What is a “perfectionist?” A perfectionist is someone with mistaken thinking. Perfectionism doesn’t refer to a quest for excellence, or a demand (placed on self or others) to get the best job done possible. Perfectionism refers to a neurotic fear, an unhealthy functioning of one’s mind that results in unnecessary and painful emotions.
The psychological root of perfectionism is an irrational fear of error. To understand the error of perfectionism, you first have to understand what mistakes in thinking cause one to be afraid of error in the first place. Here they are:
(1) “I will look badly in front of others.” In any quest or task, the purpose is not to look good. The purpose is to accomplish whatever the task is. If you accomplish it successfully, you’ll look just fine. At most, looking good in front of others will be a happy side benefit of accomplishment. In truth, it might not matter at all.
(2) “An error is a delay and delays are always bad.” Actually, an error is a symptom. It’s a symptom of the fact that you didn’t know everything you thought you knew with respect to accomplishing the task. While this may be disappointing at first, the delay is actually a good thing. Given that there was something important you didn’t know, it’s much better to find it out and take the time to correct it than to continue along in ignorance. Imagine you were on a road trip and discovered you were driving in the wrong direction, or on the wrong road. While the discovery would be disappointing at first, the delay and the time taken in correcting your course is crucial and necessary.
(3) “The end result is ruined by any disruption along the way.” This is silly. Have you ever taken a vacation involving an airplane flight, and the flight is delayed or disrupted along the way? It’s upsetting at the time, but once you get to your destination it’s as if you never had the disruption. One does not take away from the other.
(4) “Mistakes and problems have the same importance — or even more importance — than success and accomplishments.” Not true. A mistake or a problem is a temporary speed bump along the way to eventual accomplishment in some task. Ultimately, mistakes are forgettable, other than to the extent which you need to learn something new. If a mistake is based on faulty information, or missing information, then you possess that corrected information for the rest of the task — in fact, for the rest of your life. You ultimately gained more out of the mistake than you lost.
(5) “I should have known better.” There is no “should” to knowing something. You know what you know. What you know is either correct, or false. You either know enough to accomplish a certain task, or you don’t. You might not know enough, while thinking that you do. You might think you know everything you need to know, and later discover that you don’t. When either of these things happen, you make the correction. Human knowledge is neither automatic nor infallible. It’s not a moral failure to honestly not know something. So long as you’re always willing to correct your errors, internalize the corrections and move ahead with your new knowledge — never evading or ignoring it — then you’re doing just fine. Fear of your own fallibility is irrational. All human knowledge is subject to error; but all human error is subject to correction. That’s what reason, thinking and observation are for. They’re everything you have, and they’re plenty. The only thing “better” would be infallibility, a person who’s incapable of error, and that’s pure fantasy.
The overriding emotion of an irrational perfectionist is a terror of ‘ruining’ everything. A perfectionist feels that if he makes one mistake along the way, everything else will be wiped out. Some perfectionists are control freaks and even brutal dictators. Many others are well-meaning, or at least start out that way. They’re simply trying to be objective and competent. While they rationally assume, ‘There’s a right and a wrong, a correct and incorrect way of doing things,’ they make an evaluation about this fact and conclude, ‘It’s always a catastrophe to be wrong.’ The proper and rational response to this is, ‘The vast majority of mistakes are not going to kill you. If you’re still alive and alert enough to be aware of your mistake, then you’re able to dust yourself off, internalize the new knowledge obtained from your error, and move on.’ The perfectionist cannot or will not do this. He’s hostage to his false belief that because he has made an error (or somebody else has), all is ruined.
Perfectionism and the quest for excellence are not the same thing. People who achieve excellence and develop competence along the way eschew an irrational desire for infallibility. Instead, they favor of life as a place where ever-increasing knowledge leads to never-ending improvements.