Self-Knowledge • Trauma & Childhood
How Perfectionism Makes Us Ill
There is a kind of person who seems at first glance to have an admirable degree of self-motivation, thoroughness and drive. They are up at dawn, they rarely take holidays, they are always sneaking in an extra hour or two of work. Their bosses are highly impressed, they are constantly promoted, their grades have been excellent since primary school, they never miss an appointment or turn in a piece of work that is less than stellar.
We like to say that such a person has high standards; we might even anoint them with the term ‘perfectionist’. It might seem churlish to locate any problems here. Why complain about a somewhat overzealous devotion to perfection in a troubled and lackadaisical world? There could surely be nothing too awful about high exactitude? What could be so imperfect about perfectionism?
The concern is not so much with the work of the perfectionist (its recipients are in a privileged position) as with the state of their soul. Perfectionism, tragically, does not spring primarily from a love of perfection in and of itself. It has its origins in far more regrettable feeling of never being good enough. It is rooted in self-hatred, sparked by memories of being disapproved of or neglected by those who should have esteemed us warmly in childhood.
We become perfectionists from a primary sense of being unworthy; uninteresting, flawed, a disappointment, a let-down, a nuisance. So powerful is this sense, so appalling is its pressure on our psyches, we are prepared to do more or less anything to expunge it. Working all hours, currying favour with authority, doing twice as much as the next person – these are the tools with which we seek to cleanse our apparently undeserving selves.
One part of the mind promises the other that the completion of the next challenge will finally usher in peace. We can be good at pretending that our ambitions are sane, but our work has a Sisyphean dimension: no sooner have we rolled our working boulder up the hill then it will tumble back down again. There will never be a point of rest or a lasting feeling of completion. In truth, we are ill rather than driven.
We aren’t interested in perfect work at all: we are trying to escape from a feeling of being awful people, and work simply happens to be the medium through which we strive to grow tolerable in our own eyes. But because our problem didn’t begin with work, work can never prove the solution.
Our real goal is not, as we think, to be an ideal employee or professional, it is to feel acceptable. But responsibility for a sense of acceptance cannot be handed over to our bosses or customers or a ceaselessly demanding capitalist system; these will never let us rest easy because it is in their nature, with no evil intent, always to demand more.
We need to shift our sense of where our drive is coming from. We are not unnaturally interested in working perfectly, we are labouring under an unusually intense impression that we are dreadful people – a problem for which working harder cannot be the answer.
We need to allow ourselves to imagine that we deserved to be accepted from the start and that it cannot forever be our fault in our minds that we were not. It is not up to us to try to prove that we have a right to exist. It is asking too much of ourselves to have to experience a referendum on our legitimacy every time we hand in a report, every exam we have to pass, every customer we have to serve. Working well is an admirable goal, but it becomes a symptom of mental perturbation when it becomes the cover for a secret aspiration to correct a deficit of early love. We should welcome an ability to tolerate periods of laziness, not because we are congenitally idle, but because it is a sign that we have learnt to speak more kindly to ourselves and to be appropriately angry with those who could not at the outset accept us for who we were without a surfeit of trophies and prizes.