I ask my perfectionistic clients all the time: “What is perfection?”
Many crack a smile as if they know where the conversation is going – it’s going nowhere, they think.
What a surprise of self-acceptance I got for them!
They venture an answer anyway: “Perfection is unattainable… No one is perfect…”
This is what I’ve heard over the years, again and again. This brings to mind a point I read in an obscure little book called The Concept of Meaninglessness by Edwin Erwin. I picked up the book – believe it or not – in a box of “free books” outside my favorite Pittsburgh book-spot, Caliban. Here’s the line of relevance:
“A concept would be meaningless if it could not be defined operationally.”
What is operationalism, you ask? I’ll let Erwin explain:
“Operationalism is a thesis most commonly associated with the Nobel Prize Laureate in physics, P. W. Bridgman. According to this original statement of the thesis, a concept is synonymous with the set of operations used in applying it in some concrete situation.”
This is all quite familiar to this psychologist: having been trained in the scientist-practitioner model (at SUNY Buffalo), operationalism has been drilled into my mind by my mentors.
So, where am I going with this? To this point right here: when I ask my clients to define perfection I get non-operationalized meaninglessness: “Perfection is unattainable… No one is perfect…”
So, about that surprise of self-acceptance: I offer my clients to operationalize perfection, to define it in a way that is personally clear and affectively palpable.
Here’s what operationalized perfection ends up sounding like:
“Recognizing that I am doing my moment-specific best and recognizing that I am always doing my best even if my best sucks in comparison to what I thought it would be or what others would have expected it to be.”
Sounds like self-acceptance, doesn’t it? So much liberation in this!
This is not an easy conversation. I myself forget the circuitous paths of this argument from time to time and botch up the dialog. Then I go back and re-read my own writings to refreshen the script in my mind. I take myself …