Calling me a perfectionist has no practical benefit. I rarely fixate on perfection. I will share the take-home-lesson of this post right away: don’t waste energy making accusations of perfectionism or mentally attaching that label to people because a pathology of ‘perfectionism’ is a misconception at the roots. Perfection is “the action or process of improving something until it is faultless or as faultless as possible.” Primary attribution error causes us perceive others’ behavior as intrinsically ‘perfectionist’ but the same phenomenon makes it impossible for any of us to see that quality as native to ourselves.
We always see solid reasons, where our own patterns are concerned. Every accusation of perfectionism levied against me misses its mark, palpably ludicrous. Always, it was as if someone accused me of trying to climb to The Moon when what I expected of myself was to scale Mount Everest. Or Devil’s Tower *Soak that statement in*
I am proficiency-obsessed. Proficiency is defined as “a high degree of competency or skill; expertise.” Proficient is exactly what I ache to be; I can own that. Perfection is just one measure of proficiency; if I too easily do something perfectly I might want to find a way to make the task harder — what if most people could do it perfectly? Then the degree of skill would become average– not high. This idea of being obsessed with proficiency explains a huge range of my behaviors and attitudes; it’s much more parsimonious than ‘perfectionism’. I perform imperfectly many times, especially tasks that aren’t central to my identity. I was in the 49th percentile for mathematics on the GRE. My living-spaces sometimes get half-way gross before I even notice they need to be cleaned. But on trumpet I can play every major scale, all three forms of every minor, blues scales, chromatics starting from any point, and a host of proficient behaviors (which still aren’t enough in today’s music market…)
There is an interesting cultural parallel between perfectionists and racists that I want to note before continuing. Each attaches to an archetype in the popular imagination that very few people fulfill (and even fewer perceive themselves fulfilling!). Masses of people have racial biases! None fit the pure archetype of a racist and naming them as “racists” inoculates them to the idea. When I asked myself “what do I want from perfection?” I quickly responded, “nothing; I never asked to be perfect.” ‘Racist’ only functions as a pejorative but ‘perfectionist’ has entered professional vernacular as a self-congratulatory label disguised as an insult. Applicants name “perfectionism” as their weakness in job interviews, hoping to invoke images of unbridled excellence.
…tunnel vision. All-or-nothing orientation. Hyper-vigilance and insecurity. It’s not necessary to name every facet…
Perfect is a theoretical, distant mark that we never plan to reach: The Moon. My ‘Everest’ is being able to reach prescribed goals at a brisk pace, in the order I plan, with a margin of error I consider acceptable: proficient! Proficiency causes me to scorn easy victories, to berate myself for missing goals, to gradually hate practices I want to love because the learning process seems to render too many imperfect moments. Proficiency-obsessed people are counting every mistake as if they tripped over a hurtle — we can’t reach the finish-line at the speed of light but want to finish in the top three. My ideal is triangulated from peers, or examples from history or, worst of all, the hypothetical EXCELLENT version of myself. I never conceived of myself as perfect, merely someone demonstrably superior than I feel… than I feel… than I feel… mmm: the rub.
I asked myself “what do I want from proficiency?” “To feel assured of my value and that I can affect outcomes.” As someone who feels responsible for awful things happening, I want proficiency to assure me I don’t need any help — to be only average is to be vulnerable at the moment others decide they cannot remain by my side. The greatest misconception about this pathology, whether we call it perfectionism or not, is to believe it is the primary ailment. This fixation is a proverbial “Chicken” laying eggs of discord, yet the proverbial “Egg” was laid by the chicken’s scaly ancestors.
Either way, my mother played a part in the origins of my depression. “I realized that I couldn’t make my mother better but she could make me worse,” I told my friend the psychologist (not to be confused with my therapist). We wondered aloud about the chemical and developmental make-up of my depression. Having a depressed mother may have messed with my attachment style, even without genes encoding for bluesy moods. The significance of that discussion wasn’t in what we discovered — nothing new — but in the fact that my friend surprised me with a call and we enjoyed our conversation. A different mode of assurance operated. She did corroborate the “perfectionism”. “You’re always doing and doing things and, you know, not really giving yourself space to be human.” My attachment to proficiency is not easy to transcend because my determination often feels like my protection from becoming just a chunk of rotting meat… it’s my armor and I’ve fallen into a river. There might be crocodiles but I have certainly been drowning under the weight of my suit.
The therapist and I saw each other for the second time. “When we make a treatment plan for some people, we set goals for them to accomplish but I think you need the opposite.” One goal she set for me was to do one fun, completely worthless activity each day (example: a buzzfeed quiz on how my dipping-sauce choices reflect on my ideal vocation). Problem: too easy. She also challenged me to write down at least two successes I’ve had each day. Again, I predict I will start surmising how many successes constitutes an excellent day. Now that I write that down, I understand why “two” is the number: easy.
The solution is going to be more elaborate but less regimented. I believe I need to keep pursuing my goals, haltingly. Toppled hurtles. Wrong turns. Healing from sprains. Resting by streams. There is one thing we agreed about before the word “perfection” entered the conversation, which is that I am trying too hard to make every minute count. Ironically, the distress I cause myself robs many moments of what makes them ‘count’ the most. Of course, being in-love was never like that… all of this agony over vocation is not the entirety of what I want or need…
Khalas: I can’t address this topic completely and flawlessly. I’ve done my 80% in the spirit of Hank Green. I am moving forward.