Striving for Perfection in an Imperfect World


People want to “better themselves,” to “be all they can be.” And society – among its many mixed and contradictory messages – largely encourages this. Our news and entertainment media are saturated with images and arguments promoting self-betterment. Often these messages hold up impossible standards for perfection, from the trim and toned bodies and sculpted features of Hollywood celebrities to the entertainment spectacles promoted by bridal magazines and fantasy wedding shows. Such media images and standards get internalized in our brains and reinforced in our personal circles.

What’s Wrong With Perfection?

If high standards are good, why aren’t the highest standards the best? Sometimes they are. In engineering, aviation, and medicine, for example, lives may depend on plans being perfectly sound, execution of those plans being as perfect as possible, and even day-to-day maintenance being held to unbending standards.

We may still hear people pay a compliment by calling someone a perfectionist. On the plus side, perfectionism can drive organization, attention to detail, and persistence that often foster high achievement. We also hear the word used negatively- as in the business world, where it may mean a dithering, unproductive procrastinator or elitist snob.

Perfectionism itself is not generally considered a personality disorder, but a recognizable personality trait or disposition. Perfectionism becomes a problem when the precision appropriate to hanging artwork in a gallery gets applied to planning the office party – to the point where everyone dreads the event – or to maintaining bathroom hand towels so fussily that they never get used. It’s a problem when we never fully use our own abilities because the nagging specter of perfection – either our own “perfect” standards or the ones we impute to others – paralyzes us in planning, tracking and detail stages.

Expecting perfection at every moment and in every action from ourselves, from co-workers, and from those we love only begets disappointment and frustration (and often anger). A driving and driven perfectionism can lead to inability to face and admit failures and to learn from them; spawn denial about our flaws and their consequences; and result in withdrawal, alienation of family and friends, loneliness, and premature death.

At this point, the effects of extreme or “maladaptive” perfectionism sound an awful lot like the effects of addiction. They share an element of compulsion, and both can risk all we hold dear.

Familiar Associations

What caught the attention of psychologists and psychotherapists about the perfectionist disposition was its high correlation with more harmful psychological conditions like depression and eating disorders – and even with suicide and general risk of death from stress-related physical ailments.

It’s not high standards themselves or the impulse toward excellence that define perfectionism as a morbidity and mortality risk. Mitigating effects of maladaptive perfectionism may focus on cognitive and behavioral ways to question all-or-nothing thinking, its effects on our own efforts, and how it affects how we see the efforts and judgments of others. Another therapeutic approach looks for thwarted needs and wants that drive the compulsion to perfection. Cognitive techniques may also address how to inoculate oneself against ongoing or intermittent pressure toward perfection from media, family, work, and social situation.

Does Recovering from Addiction Require Perfection?

Isn’t the usual approach to controlling substance addiction or violent behavior a kind of (negative) perfectionism: You must not do these things ever?

Well, yes and no. The framework of the original twelve steps, after all, worked out the system of complete abstention as the means of sobriety based on experience. For most addicts, negotiation with the addiction sets up failure; it makes sense to have a standard that is an absolute.

Twelve-step programs also begin from the assumption that nobody is perfect, and that trying to wrestle addiction to the ground and vanquish it on our own is foolish as well as futile. So twelve-step programs simultaneously hold up a high standard, refer to our own dependence on powers greater than ourselves, and provide a community of shared support and compassion in case we slip in the lifelong struggle against addiction.

And of course, with both addiction and patterns of violence, a whole new element comes in when we harm others. Whether caused by a general weakness or the particular weakness of over-reliance on one’s own strength, harm is harm and crime is crime. It may be an absolute to state that you should never harm another. It’s pretty far, though, from a standard of perfection.

The beauty and appeal of twelve-step programs largely stem from their willingness to acknowledge imperfection and failure. And their efficacy stems largely from bringing things down to cases: not “Geez, how will I ever be as ‘perfect’ as that twenty-years-clean-and-sober guy?” – rather, “What is the next step?”

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