You know who you are. You’re the one who can’t post a blog or turn in an assignment until it’s been edited and proofread 47 times, in case it can still be improved. Sometimes it never gets turned in. You rewash the dishes your partner has just washed, and remow the lawn your partner has just mowed. You want it done right. Perfectionism is not a bad thing; if I ever require neurosurgery, I want my surgeon to be a perfectionist. Same goes for the mechanic preparing my airplane for takeoff. But the standard of perfection, in a lot of circumstances, makes people miserable, and makes outcomes worse.
Somewhere along the way, we have gotten the impression that anything less than perfection is worthless, or reflects badly on us. Musicians suffer if one note of a performance is out of place, even if it is so subtle that no one else notices or cares. In the midst of a crisis, a quick response may be more helpful than a more careful but slower one, but we can torture ourselves over our imperfection anyway.
Perfectionism can lead to depression. If we constantly judge not just our performances but ourselves, according to an exacting standard that nobody can meet all the time, our disappointment can lead us to a dark place. We can come to think that our value depends upon our getting it right all the time. That can be a deeply felt belief that is hard to challenge, and hard to give up, even when we think it doesn’t seem quite reasonable. Where does it come from?
Lots of places. Maybe getting straight A’s was expected in your family. Some partners offer criticism for minor lateness or unexpected candor. People of Christian traditions can point to scripture, as a source of pressure to be perfect. The often quoted verse Matthew 5:48 advises people to “be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect”. Yoiks. Ironically, modern scholarship suggests that this is a misleading translation of an ancient text that really means something more like “be complete, as your father in heaven is complete”. You do not have a perfect circle until it completes its orbit. Completion is something we move towards, and the trajectory of our path, toward ever growing artistry, or knowledge, or kindness, or justice, can guide us without tormenting us that we are not there yet. People of other traditions are invited to share here, the teachings that lead them to think their community expects perfection of them.
In the meantime, if we can let go of the worry about getting our work, our hair or our finances just exactly right, we can become more free to take creative chances, and to notice, along the way, the moments that may be at once profound and imperfect.