Classic perfectionism is like an infinite tunnel: you drive in and you never get out. For a finite mortal like you and I, chasing the Unattainable is akin to trying to beat the speed of light. It can’t be done. Thus, the no-way-out-doom-and-gloom of the perfectionistic mind. Perfectionism is an autobahn into Nowhere without any exit ramps. That is, unless we redefine Perfection and Perfectionism.
Shifting the Paradigm of Perfectionism
As I see it, perfectionism is a crisis of misunderstanding of the concept of perfection. As a culture we believe that perfection is unattainable. If seen as such, the word “perfection” becomes a nonsense word, a word that refers to something imaginary and nothing real, nothing attainable.
I posit just the opposite: the word “perfection” isn’t a nonsense word, it does refer to something real. Indeed, as I see it, the word “perfection” is synonymous with the word “reality.” As such, perfection is not only attainable, it is inevitable.
I realize you probably don’t have a clue of what I am talking about. I realize that the notion that perfection is inevitable sounds psychologically blasphemous and flies in the face of everything you’ve probably heard. I am well-aware of that and have felt the wind of this conceptual resistance with just about every perfectionist client I have worked with. I expect you to bristle at this notion. After all, you’ve been very well-programmed.
So, I am not expecting you – unlike your unrealistic mentors and role models – to be ahead of yourself or to be any more willing to change your perspective than you are. You are where you are. That’s enough for me. I sincerely accept your skepticism. In fact, I am counting on your skepticism. After all, skepticism is questioning and questioning is the beginning of rationality. So, allow me to preview my therapeutic thesis:
1. I posit that “everything, as (theoretically) imperfect as it may seem, is, in fact, as (practically) perfect as it can be at any given point in time;” this notion helps you begin to recognize the ordinary perfection of here-and-now life and to experience the very perfection that you have been craving; this shift in perspective is designed to help you become more accepting of the world at large and of yourself, without being any less ambitious or productive;
2. Contrary to the traditional cultural emphasis on “the perfection of achievement” I propose a shift to “the perfection of experience” which will, I predict, help you improve (rather than decrease) your productivity and creativity;
3. Furthermore, contrary to the all-too-familiar notion that “nobody is perfect,” I posit that “everybody is perfect or, which is the same, perfectly imperfect;” this is a shift in seeing oneself and others that will help you reduce your chronic self-loathing and help you co-exist with compassion.
4. Finally, I propose a shift from a paradigm of forgiveness in which we forgive others from a position of moral superiority to a more compassionate, less righteous, more humble paradigm of forgiveness in which we forgive because we identify with (relate to) the transgressor’s motivation and course of action, and we realize that the transgressor, too, has done his/her practical best (even if their best fails our personal and social expectations of what theoretically should be).
Worry not: this paradigm shift will not decay your morality, ambition, work ethic or productivity.
Old-School Perfectionism versus New-School Perfectionism
My goal is not to take away your perfectionism, but to upgrade it. As I see it, there is more than one way to strive and there is more than one school of perfectionism. Old-school perfectionism is rejection-based. New-school perfectionism is acceptance-based. Let me explain by contrasting these two ways of thought.
Whereas old-school perfectionism is based on self-rejection, new perfectionism is based on self-acceptance. Whereas old-school perfectionism desperately rushes to perfect the imperfect, neo-perfectionism takes its time perfecting the perfect.
Old-school perfectionism is perfectionism of suffering. New-school perfectionism is about recognizing that you are already living the best life you can live.
Old-school perfectionism rejects oneself and the world at large. It starts out from the position that nobody is perfect and that the world sucks. Therefore, old-style perfectionism is in the constant business of correcting what is wrong. As such, old-school perfectionism is a maze of frustrating dead-ends.
New perfectionism starts out from the position of acceptance – of self and of the world at large. New-school perfectionism begins with the recognition that we are all doing the best that we can at any given point in time. New-school perfectionism sets out on an open-ended journey of perfecting the perfect while accepting oneself and reality as being the best that it can be every step of the way.
Whereas old-style perfectionism offers nothing but a frustrating chase of the unattainable, new perfectionism constantly satisfies the seeker with what he/she seeks, providing a reliable fix of inevitable, experiential perfection as well as an ongoing opportunity to continue to perfect the perfect.
Old-school perfectionism is always future-focused. An old-school perfectionist has a love-hate relationship with the future. Future is virgin, still impeccable, still unstained by reality, ever not-yet-ruined. But old-school perfectionist also sweats and dreads the future because future is always unknown and uncertain and, thus, beyond control.
New-school perfectionist wastes no time awaiting some hypothetical future perfection: instead he or she experiences the here-and-now ordinary perfection of this one-and-only reality of the present moment and finds it to be reliably enough.
New-school perfectionist does not fear future and does not agonize about future performance outcomes. After all, what is there to fear when you realize that perfection is inevitable, that you have always done your best, that you are doing your best right now and that you will keep on doing your best in the future? New-school perfectionist is certain that what holds true at the current now-moment will also hold true at any future now-moment as well.
New-school perfectionist is certain that reality never short-changes, that reality is never wrong (even if it deviates from our understandably naive expectations about it) and is, thus, courageously at peace with whatever is. New-school perfectionist is certain that what holds true at the current now-moment will also hold true at any future now-moment as well. New-school perfectionist gets the self-evident: reality is always at its best, not just now and then, but inevitably.
Reality-accepting perfectionist is, by definition, certain that reality never short-changes, and that reality is never wrong (even if it deviates from our naive expectations about it) and is, thus, at peace with whatever is. No, not passively surrendered to reality, but wisely accepting of it and focusing on changing what can be changed.
Time to Upgrade is Now
All software eventually hardens. It is time for an upgrade. Time to loosen up. Old-school puritanical, stoic, self-rejecting perfectionism is so last millennium. Reality-denying perfectionism is hopelessly outdated mindware that costs you existentially everything and gives you nothing attainable. It is time for an upgrade to Acceptance-Based Perfectionism that would allow you to improve reality without rejecting it and to experience perfection without being perfectionistic.
Resources: Present Perfect: a Mindfulness Approach to Letting Go of Perfectionism and the Need to Control (New Harbinger, Somov, 2011)
Perfect leaf photo available from Shutterstock.
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Last reviewed: 21 Apr 2012