Have you ever noticed that sometimes when you place an order in a café or restaurant whatever it is, the person serving you often says “perfect” as though what you’ve ordered is the perfect choice and could not possibly be improved upon? Anyone that knows me well recognises that I’m very particular, ok fussy, when it comes to what I eat and drink because I know what suits me so yes it probably could be called a ‘perfect’ choice for me but I don’t expect anyone else to agree because it’s totally subjective.
Which brings me to the actual topic for my article this week which is perfection.
Perfection is one of those words which has positive connotations for those who feel that doing things perfectly or being perfect is desirable, but is it? I can understand that getting 100% in an exam or 10/10 with all answers ‘correct’ could be interpreted as perfect but when it comes to other things in life, I’m not so sure.
We may see a perfect sunset, have the perfect day, buy the perfect outfit or consider someone or something as being perfect, but all these things are temporary. Everything and everyone changes; the sunset fades, the day ends, the outfit ages, the person evolves, so perfect is, at best, only a fleeting moment in time and open to personal interpretation. Why then do some people regard it as something to aim for?
‘Struggling with perfectionism: When good enough is not good enough’ (a clinical case report in the Journal of Clinical Psychology 29 August 2020) indicates “Perfectionism includes a tendency for high standards for self and others with a clear goal of successful performance in a variety of areas. A perfectionist often reacts with critical evaluations whenever performance falls below these standards.”
I feel that it’s not so much ‘high standards’ and ‘successful performance’ but the highest possible, faultless standards, all the time, in everything and nothing less than that is acceptable. I see these traits being presented a lot in young clients of mine, often female, around their schoolwork or profession and that concerns me. Why the concern?
Other research indicates that perfectionism is not a healthy pursuit, quite the opposite, one that can lead to high levels of burnout, exhaustion, stress, anxiety, and depression. Is that ok for anyone and particularly for our young people at a time when they should be enjoying life and learning?
Another aspect of this is that ‘striving’ is often part of the desire for perfectionism and one definition of striving is ‘to struggle or fight vigorously’. While I accept that making an effort and doing the best we can with what we have at that moment is definitely important and part of continuous development and growth, as soon as we believe something is going to be a struggle it makes it feel all the harder to achieve.
We are all human and therefore perfectly imperfect so sometimes we make mistakes, do something we regret, don’t give something our best effort and let ourselves or others down. That’s to be expected at times however if we have a need to be perfect then any of these things could have us caught up in negative self-talk (I’m lazy, I’ll never be successful etc), punishing ourselves for what we deem to be failure instead of an opportunity to do something differently in future to get a better result.
If you’ve ever worked with someone who could be described as perfectionistic then you may well realise that they hold others to their own standards and definition of perfect, whether they voice it or not. In that case, not only can the person themselves not achieve perfection – no one else can either. The result for those around them can be to feel they will never measure up to those expectations and become disheartened and disengaged.
What drives perfectionistic behaviour? Feeling not ‘enough’ in some way, fear of judgment, comparison or disappointing others, general insecurity as a reaction to external pressure to perform or reacting to previously being told we were not putting in enough effort. Any or all of these and more may add to start it and add to it. But perfectionism can be stifling, unrealistic a real burden and unsustainable.
So perhaps we need to encourage those who are striving for perfectionism to reframe their thinking and instead simply work towards excellence. To me that feels a lot freer, relieves a bit of pressure and allows us to be human rather than perfect.
Just a thought …