Oliver Burke­man

The prob­lem with per­fec­tion­ism. Plus My life in sex : the blind man

The Guardian - Weekend - - Contents -

Ac­cord­ing to a spate of re­cent re­ports, per­fec­tion­ism is on the rise, es­pe­cially among young peo­ple. This is a very bad thing – per­fec­tion­ism is linked to anx­i­ety, de­pres­sion and many other prob­lems – but the sil­ver lin­ing is that we’re no longer talk­ing as if it were some­thing to be proud of. For those com­ing of age in a win­ner-takes-all econ­omy, where flaw­less suc­cess seems like the only vi­able al­ter­na­tive to penury, per­fec­tion­ism is an en­tirely for­giv­able af­flic­tion. But it is an af­flic­tion. Those who still de­fend be­ing a per­fec­tion­ist seem to mean some­thing like “be­ing com­mit­ted to con­stant im­prove­ment”. But that’s dif­fer­ent. Per­fec­tion­ism is the be­lief that any­thing short of the very best is a shame­ful fail­ure. It’s a recipe for be­ing a mis­er­able high achiever, or worse: some stud­ies sug­gest it’s ac­tu­ally an ob­sta­cle to high achieve­ment.

One com­mon re­sponse to per­fec­tion­ism, draw­ing on sto­icism and cog­ni­tive be­havioural ther­apy, is to en­cour­age the suf­ferer to see that her fears are ex­ag­ger­ated – that things won’t re­ally be so bad if she flunks the exam, gets crit­i­cised for her work per­for­mance or lets the house get messy. (This is the logic in a wise sug­ges­tion from the psy­chol­o­gist Jes­sica Pryor: pick some “low stakes” area of life, like tidi­ness at home, and ex­per­i­ment with let­ting go of per­fec­tion­ism there. Later, you can ex­tend the ap­proach to other parts of life.) Per­fec­tion­ism means a life spent un­hap­pily lean­ing into the fu­ture, be­cause no mat­ter how well you per­form on any given chal­lenge, there’s al­ways the next one to stress about. So it makes sense to help peo­ple see that, when that next chal­lenge ar­rives, an im­per­fect per­for­mance wouldn’t spell catas­tro­phe.

The prob­lem, though, is that this is still a fu­ture­ori­ented per­spec­tive. Yes, it helps you worry less about what’ll hap­pen if you fail to meet your ul­tra­high stan­dards next week, or next year. But it al­lows the sneaky per­fec­tion­ist mind – I speak from ex­pe­ri­ence – to keep se­cretly hop­ing that when that mo­ment ar­rives, you’ll do per­fectly after all. And so, ar­guably, a bet­ter an­ti­dote to per­fec­tion­ism is to re­alise that it’s al­ready too late. It’s not that your at­tempts to live per­fectly might fail, but that they have failed: per­fec­tion is al­ready a lost cause. From child­hood un­til to­day, you’ve been fail­ing to cul­ti­vate count­less skills, nur­ture count­less friend­ships, achieve count­less goals – if only be­cause at­ten­tion is fi­nite, so fo­cus­ing on any­thing means not fo­cus­ing on al­most ev­ery­thing.

A few iso­lated “per­fect” achieve­ments may still be pos­si­ble – a top grade in an exam, say – but only through be­ing im­per­fect in other ar­eas. And for most un­der­tak­ings (from plan­ning a hol­i­day or buy­ing a new out­fit to mar­riage or par­ent­hood), a per­fect out­come was im­pos­si­ble from the out­set: there are too many con­flict­ing vari­ables for you to hope to max­imise them all. Of course, the fact that life is there­fore in­evitably a sort of fail­ure ap­plies to ab­so­lutely ev­ery­one, which makes it strange to call it a “fail­ure” at all. If ev­ery­one’s guar­an­teed to miss the tar­get, clearly the trou­ble is with the tar­get.

Oh, and an­other thing about achiev­ing per­fec­tion in the fu­ture: if you’re in your mid-20s or older, your brain and body are prob­a­bly al­ready in de­cline. So there’s that

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