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The Root of Perfectionism

The Root of Perfectionism

I’m a recovering perfectionist.

Not the wanna-be kind, that says they’re a perfectionist because they have high standards.  No, I’m the kind that always feels bad about what they’ve done, because it’s not quite as good as it could have been.

Worse, I tend to criticize what other people have done, on the same basis.  Get tangled in internet flamewars over minor things that, again, could be better than they are.  And I don’t give people nearly enough positive feedback for the things that they did do, that are in fact better than they could have done, or how improved things are over how they were before.

At one time, I used to think that my knack for seeing how things “could be better” was a gift: it offered the possibility of continuing improvement, and certainly it has been commercially useful at times.

But what I didn’t see, is that this knack was really not the root cause of my perfectionism.  Seeing how things could be better, is not perfectionism.  Aspiring to a high standard, is not perfectionism. Even wanting to be the very best you can be, is not perfectionism.

No.  Perfectionism is just:

Feeling bad when something isn’t perfect!

But where does that feeling come from?

Recently, I’ve been delving again into The Work, which I’d only played around with a bit in the past.  At the time I first learned about it, I was looking at it only as a directed mindhacking tool, aiming the questions at specific blocks or issues…  and mostly finding I could invent better tools for the purpose.  (Ah, perfectionism!)

But recently, I’ve looked at it again, and noticed that its overall philosophy of questioning “shoulds” fits quite well with the other tools in my toolkit, and that it’s actually a very quick and easy way to rapidly troubleshoot bad feelings about almost anything.  And as I’ve been getting into the habit of questioning every bad feeling, my skill at finding what it is I think I “should” do is improving.

So this morning, when I found myself mentally critiquing something my wife had done, I decided to actually do something about it.

And as I put together my weekly vitamins, I kept asking, “What was I thinking?  What do I believe that leads me to critique in that way, and feel bad about not saying anything?”

At first only a vague sense of unease came up, but it gradually refined into a general sense that, well, things were “supposed to be different”.  That if, well, things could be better, then they should be better.

Aha, I thought.  A “should”.  I can use The Work on that.  “Is that true?”

The answer comes back: no.

And it’s a wave of relief, washing over me.  It suddenly makes sense to me how other people can even see that something could be better, and yet not seem to care about it as much as I do, or feel an urge to do something about it.  I mean, just because something could be better, that doesn’t mean you have to do something about it.  It makes total sense.

But somehow, I don’t feel finished.  It’s like the urge to critique has diminished, like it’s not quite so actively evil not to denounce things as imperfect when they are, but it’s still sad.

And as I’m mulling over the phrasing of “things that could be better, should be better”, it occurs to me that there’s a part I haven’t questioned:

The part where things could be better!

And I have to ask myself, “Is that true?”

And in a flash, it comes to me: no.  No it’s not.

The thing I was critiquing, could not have been better, at the moment I was critiquing it.  How could it possibly have been?

In fact, how can anything be better than it actually is?

Taken literally enough, the very idea is absurd.  Whatever is, is.  Unless you actually have a time machine to go back and change everything that led to it being that way, it is a literal and physical impossibility for something to be better than it is!

What is left out of the idea that “things could be better”, is the dimension of time.  You can improve things so that they are better in the future than they are now.  But you cannot improve things backward in time, so that they are better now than they are now.  What would that even mean?

You can’t change what is.  You can only change what will be.  So the error in my thinking is not that I imagine how things could be better…  it’s that I’m imagining that better tomorrow, today.

Instead of in the future, where it actually belongs.

But the even bigger wave of relief that follows this realization is not really driven by all this logic of time and cause-and-effect.  It’s mainly the feeling, the visceral gut-level feeling, that imperfection is no longer a tragedy to be grieved, or an emergency to be fixed.

Because things aren’t supposed to be any more perfect than they already are.

And so, if something isn’t exactly as I imagined it, or as I could imagine it…

It doesn’t mean I’ve already failed.

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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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