Imagination is always at least one step ahead of reality. When we appraise the world, ourselves, or others, we compare what is (the real) with what theoretically could be (the imagined).
Say you got a B on a test. You look at this grade and you think that you could have done better, that you could have gotten an A. But that’s theory. The reality is that you got a B, not an A, and this B represented your practical (not theoretical) best.
With this in mind, let me ask you this: what do you mean by perfection—the theoretical best or the practical best? When you think about perfection, are you thinking about the imaginary perfection of what could be or about the perfection of what actually is? Of course, this is something of a rhetorical question. I know the answer: as a perfectionist, you define perfection as a theoretical best. That’s exactly why you are never satisfied with reality as it is.
The real world—the one and only world that there is at any given point in time—always pales in comparison with a better world that you can imagine. In any comparison of the real and the ideal, the ideal, by definition, comes out on top and the real loses out. No matter how great you are, you can always imagine yourself being even better. This conclusion is in the nature of imagination: fiction is always one step ahead of fact. The tragedy of perfectionism is that a comparison of what is with what could be is a foregone conclusion. To repeat, the ideal, the fictional, the imaginary is always better than the real, the factual, the existent.
Thus, perfectionism is a destiny of dissatisfaction.
Question: what is more valuable—a real twenty-dollar bill or an imaginary one-hundred-dollar bill? Once again, I’m being rhetorical. I’m sure you’d say that a real twenty-dollar bill is more valuable than an imaginary one-hundred-dollar bill (and if I’m wrong, feel free to mail me a check for twenty dollars and I will reciprocate with a fake one-hundred-dollar bill). But if that is so, then how do you end up concluding that the perfection of what is (the real, practical best) ends up being less valuable than imaginary perfection of what could be? How does an actual B on the exam become less valuable than an imaginary A? How does an actual moment of performance in your life seem less valuable to you than an imaginary moment of performance that never took place?
Once again, I am being rhetorical and so are you, by the way, if you’re thinking that the B you got on the test could have been an A. Rhetorically (theoretically), it could have been. In practice, however, it couldn’t have been. Sure, you can get an A in the future; that remains an option. But if you could have gotten a B instead of an A on a given test in the past, then you would have gotten an A, not a B.
To continue to believe that what happened didn’t have to happen and what didn’t happen should have happened is to believe in a fictional history of an actual fact.
[Excerpt from “Present Perfect”]
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Last reviewed: 9 Jul 2011