You can’t be too perfect

I often speak to people who proudly describe themselves as “perfectionists.” However, after we talk for a while, it’s interesting how many of their anxieties appear to center around that very thing. Though ‘perfectionist’ has a virtuous ring to it, extreme perfectionism isn’t just a quest for excellence or a desire to get the job done perfectly. It can sometimes be a neurotic fear of error that results in unnecessary and painful emotions.

From my experience, I’ve come up with a list of five mistakes in thinking that can contribute to these feelings and anxieties:

(1) “I will look bad in front of others.” In any task, the primary purpose is not to look good. The purpose is to accomplish the task. If you’re successful, you’ll look just fine. At most, looking good in front of others will be a happy side benefit of accomplishment.

(2) “An error is a delay and delays are bad.” Actually, an error is a symptom of the fact that you didn’t know everything you thought you knew with respect to the task. While this may be disappointing, the delay is actually a good thing, since you can now take the time to correct things rather than continue on in ignorance. Imagine you discovered you were driving in the wrong direction, or on the wrong road. That discovery would be disappointing, but the time taken to correct your course is crucial and necessary.

(3) “The end result is spoiled by any disruption along the way.” This is silly. Imagine your plane flight is delayed when you’re going on vacation. It’s upsetting at the time, but once you get to your destination it’s as if you never had the disruption. The two are unrelated.

(4) “Mistakes and problems are as important as success and accomplishments.” Not true. A mistake is a temporary setback along the way to accomplishment. Mistakes are forgettable, other than whatever you learn from them. If a mistake is based on faulty information, you now possess that corrected information for the rest of your life. You ultimately gained more out of the mistake than you lost.

(5) “I should have known better.” There’s really no “should” to knowing something. You know what you know. You either know enough to accomplish a certain task, or you don’t. You might think you know everything you need to know, and later discover that you don’t — so you make the correction. Human knowledge is neither automatic nor infallible, and it’s not a moral failure to not know something.

If you’re willing to correct your errors, internalize those corrections and move ahead with your new knowledge, then you’re doing just fine. Fear of your own fallibility is irrational. We humans are subject to error, and we’re also subject to correction. That’s what reason, thinking and observation are for. The only thing “better” would be infallibility. And that’s not going to happen.

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 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 manage to come to the mistaken conclusion that it’s always a catastrophe to be wrong.

There’s a rational response to this. It may take a while to automatize that response, but the perfectionist needs to remind him- or herself that the vast majority of mistakes are not fatal. 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 that you obtained from your error, and move on. The neurotic perfectionist cannot or will not do this. Anything less than absolute perfection is morally incomprehensible. He holds himself hostage to these false beliefs, and when the inevitable mistakes do happen (and they will!), anxiety, apprehension and even anger can be the result.

Excessive perfectionism and the quest for excellence are not the same thing. People who achieve excellence and develop competence along the way avoid an irrational desire for infallibility. Instead, they choose a life where ever-increasing knowledge leads to never-ending improvements. And as a result, they are happier, more peaceful and even more competent.