The Roots of Perfectionism
Perhaps you might ask, “What’s wrong with being a perfectionist? After all, if I keep it up long enough, one day I will be perfect.” There is a certain logic to this attitude, but if we examine it carefully we will discover an alternative approach; each individual may choose which way is best for him. Before we begin, we must stress once again that there are two streams of behavior which should not be confused. The first is the struggle to approach perfection and the second is perfectionism. The difference between the two is this: does the individual utilize this drive as a tool or is he at the mercy of his drive. It is the latter that we refer to as the “perfectionism” which is our topic.
All of life’s experiences can be viewed through one of two diametrically opposed perspectives: qualitative or quantitative. Although there is a middle ground in which a technical co-existence exists between these disparate approaches, in essence they are mutually exclusive. When we want to emphasize quality we will need to forgo on quantity. On the other hand, as we increase quantity it will be at the expense of quality. Most people are nurtured and raised on systems based on quantitative thought. The milestones (and failures) in their lives will be concrete and measurable. This will also be reflected in their goals and values. The importance of quantifying human activity is deep-rooted and extraordinarily important to individuals raised in a culture with this orientation, for it is characteristic of a quantitative culture to define self-worth primarily by comparison to others. Whether or not they are actively competing with others at any particular moment, the mindset and the values they embrace are competitive in their essence. Without quantification there can be no comparison and consequently no evaluation of self-worth.
No society can be purely qualitative or quantitative. However, as a general principal it may be stated that a qualitative concept of life is a hallmark of transcendent living, and that the more significance afforded the qualitative view of life the less transcendence will be possible.
Perfectionism is exacerbated by living quantitatively. Perhaps the best way to explain this is with an example from everyday life. Take for example an indolent high school sophomore who has made a firm decision to “grow up” and study seriously. After studying and working hard, he gets a 59% on a test. Of course, this is a great improvement from the 35% or 40% that he used to get, but it is not yet a passing grade. In the qualitative vein we would tell him, “Look this is not at all a setback, it is a great step forward. You worked and struggled and have even seen results. You have changed yourself from a lazy bum to a serious student – that is a real improvement even if you did not pass the test.” Obviously, if these attitudes were nurtured there would be more improvements and accomplishments to come. His self-image will be built and he will begin to shoot for the best that he can do without regard to measuring himself against others. Understandably, if this attitude is internalized it will be empowering and will result in many concrete accomplishments as well. What would be the result of a quantitative approach? In the worst possible scenario we would tell our budding student, “Sorry, 59% is just not enough. You failed the test. Our school has a standard and you just don’t reach it.” Now if that doesn’t deter our student (or if we give him the encouragement of that "'A' for effort"), and he begins to pass with a 65% or 70% what will we say? “It’s nice you are passing, but you can’t get into college like that, you better improve your marks.” And if he indeed begins to show 80-85% what do we say? “Well, you can get into college, but you won’t make it into a top university, get cracking and shoot for the top” And when he gets to 98% as a senior? “You know you have a good shot at class valedictorian - work harder and you will be number 1 in your class!” What happens when somebody else makes that straight A and becomes valedictorian – is he full of satisfaction that he has turned his life around in the last three years, or is he crushed and disappointed that he must play number 2 at the graduation ceremonies? I will let you answer that question.
In a world ruled by quantification and numbers there will be no satisfaction until 100% is achieved; there will always be more we could have done or someone else to be outdone. Even a 98% will laugh at us that we didn’t get 100%. The sad secret is that even the 100% will not satisfy us, because we have not learned to be ourselves, to see ourselves as good people because we are good people. We will always need somebody to be better than, or at least to recognize our accomplishments.
The above illustration is just that – an illustration. Hundreds, if not thousands, of our attitudes towards life are styled after the premises and assumptions of the competition and the comparisons of quantitative living. But it does not end there. After living with these attitudes for so many years, the perfectionist drive becomes an end in itself. We like the coffee "just right" and the clothes "a perfect match." We want the "best seats" at a show and the "top model" when we buy a car. And we know what it feels like when that beautiful new (perfect) car gets its first scratch… This ubiquitous perfectionism ruins the enjoyment of life, spoils interpersonal relationships, makes children resent parents, raises blood pressure and contributes to ulcers.