Perfectionism: is it good or bad?
Sometimes people might brag about being a perfectionist.
They might be glorying in their attention to detail. There’s nothing wrong with attention to detail but to what extent? When attention to detail becomes an obsession, we can see that being perfectionistic can be a destructive mindset. We can get anxious and stressed about doing things correctly. We can get really depressed and down when things don’t turn out the way we want them to.
But attention to detail is just one form of perfectionism.
In his book Making Peace with Imperfection, Elliot D. Cohen, who I studied Logic-based Therapy (LBT) under, differentiates between 10 types of perfectionism: achievement perfectionism, approval perfectionism, moral perfectionism, control perfectionism, expectation perfectionism, ego-centered perfectionism, treatment perfectionism, existential perfectionism, neatness perfectionism, and certainty perfectionism.
According to LBT, it is our flawed logic that gets us into the trap of the perfectionistic thinking that causes us all types of mental anguish. And the way out of this anguish is through sound logic.
LBT uses a six-step process to deal with perfectionistic thinking.
Step 1: Identify the irrational thought patterns.
Here’s an example:
I must never fail.
Therefore, if I have failed to keep my job, I’m a failure.
I failed to keep my job.
Therefore, I’m a failure! (Cohen, 2019)
Step 2: Refute the irrationality of these thoughts.
“I’m a failure because I failed.” We can see that this logic is redundant. We can also see that it’s based on a “must” and a “never” which is a demand that something turn out a certain way all the time. So, it is clear that this type of logic is a demand for perfection, which is highly illogical in an imperfect world.
Step 3: Identify a guiding virtue that can overcome your irrational thoughts.
In LBT, “metaphysical security” is the guiding virtue that overrides the demand for perfection in an imperfect world. It is the idea that we need to fully understand that the world is not perfect.
Step 4: Find wisdom in the world’s various philosophies on this guiding virtue.
For example, the Buddha said, “All conditioned things are impermanent—when one sees this with wisdom, one turns away from suffering.”
Step 5: Create a plan of action that applies this wisdom.
For example, instead of cleaning the whole house every day, you might clean it once or twice a week, or clean certain things on certain days, doing bigger jobs less frequently, like polishing the floors.
Step 6: Put your plan into action.
In this case, you are trying to do less than you usually would, which requires the effort to refrain from your natural inclination to clean things all the time.
Through these six steps, we can move from a stressful and obsessive life that demands perfection to a lighter life that accepts imperfection.
But sometimes it might take us a while to even become aware of our perfectionistic thoughts or even the negative feelings it creates. As a perfectionist myself, I know all too well what this is like. Trying to do things perfectly just seems natural and normal. So when I’m planning a holiday, trying to find the perfect match of cheap hotels with the ideal time to go, I can simply ignore the stress that slowly builds, and much like the frog in water that slow warms, I can boil my sanity to death. And before I know it, I can find myself almost paralyzed with stress.
My normal inclination is to just push through the stress and continue on my quest for the perfect itinerary. But what I should be doing is to recognise the stress as a warning sign that I have fallen into perfectionism. Once I know this, I can back off. So gaining control of perfectionism involves an awareness of our thoughts and emotions and also the body, where we experience our emotions.
But does this mean that we should just not care about anything? Should I just book the first hotel that I find? Not necessarily.
Just as perfectionism is destructive, so too is its polar opposite: carelessness.
I can create a stressful and depressed life through perfectionism, but I can create an equally chaotic and dismal life through being careless, a life in which I don’t shower enough, don’t pay the bills on time, don’t inflate the tires on the car enough.
So, if both extremes are destructive, how should we live?
According to Aristotle, the best way to live is to aim for the “golden mean,” the point between two extremes, which in this case is “excellence.” While perfection is often a destructive goal, excellence is not. We can aim to do our best in whatever we do.
Whereas demanding perfection gives us anxiety and disappointment, striving toward excellence gives us a sense of achievement and fulfillment. We paint a picture to the best of our ability; we marvel at the wonderful piece we have created, knowing that it’s not perfect, nor will it ever be truly finished. But we put down the paint brush and step back from the canvas satisfied.
Of course, it’s hard to strike this balance immediately, if ever. For the careless person, trying to move toward excellence will entail a more stringent and controlled approach to life. But for the perfectionist to change their aim from perfection to excellence, they will have to loosen up. And this loosening up won’t land them perfectly on point, as much as they want it to. The reforming perfectionist will likely revert back to perfectionism because they will probably aim at excellence in a perfectionistic way! They will try to get the “perfect” balance between perfection and carelessness, which will inevitably lead them back to perfectionism.
On the other hand, the perfectionist who has had enough of their stifling sense of control might swing to the other extreme, and give up on any ideals and standards.
To aim for excellence or any virtue that lies between two extremes is a constant balancing act, a constant shifting and readjustment. And how do we know how much to shift our approach so that we don’t move too far toward one extreme or the other?
Again, we practice mindfulness of our thoughts, feelings, and body.