The Perils of Perfectionism

Finding the courage to be imperfect.

Posted Apr 23, 2014

When I set out to write an article on the perils of perfectionism, I didn’t realize that my own tendencies in that direction would prove to be one of my greatest obstacles. Having discovered this, it occurred to me that relating a personal narrative, rather than taking a more characteristic pedagogic approach, might be somewhat more revealing.

Our immediate characterization of perfectionism tends to be a sort of obsessive rigidity that informs a world where everything matches and has its place. In reality, perfectionism is considerably more complicated than that, and roundly strays from a simple black-and-white worldview.

Perfectionism is less about perfection and more about the need to be perfect. Perfect here implies not being wrong, which is a parasite that feeds off a somewhat fractured sense of self-worth and negatively skewed sense of personal value. The need to be perfect, unlike abject perfectionism, is enmeshed in self-worth in so far as it is transactional. It’s exercised as a reflection of our context, rather than an internal process. Self-worth then impinges on our sense of social value, an aspect of character born out of our hardwired need for acceptance.

My personal struggle is born out of a Judeo-Christian ethic that taught me, not only was I born wrong, but if I stray from the path of righteousness, I’m going to Hell and I’m gonna be first. That same ethic taught me I could avoid persecution for my transgressions, real or imagined, by committing minor sins of omission, allowing me to skirt responsibility and remain on the right side of things, even though, technically, I was lying. This particular filter may work well in theory, but in reality it can create all manner of chaos.

For my part, I am a seasoned professional who has been around the block more times than I care to count. I have an intellectual understanding of self-worth and self-valuation, as well as a highly developed level of self-awareness informing my social, emotional, and spiritual intelligences. Or am I?

One of the most fascinating things about the human mindscape is so much of our behavior is reflexive. Put more plainly, half the time we don’t even realize we’re doing something. That’s not to say we aren’t or can’t be mindful. Rather, it is intoning that many of our behaviors are driven by instructions so deeply imbued in our psyche that we don’t even notice we’re engaging in them. It’s not quite auto-pilot, but more like driving a stick shift; it’s an automatic behavior that we have to think about, just a little bit.

Circling back to our premise and those sins of omission; if my intention is to pay the phone bill and I haven’t gotten to it yet, why, oh, why, when I am questioned about it, is my immediate instinct to say, “Yes” instead of, “Not yet”? Because that reflexive ethic of not wanting anything to be wrong comes into play and calls for a sin of omission. If you believe I’ve paid the bill, nothing reflects badly upon me, and you maintain your positive opinion of me, which feeds right into that hardwired need for acceptance. Admittedly, not a wholly healthy strategy, even if it is somewhat unconscious, but, in some ways, wholly human.

The challenge, then, is two-fold. First, it is becoming aware of our unconscious or reflexive tendencies. Secondly, it is breaking free of the need to be perfect, and embracing the courage to be imperfect. That sounds fairly simple, especially given that nothing and no one is perfect. Quoting Miles Davis, “There are no mistakes, only interpretations”, which is a sentiment at the heart of imperfection. In some ways, it is simple. In others, it is a monumental task that requires us to examine our worldview and the motivations underlying it.

When we embrace our own imperfection, shedding the shackles of fractured self-worth and negative self-valuation, we, quite simply, evolve. In doing so, we give ourselves license to be human and, in our humanity, truly authentic. Exercising the courage to be imperfect, then, can be our greatest freedom.

© 2014 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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Photo credit: Katja Flöter, Berlin