear of failure to live up to one’s own standards and to the high expectations of others. In contrast, neurotic perfectionists show high levels of perfectionistic strivings and are overly distressed by the issues combined in the dimension of perfectionistic concerns. Thus, perfectionistic concerns may be the factor that distinguishes clinical forms of perfectionism from a healthy pursuit of excellence. In contrast, perfectionistic strivings in themselves are not only normal, but may be positive—if only perfectionists could focus on doing their best rather than worrying about mistakes, enjoy striving for perfection rather than being afraid of falling short of it, and concentrate on what has been achieved rather than pondering the discrepancy between what has been achieved and what might have been achieved if everything had worked out perfectly. In this form, perfectionism would be a perfectly positive disposition.
So what are we saying then, it’s fine to reach for the stars as long as you realise that you’ll never reach them? So why bother? If failure is inevitable why not set lower, attainable standards and once you have reached one, set another? It depends on what your goal is. It could be argued that some perfectionists need to fail to reinforce what they have come to believe about themselves through peer pressure, parental criticism or their own lack of self worth. These extreme perfectionists are those people who set impossibly-high standards in all aspects of their lives (e.g. achievements, interpersonal relationships and appearance). Most of us aren’t like that. Most of us would be willing to admit that “I’m a bit of a perfectionist,” in exactly the same way as we might say, “I can be a bit OCD,” acknowledging the fact that we all are multi-faceted individuals. Mind you not many people will own up to being a bit of a psychopath.
Being “a bit of a perfectionist” is one thing but to be a classic perfectionist, if I can use that term, you need to fulfil four criteria: 1) impossibly high standards, 2) morbid fear of failure, 3) polarised thinking and 4) self-worth directly proportional to personal success and failure. These are the symptoms. The causes are manyfold but they really can be grouped into two groups of three fears and three beliefs:
- Fear of failure
- Fear of making mistakes
- Fear of disapproval
- Belief that it’s all or nothing
- Belief that things should be different
- Belief that others find success easy
Of course these ‘causes’ have underlying causes and probably the top of the list is bad parenting – parental pressure, criticalness, anxiety and emotional unavailability – although there is also a correlation to be found between perfectionist children and parents who praise them for conscientiously tackling tasks and schoolwork, keeping their rooms tidy etc. Schools, employers and religious groups also often hold up impossibly high standards. The danger in all these settings is that when perfection can’t be achieved, individuals opt for “perfectionistic self-preservation” which involves three separate elements:
- Perfectionistic self-promotion
- Non-display of imperfection
- Non-disclosure of imperfection
If you can’t be perfect at least you can appear to be perfect, e.g. you cheat at tests and then bask in the glory of your ‘successes’. The rider to all of this is that it helps to keep people at arm’s length; the less they know about you the more inclined they will be to accept your version of yourself. This is both delusional and dysfunctional.
In all my reading though I could find little to distinguish any difference in how perfectionism plays out in the different genders although it looks like girls do tend to be more prone to the condition than boys, if only slightly.
What can pull one person down can bolster another. A study of gifted children concluded:
Family, teacher, and peer influences on perfectionism were perceived as mostly positive for the healthy perfectionists, but negative for the dysfunctional perfectionists. […] Healthy perfectionists possessed an intense need for order and organisation; displayed self-acceptance of mistakes; enjoyed high parental expectations; demonstrated positive ways of coping with their perfectionistic tendencies; had role models who emphasize doing one's "best"; and viewed personal effort as an important part of their perfectionism. The dysfunctional perfectionists lived in state of anxiety about making errors; had extremely high standards; perceived excessive expectations and negative criticisms from others; questioned their own judgments; lacked effective coping strategies; and exhibited a constant need for approval.
And just to make it clear, there were both healthy and dysfunctional perfectionists found amongst the gifted kids.
Words tie us in knots, words like ‘muse’, ‘doubt’ and ‘love’. We think we know what they mean but they can become real burdens to us. Until we replace them with a different word. Stop trying to be perfect and simply start being excellent. Excellent is a . . . well, it’s an excellent thing to be. People get awards for excellence. No one gets awards for perfection.
Perfectionism is a delusional worldview. It believes that a) perfection is attainable, but worse, b) that other people have attained it and, quite probably, c) you are the only person who hasn’t managed it because d) you are a bad (or some other suitable negative adjective) person. In his article The Disease called “Perfection” Dan Pearce cuts to the chase:
Here's your wake-up call:
- You aren't the only one who feels worthless sometimes.
- You aren't the only one who took your frustrations out on your children today.
- You aren't the only one who isn't making enough money to support your lifestyle.
- You aren't the only one who has questions and doubts about your religion.
- You aren't the only one who sometimes says things that really hurt other people.
- You aren't the only one who feels trapped in your marriage.
- You aren't the only one who gets down and hates yourself and you can't figure out why.
- You aren't the only one that questions your sexual orientation.
- You aren't the only one who hates your body.
- You aren't the only one that can't control yourself around food.
Of course my immediate response to that would be that two wrongs don’t make a right. I can just imagine Adam saying to God: “Look, it’s okay for me not to be perfect – Eve’s not perfect,” and God going, “That’s a very good point, son. Enjoy your fruit.” I have been well aware that the world is full of people who give in to their imperfections every day but that doesn’t make it right. Question: Why should I lower my standards? Answer: Because they’re my audience. I may need to be perfect for me but I don’t need to be perfect for them.
If you don’t think that perfectionism is a problem just scroll down Dan’s post to the comments section. At the time I wrote this there were 4249 comments and another 704 to the follow-up post A CURE for “Perfectionism”. But over 91,000 people shared the first post on Facebook. Look up ‘Perfectionism’ in Google and you will get about 4,810,000 results in 0.23 seconds. Dan’s ‘cure’ for perfection, at least what worked for him, was this by the way: “Be real.” It’s simplistic but it also hits the nail on the head and that’s all he was trying to do.
Kathleen Breen lists 5 ways to cure perfectionism:
- Be willing to forgive
- Stop comparing yourself to others
- Perfection exists in the mind
- Exchange perfection for excellence
- Have a beginners mind
but, “Be real,” pretty much says all that needs to be said. Look at yourself and then look at the world around you, not the world as you imagine it to be but the real world.
Bottom line: Is it wrong to try to be perfect? It’s not wrong. It’s pointless though unless you can see that relative perfection is all you will ever be able to achieve. Can you say what has to be said, do what needs to be done, get nails into lumps of wood when you need to? It’s not wrong to try to be more than the sum of your parts, exceed your original programming, be the best you can be, surpass expectations or any other way you want to put it. All and any of those expressions will do just fine. You know what I mean. I didn’t spend three hours deciding which was the perfect phrase because I don’t honestly think I could decide. I’d drive myself mad.
Is this post perfect? No. Absolutely not. Is it the best I could do with the time I had available? Probably not if I’m being honest. Will it do? Hell, yeah.
Lessons of a Recovering Perfectionist by Arlene Harder – links to several helpful articles
 W. D. Parker & K. K. Adkins, ‘Perfectionism and the gifted’, Roeper Review, 17 (3), pp.173-176
 P. Schuler, ‘Perfectionism in Gifted Children and Adolescents’ in M. Neihart, S. M. Reis, N. M. Robinson, & S. M. Moon (Eds.). The Social and Emotional Development of Gifted Children pp.71-79
 A. Mallinger & J. DeWyze, Too Perfect: When Being in Control Gets Out of Control
 Philip G. Price, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, The relationship between Perfectionism, Religious Coping Styles, and Job Satisfaction in Selected Southern Baptist Pastors, pp.7,8
 Joachim Stoeber & Kathleen Otto, Positive Conceptions of Perfectionism: Approaches, Evidence, Challenges, p.4
 Ibid, p.15
 Patricia A. Schuler, ‘Voices of Perfectionism: Perfectionistic Gifted Adolescents in a Rural Middle School’, Neag Centre for Gifted Education and Talent Developmnt