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Operationalizing Perfection

9781572247567I 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 back to the years in my mid-thirties when – upon much meditation – I got it that “perfection is (actually) inevitable;” to a time when it became so viscerally and forcibly clear to me, like centuries ago to Leibniz, that we do live in the “best of the possible worlds” on a moment-to-moment basis (even if the world we live in totally sucks at the moment).  I revisit in my mind this slippery yet profound inner truth that “we are all doing our best.”  And then I am ready again to operationalize the Ordinary Perfection of What Is so as to help my clients leverage self-acceptance.

Resources: Present Perfect (Pavel Somov, 2010)

Operationalizing Perfection

Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice and the author of 7 mindfulness-based self-help books. Several of his books have been translated into Chinese, Dutch & Portuguese. Somov is on the Advisory Board for the Mindfulness Project (London, UK). Somov has conducted numerous workshops on mindfulness-related topics and appeared on a number of radio programs. Somov's book website is and his practice website is

Marla Somova, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA. She is the co-author of "Smoke Free Smoke Break" (2011).

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APA Reference
Somov, P. (2013). Operationalizing Perfection. Psych Central. Retrieved on January 24, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Sep 2013
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