We’re awful eejits aren’t we? Like, we convince ourselves that there’s some ideal ‘perfect’ something or somewhere out there. The perfect job or house or partner or garden or child or car or sunset or cheddar sandwich. But, y’know yourself, nothing is perfect. That just seems to be the nature of this place.
So you then ask yourself is there always fault to be found in something because there is a fault in it or is it because there’s a fault in the observer, i.e. me and in observing or experiencing this thing I thought might be perfect have I made it imperfect? Is it my fault that what should be perfect isn’t? Or is just nothing perfect anyway and me thinking that something could or should be perfect is just an idealization and something that cannot be achieved? Is it that perfection cannot be achieved because of who and what I am or is perfection just impossible?
What is Perfectionism?
I’m a devil for perfectionism. This site has only got around 50 articles which is pitiful I know but, man oh man, there are a fair few Drafts here that have never and will never, see the light of day because they either never went past the research phase or they’re half finished and crap. And y’know yourself, no matter how much you polish a turd, it’s still a turd, albeit a shiny one. Most projects are never completed afterall, they’re abandoned and thrown to the wind.
In Philosophy, perfectionism is a doctrine holding that perfection is attainable, especially the theory that human moral or spiritual perfection should be or has been attained. Interestingly, the term came into use in the 1830s, had a bit of popularity and then disappeared for a bit only to return just before the 1950s and has since seen had an explosion of usage.
Seeing this wee graph would kind of make you wonder about what exactly was it in the post World War II world that made the seeking of what is supposed to be perfect popular? Surely, like all the ills of the world, you’d have to lay the blame at the feet of rampant capitalism and materialism.
But knowing what causes a problem and what can fix a problem are very two very different things.
The Types of Perfectionism
In 2013 Aydemir & Icelli did a study regarding burnout, this led to them coming up with the five main types of perfectionism, they are:
- Self-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high personal expectations
- Socially prescribed perfectionism: Excessively high social expectations
- Other-oriented perfectionism: Excessively high expectations of others
- Over perfectionist: Excessive preference for order
- Covert Perfectionism: People who pretend to want to be average but within themselves demand perfectionism
What you get why you go for perfection?
The pursuit of perfection becomes just that, a pursuit. It cannot be reached. How possibly can it? It’s the same as that horrible phrase we hear so much these days; reaching your potential. Look, it’s not possible to reach a potential. Potential is: latent qualities or abilities that may be developed and lead to future success or usefulness. The problem with the phase is that it’s a hypothetical, your potential is what you might become, how can that be reached? It can’t. It’s something that can be aimed at but it cannot be ever reached.
And perfection is the same thing, it’s the thing to aim at but it can’t be gotten. And even if the thing you thought you wanted was achieved you’ll quickly find fault, that’s just inherent human nature. And there’s no reason to get down about it, that’s just the way things are. Our brains are hardwired to find fault so that we keep aiming for better and indeed we’re hardwired to be somewhat anxious about our surroundings in case we have to get outta dodge in a hurry.
Something we all need to keep an eye on when setting goals is that we don’t just fall for the verb of it. I want a new car, I need a new job, I have to have a new girlfriend. We think these things will make us happy but all we tend to get is ‘wanting’ ‘needing’ and ‘having to have’. This, of course, leads to more frustration because we get lost in a myopic world of these needs and wants and confuse our potential happiness with enjoying the journey or challenge in trying to get a new job/car/partner. OK, it can be quite stressful searching for a new gig but when it does come we then appreciate that the reward was worth the struggle.
Bob Marley on the Perfect Woman
To go off on a wee pop culture tangent, I recently watch a Bob Marley documentary. God I was a massive Marley fan. It must’ve been weird for my parents, here’s this 11 year old who is oblivious to marijuana and what Bob was hinting at between the line, and he’s wearing Bob Marley shirts and buying CDs…anyway, yea, this kid in rural Ireland that feckon loved Bob Marley. Kinda mad when you think about it.
Anyway, old Bob was asked if there was a such a thing as a perfect woman. He said “Who cares about perfection? Even the moon is not perfect. The sea is incredibly beautiful but salty and dark. The sky is infinite, but often cloudy. Everything that is beautiful isn’t perfect, it’s special. Every woman can be special to someone.”
Recently Netflix released a documentary entitled Untold: Swamp Kings about the Florida Gators, (I’m a sucker for sports documentaries as you know) a college American Football team. It’s about the high and lows of coach Urban Meyer’s time in charge of the Gators from 2005-2010 where he led them to three National Finals where they won two and really should’ve won three.
Going into the final episode they’ve just won their second Finals and are gearing up for a season where they want to go undefeated. The pressure they put on themselves individually and as a team is immense. And, of course, there’s all the pressure from the media and fans as well. The players weren’t enjoying the game anymore, they were performing pretty well, they got to yet another final but one player in particular said something along the lines of, we just had to make sure we didn’t lose, it wasn’t about winning, it was about not losing. There’s no fun in that.
Coach Meyer became addicted to sleeping pills and mixing them with alcohol just to get a few hours kip, as he was under so much pressure. When a fight breaks out between his two best players in the locker room in their second last game of the season he blames himself for putting all the pressure on his team. And we’re talking young men here in their early twenties. Towards the end of the final episode he said ‘You can chase perfection all you want; you’re going to come up empty-handed.’ They were all miserable in what should have been some of the best moments of their lives.
Meyer was their most successful coach ever with the best team they’ll probably ever have and they were winning and they still weren’t happy. You just simply cannot get perfection, it’s not a thing, it doesn’t exist.
From Gridiron Football (to give American Football its proper name) to Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire; in 1770 he wrote ‘Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien
Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.’ This translates as ‘a wise Italian says that the best (perfection) is the enemy of the good.’
In other words, chasing perfection doesn’t lead to what’s good, rather the opposite. We see this in the Swamp Kings documentary series and we know it from our own lives when we, or loved ones, get obsessive over something, killing the good in what we/they wanted to achieve when starting out and instead of it being something worth championing it turns into a rather large and weighty albatross around our necks.
The good proper at Cracklife.com came up with a rather insightful article about overcoming perfectionism, they broke it down under 11 headings.
- 1. Recognize when your perfectionism is holding you back
- 2. Practice self-compassion
- 3. Address the root cause
- 4. Revisit your expectations
- 5. Play out the script (imagine the steps towards perfection, are the actually possible, will you even like the goal, do you really want it?)
- 6. Purposefully do things imperfectly
- 7. Chunk it up
- 8. Take the first step
- 9. Establish firm boundaries
- 10. Accept that you won’t excel at everything
- 11. Believe that done is better than perfect
They could all do with an essay in themselves but y’know, we can all boil this chase for ‘perfect’ down to something pretty simple; do what ya gotta do and go a bit easier on yourself dudes.