Who knows what perfection is, really?
I clearly knew that this article would not be perfect. Just enough.
Without going too deep in the philosophical part of this, let’s just say that if something is perfect it is definitive as well, it screams “No more!”… and this is the con I am going to put my finger on. The strive to achieve the unachievable causes anger, dissatisfaction, self-deprecation and disappointment…sometimes, self-disgust.
So much, isn’t it?
Being a relational psychotherapist, I will use this frame of work and Transactional Analysis language.
Perfection – Imperfection: a change of perspective?
In Psychology, Perfectionism is split in Adaptive and Maladaptive. The second one is the one that causes self-defeating strategies and self-fulfilling prophecies, while the first one should be the one that helps us with focusing and working hard to achieve what we want.
I don’t buy this: this term can only trigger pain if applied to people, like you and me. The etymology of the word Perfect says it all: from the Latin Per (Completely, thorough) plus Facere (To do). “Completely done” then, without any need of further modification. If this can be applied to production processes, it certainly cannot apply to anything qualitative.
What I mean here is: if a part of you believes that you need to put all your effort into becoming perfect, it is implying that you are imperfect (or defected) right now. Ugh.
How could anybody be completely done and not in need of anything else?
Here is a fitting visualisation: Zeno’s paradox, Achilles and the tortoise. The paradox says that, regardless of Achilles efforts and his athletic skills, he will never reach the tortoise because of the advantage he has given to the animal. For every step forward Achilles might have done, the tortoise has done its equivalent: the points will never merge.
This is absolutely true because we are considering only one dimension: distance. Getting from A to B, here to there.
Hey, it’s a paradox.
This is what perfectionism makes us do: never consider the process of getting there, the time involved, the bloody effort.
The main problem here, is to redefine what the Perfection – Imperfection dyad means.
The cognitive bias a perfectionist will incur in, is to consider that things have only two statuses: complete or incomplete, finished or unfinished, done or not done. A perfectionist will see the two statuses absolutely far away, not considering the effort needed or the necessary time involved.
Let me introduce Nicola, a nickname, who came to therapy because he was never satisfied with his achievements. He arrived in London at the age of 24, worked as waiter and landed a job in Marketing 6 months later. Great, he thought. When I met him, he was earning a reasonably good salary, and going up in his career towards becoming a manager. The anger, self-deprecation and frustration he expressed in every session was intense. In his mind, becoming 28 and not being a manager was shameful, especially in light of other people’s promotions. To him, whatever he was doing in that moment was worthless if the managerial position was not achieved.
Manager, or nothing at all!
With the following sessions, it appeared evident to me that Nicola would have not been satisfied even with becoming a manager. “I mean”, he said, “if I can obtain that in such a short time, I could push for more.”. Here we are at the core part of this: the self-deprecation. The person believes that if getting there is at all possible, there should be something else to get to much better than that.
In Transactional Analysis, this configures itself as a Driver that a child makes in response to the parenting style received. A Driver is a specific interpretation of childhood that allows you to keep going, part of the strategy you made up to ensure you would have received love. It is comfortably called “Be Perfect”.
This is how I imagined Nicola’s perfectionism:
When I shared my thoughts with Nicola, he did not take it well. In his mind, I was basically saying that either his aims were wrong, or that he would not be able to achieve them. Except that I wasn’t: Nicola was projecting his demanding Parent on me, so the only angle he could take was of me pressurising him “to make it right”.
This little rupture in the therapeutic relationship, and its resolve, helped Nicola to feel the weight of endless hours of study he did alone when he was a child, the effort he put in obtaining badges as a scout, the strain in checking every single detail of the event he organised for the church, the mind-reading he did with his friends to anticipate their needs and satisfy them without questions being asked.
All this to be neglected, to self-neglect, to confirm his unworthiness.
Perfected Imperfection: when enough is enough
If we consider for a moment what kind of pressure Perfectionism produces on one’s psyche, we have to take into account the payoff that this provides for the person. As every defence, it comes up with when an individual feels threatened or under attack. There isn’t anything worse for a child than to feel threatened, to feel unwanted or unloved. That’s death, simple as that.
The various systems we are immersed in (just to play a bit of name-and-shame: school, religion, culture etc) can all feel very demanding to a small child coming into the world without much knowledge. The world needs to be digested and interpreted for him/her, because it is a lot to take in. If the parents cannot mediate this information in a non-threatening way… well, here we are.
For for me taking it only to the parents, they have tried their best. They did what they thought was necessary, what felt enough to them.
Oh! What have I said? Enough?
Nicola started to reconsider events and his life position. He discovered that as a defence he appeared to be confident and all-around angry when the big people did not allow him to become manager, and yet he felt very small inside.
Just you, just me
Therapy can help people to just accept who they are and where they are in life, without judging themselves. I’m OK, You’re OK. Exploration of OK-ness seems to be the key.
Nicola saw where he was in life: he was only 28, with a good salary, a track record of successes, a good career in front of him. Not too bad, isn’t it?
Not a great philosopher, but a revolutionary artist completely misunderstood and said “Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”. This person was Van Gogh, probably one of the artists who showed how mental health difficulties can be used to create something unique.
In therapy, we considered for more than 9 months the reasons why his career was “stuck” and he found out that, sometimes, the adult world sucks. Internal politics between managers was keeping him down.
He changed company.
A simple step that meant so much for him: “It’s not me, it’s them!”.
Yes, Nicola. You’re very right.
This is how our deeper journey started
Giovanni Felice Pace is a Counselling Psychologist HCPC registered and Chartered Member of the BPS. He is finishing his training in Relational Transactional Analysis. He works with adolescents and adults, in individual and couple/group therapy in his private practice based in London. He used to work mainly with Autism, Personality Disorders and Psychosis before deciding to become a psychotherapist. You can contact Giovanni via his website, Twitter or Facebook