Perfectionism is one of those traits that is often utilised as a ‘false flaw’; that is to say, it is a characteristic answer to the ‘weakness’ interview question, that is actually supposed to inspire confidence in the assessor that one’s worst quality is that they are truly diligent. However, this seemingly clever response, and the portrayal of perfectionism more generally as uniformly positive, can be dangerous approaches to the trait. For the truth is that extreme perfectionism is often a catalyst for a pathological reaction; one that often ends in products of anxiety, depression, and even suicidal ideation.
This is hardly surprising, when we clarify the reality of living as a perfectionist. In my experience, there tend to be two broad types: the self-flagellants, working around the clock to push themselves forwards (to my mind, in an attempt to garner self-esteem from their achievements); and those who may actually fall behind on work, too afraid to deliver products unless they’re, well, perfect. The latter kind can be prone to engage in self-sabotage: think procrastinating at a party until the early hours of the morning, so when a low grade rolls in, there’s an excuse at the ready. What both groups have in common, however, is two-fold: first, that they are engaging in any means possible to avoid facing their own imperfection; second, that I’m confident in saying that they’re both quite common in Cambridge.
I’m afraid to admit that in the end though, they are bound to fail in their quest. After all, not only humans are inherently fallible, fault-prone creatures, but the definition of ‘perfect’ on any one task or quality varies depending upon who is issuing the judgment. Examiner A might give your essay 70%, examiner B potentially 67%; does this shift between a 1st and a 2.I now mean that you must berate yourself for your imperfection – or does it just reflect the inherent difference in the ways of marking of the observers? In this sense, a cohesive picture of perfection does not exist, and those who seek it too obsessively are likely setting themselves up for suffering.
So how do we treat maladaptive perfectionism when we come across it? An issue is that when these cases of deteriorating psychological state do present themselves, it can be all too facile to adopt a symptomatic approach that neglects the causal stressor. To medicate, with anxiolytics or anti-depressants for example, can most certainly be useful, but it will be only a plaster over an underlying perfectionist disposition from which the internal turmoil was borne out.
I believe the best chance we have to loosen the shackles of perfectionism is to target the problem at its source, in seeking to change the dysfunctional schema that established the behaviour(s) in the first place. De facto, this means shifting our definitions of success from being based on the achievement of certain goals, to living according to one’s values. In other words, it isn’t about being the best lacrosse player, but it’s about playing the match in the first place, because you value team-work and participation. Therapy can be a useful means of training these newfound ways of thinking; an equivalent to the gym, but for growing your ‘mental muscles’.
However one chooses to go about the change, whether it be with the support of a therapist or not, it is not ‘thinking’ or knowledge that does the heavy-lifting of this recovery. It is self-love, kindness and all those qualities that can so easily be dismissed as vague, but which prove in the end to be the key to accepting the reality of our imperfect selves. I’d argue that only when this is done can we fully swing open the door to psychological peace.