Perfectionism: Why do I want to be perfect?

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Have you ever felt yourself cringe over a typo in a piece of text, even if you didn’t write it? Have you ever found yourself perfecting the appearance of a piece of work and before you know it, you’re frustrated to discover that hours have passed tweaking all those minute little details? Or do you have a habit of giving yourself regular mental slaps upside the head when you do something “stupid”?

All these are the marks of a perfectionist. Someone who has a tendency towards being critical of mistakes and strive to be the best. You can take the saywhydoi.com Perfectionism Test to indicate how much of a perfectionist you may (or may not) be.

Many of us have some perfectionist tendencies, some more than others. But why do people strive for perfection?


Why do I want to be perfect?

Whilst I believe it may be that certain people are more predisposed to becoming perfectionists, it is far more likely that perfectionism is a learned behavioural adaptation. What made them learn to be perfectionists?

1.) They learned that “getting it right” makes them feel good

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Whenever any of us do something well, most of us would feel a little glow of pride and self-satisfaction. It feels good. Why does it feel good? Because we feel a little more worthy of respect than before; a little more valuable. Our self-esteem rises. Somewhere in our minds we form the subconscious false belief that: “When I do things right, I am more valuable and worthy of respect”. It is not surprising then, that the need to do well becomes ingrained, masking the more basic human need to be a valuable human being.

The danger with this way of thinking is that whilst it’s great to feel good about yourself when you do well, if your confidence is so dependent on your success and achievements, what happens when you *don’t* do well? Your confidence becomes as unstable as a dandelion in the breeze, flying this way or that as the winds of success come and go. By handing over the control of your confidence to the winds of change, it leaves you vulnerable and fearful of failure. And when you do fail, as we all do sometimes, you feel worthless. The highs and lows that come with perfectionism are extreme.

We need to learn that our self-worth and how valuable we are inside, has nothing to do with external actions which we may get right or wrong. We need to be aware that we ourselves conjure up values to neutral events when we decide whether something is good enough or not. We are the ones who give these neutral events emotional charges. What we think of as success or a failure, is not necessarily the reality. It is our perception of what reality is rather than it being an absolute truth.

Who you are inside and how you feel inside is independent of external things. It is our thought processes that connect the external and internal worlds as if they were intrinsically connected. In fact they aren’t connected at all. The connection is just an illusion of the mind.

Why else do perfectionists become perfectionists?

2.) Roles models drilled into them the idea that they are only as valuable as their achievements:

During your upbringing parents tell you you’re “good” when you have good behaviour.

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Teachers tell you you’re a “good boy/ girl” when you answer a question correctly in class.

In fact you’re not a good boy/ girl *because* you answer a question correctly or because you are well-behaved. It’s just the answer or your behaviour that was good and this has little to do with who you are or how “good” you are as a person.

The actions we take need to be differentiated from who we are as a human being. They are often erroneously equated as one and the same thing.

You are the same “you” that you were before and after answering the question, or behaving in a certain way. You are neither better nor worse.

The same principles comes into play later in life with friends and coworkers. When you give people insights that they value, and they respond with praise, adoration and respect, it is easy to start believing that your insights make you more valuable. It is as if you are more worthy of love and acceptance when you have the perfect answers for things. But once again, you do not gain or lose value by having good insights. At your core, you still are the same person.

If you have a strong independent core, you’ll feel that you are good, and worthy of love and acceptance even when you supply the wrong answers or behave less-than-perfectly sometimes.

Another reason people are perfectionists is:

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3.) In our search for individuality and standing out from the crowd as “special” we may seek perfection
Some people identify so closely with their actions and external behaviours that they begin to think that what makes them special is the fact that their actions are always “good”.

A straight-A student can lose his sense of identity when “disaster strikes” and he gets a B grade. Even worse, when straight-A students are accepted to a highly competitive university like Harvard or Cambridge, and are suddenly no longer top of the class, they feel lost. Not only do they lose one of their primary sources of self-esteem building, but at the core of this disaster is almost an existential crisis: “If I’m not an A-student, who am I?”

Studying is not a vehicle for defining your identity. Studying is a means of gaining knowledge for practical use in the world, and can even be simply an enjoyable process.

One of the problems with perfectionists is that they can get stuck on labels like “I’m an A-student” ; “I am [insert job title here]” ; “I am good” or “I am intelligent”. They believe that the thing that makes them special is getting the best possible label.

No label defines anyone. A grade defines your teacher’s opinion on one piece of work. A job title defines your job. Intelligence may define a statement you made. None of these external labels define you or who you are on the inside.

Another reason people seek perfectionism:

4.) For some people, the purpose of life seems to be to attain perfection

Attaining perfection is the goal that many perfectionists aim for. For them, not to strive for perfection nullifies the whole purpose of being.

The thing is, this goal of perfection is impossible to attain. You’ll spend your whole life chasing after something and never getting it, because nothing will ever be perfect. How does a person enjoy life like this? It just results in disappointment and frustration.

Surely it’s not about being perfect, it’s about being happy.

How does a person overcome perfectionism?
Click here for Part 2 of this article: Overcoming Perfectionism

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One Response to Perfectionism: Why do I want to be perfect?

  1. hey says:

    Just wanted to say thanks for posting! I found this helpful.

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