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The Dark Side of Perfectionism

Notes on an ailment and its apologies.

Pensive female artist holding paint brush
Source: Cottonbro/Pexels

Job candidates are sometimes asked what their biggest flaw is. According to popular advice, one should never, in response to this question, say “perfectionism,” since that is not a flaw, and implying that you are flawless won’t endear you to the interviewer.

In truth, perfectionism has maladaptive versions, and it can border on pathology. It is this darker side of perfectionism that interests me here. But let us start with the adaptive variant.

In its healthy manifestations, perfectionism motivates people to strive for excellence. This motive is key to the greatest human endeavors. It is difficult to imagine anyone becoming a violin virtuoso, a world-class ballet dancer, or a notable artist without a measure of that particular intolerance for mediocrity in oneself – at least, in a given domain – that is at the core of striving for excellence.

At other times, perfectionism takes a different – and self-destructive – form. Unhealthy perfectionism leads us to spend more time brooding than actually attempting to do anything. Why?

There are, I think, two main bases of unhealthy – some would say “neurotic” – perfectionism. One is a tendency to shift the focus of attention from the task at hand to how success or failure would reflect on us. Of course, in doing anything, we are more or less aware of the fact that both success and failure would show something about us – and we are not indifferent to what that something would be – but when we are focused on a task, this thought is in the periphery of our attention, not its focal point. Not so for the perfectionist. Perfectionists are preoccupied with what success or failure would show about them.

This is a problem because you can only do a good job if you pay attention to what you are doing. If you are thinking about something else – anything really, but in this case, yourself – your mind is not where it should be given the task you are facing.

There is another path to maladaptive perfectionism. The perfectionist is fixated on the idea that the project at hand must be the best thing he or she has ever done. Writer Elizabeth Tallent captures this second pitfall well. Tallent began her career with aplomb. Her first short story collection, published by a prestigious press and well-received by critics, appeared while Tallent was still in her late 20s. She published two more short story collections over the course of the next 10 years, but after that, she published absolutely nothing for more than two decades. In her autobiographical Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism, Tallent offers an honest and moving account of her struggle with the perilous currents of perfectionism. As a perfectionist, she held the belief that she could outdo herself on the very next try. This wishful belief in the proximity of stardom proved intoxicating:

The very perfectionism that was shutting down writing imbued the process with a thrilled momentousness, gratifying in itself: in my Zeno’s arrow’s flight, I was always closing in on the most beautiful thing I’d ever written. [1]

Tallent's expression “Zeno’s arrow’s flight” is a reference to the Greek philosopher Zeno, who argued that an arrow can never reach its destination, because first, it must travel half the distance to the endpoint, and before that, half of the first half, and so on ad infinitum. But you cannot, Zeno reasoned, ever reach your destination if you have to go through an infinite number of stages.

Zeno was wrong about the possibility of motion, but the image captures the perfectionist’s mental framework – or should we say trap – well. It is as though the perfectionist is reaching for the horizon, which always seems within our grasp but never is.

What makes success even less likely is the perfectionist’s romanticized vision of it, the hope for effortlessness. In Tallent’s case, that meant expecting that the beauty of well-crafted sentences will somehow come down from the sky and pour directly onto the page, complete:

Another con – perpetrated by myself on myself – this delusion of being able to write something incredibly beautiful of course means appearing in print. Effortlessly. In the very near future. Actual and highly fortunate experiences had taught me how arduous and prolonged is a manuscript’s progression to published volume. But just as dreams collapse the dreary interval between the wish for a thing and its manifestation, so did perfectionism. [2]

The problem for Tallent and other perfectionists is that outdoing oneself on the very next try is statistically improbable even if you put in a good deal of effort. It is impossible without it. On any given occasion, our performance is likely to be close to our own average, though if we persevere, over time, we can shift the average so that what was once the height of achievement becomes our mean or even the least we are capable of.

People like Tallent who begin with a great success – above their own mean – may be at a particular risk here since they want to immediately improve on an achievement that was, ex ante, unlikely. If you outdid yourself on the last try, it will be difficult for you to repeat the success straight away, let alone surpass it. You can improve on it, of course, but after repeated attempts.

The perfectionist’s predicament is worsened further by the fact that anything short of one’s biggest accomplishment yet is seen as a failure of the current enterprise. This all but guarantees a failure in the perfectionist's own estimation. Tallent writes:

To leave that first page alone is to obscure how much time I lost in pursuit of the beautiful beginning of this book – my long confinement in close-circuit viciousness designating every attempt error f*ckup mistake hideous miscarriage. [3]

There are two options only for the mind infected by maladaptive perfectionism: unearthly beauty or a hideous miscarriage.

Much is made, sometimes, of the psychic propellant of perfectionism, its deeper power source. Tallent, for instance, believes that hers had to do with a mother whose coldness left a deep mark on Tallent’s psyche. Elizabeth Tallent’s mother, much to the dismay of a hospital nurse, refused to take newborn Elizabeth in her arms because the baby was scratched all over. Baby Elizabeth had scratched herself in utero. The mother’s words “you were all scratched” – uttered years later, in a recounting of the story – serve as a refrain of the book. Underneath is a sentiment of self-incrimination, “you did it to yourself.” [4] Tallent had to show herself perfect to make up for scratching herself in her mother's womb.

The more important question, however, is not how maladaptive perfectionism begins but how it may be parried and perhaps turned into its healthier counterpart, the drive to excel. I believe a realistic appraisal of the situation, of how antithetical to the goal of success it is to accept an all or nothing binary, telling oneself that anything short of one’s biggest success yet would amount to a failure – and perhaps, a failure not only of the particular project but defeat, period – is key.

But it is also important to guard against the hidden seductiveness of the perfectionist's self-destructive mindset. For this mindset does have its dreadful appeal for us. There is something soothing about this particular type of malaise. One can almost take refuge in it, telling oneself that there is no point in trying to change anything, because the very nature of the psyche’s illness is an inability to do things differently. Tallent writes similarly:

Even when I opened my mouth to inform one therapist after another perfectionism was killing me, its deprivations suited me to a T: ailment as apology. So sorry I never lived up to my brilliant promise. Psychically, perfectionism is home. [5]

It is precisely this tendency to get cozy with one’s own perfectionism that must be resisted.

Unhealthy perfectionism, then, begins with an intoxicating promise of a big success in the very near future. But we can only maintain a belief of this sort for so long before it becomes clear the promise was a false one. Then the intoxication gradually turns into something different: acceptance of one’s identity as a perfectionist and from here, of the certainty of failure. You tell yourself that unless you are going to cause a sensation, a real stir, there is no point in attempting anything. But to cause a sensation is unlikely, so being a perfectionist, you conclude you need not act. After all, if anything you can possibly achieve is sure to be a failure by your current standards, why bother?

At this stage, perfectionism lulls us into inactivity. Ailment as apology, as Tallent puts it. It kills us, softly.

Of course, chances are that if Tallent had continued writing during those two decades, she would have surpassed her early accomplishment. Maybe not on the first try, or the second, or the third, but eventually.

Maladaptive perfectionism, then, is not simply a desire for perfection but a desire for success without any intermediate failures, without false starts. It is a yearning for a path to greatness that amounts to a constant progression whereby one’s next achievement improves on all previous ones. That is simply not an option for humans.

William F. Lynch, in Images of Hope, discusses perfectionism, with which he himself struggled. Lynch talks about the perfectionist's propensity, mentioned earlier, to focus not on the task at hand but on oneself, judging oneself harshly while at the same time diverting the energy one needs in order to succeed away from work and toward unproductive self-criticism and self-flagellation. Lynch goes so far as to say that the ability not to give in to that propensity and to self-destructive perfectionism in general is the best one we’ve got:

The very ability to turn away from this judgment on himself is the best thing in man, transcending in quality and importance all the things he is tempted to judge. It is the victory we need in our time, to turn away from being our own executioners. [6]

I don’t know whether I would go so far as to say that this ability is the best one we have, but Lynch is certainly right that without it, we turn into our own – scratched, wounded, and bleeding – executioners.

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[1] Tallent, E. (2020). Scratched: A Memoir of Perfectionism. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 13.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 9.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Ibid., 27.

[6] Lynch, W. (1974). Images of Hope: Imagination as Healer of the Hopeless. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.

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