A few years ago, I went to go see a therapist because I had become depressed to the point of dysfunction. One of the critiques she gave me was that I “had perfectionism,” and this was something I desperately needed to overcome in order to live a fulfilling life and learn to love myself. To this end, she advised that I do “perfectionism exposures” in which she imagined that I would actively counteract my sinful tendencies to perfect by means of purposefully turning in assignments with errors to professors and by using botched recipes to make baked goods, among others. I decided against the former, but, since my therapist was so adamant with regard to the latter, I made her office sugarless brownies. Yum!
I understand the rationale for often equating perfectionism to something negative and maladaptive. Indeed, multiple studies have found that perfectionism can be a risk factor for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, perhaps because many perfectionists find it intolerable to underperform, err, or achieve less than their perceived full potential. It makes sense why possessing a trait that makes you dislike yourself when you don’t do things “just right” would be counterproductive and lead to a less happy person. There is inherent value in learning, doing, and living, regardless of achievement or the attainment of specific goals.
But I wonder now, is there not a positive way to exist as a perfectionist? And are we not all perfectionists, in a sense? We think of the term “perfection” as meaning literally error-free and completely flawless to a neurotic extent, with the epitome of perfectionists represented by the obsessive student in the library, taking notes on highlighted notes, the student who has it all. However, I think that “perfection” may actually mean “as good as possible given the constraints of being human and while accepting one’s flaws.” Perfectionism, in my opinion, is not synonymous with an obsessive, anxious need to excel or the collapse of one’s conception of self sans high achievement. Rather, perfectionism signals the individual’s desire to seek out moments of high quality, of precision, of sublimity, while still maintaining one’s sense of self-worth if such moments are few and far between.
I make errors often, I don’t have completely untarnished grades or blemish-free skin, and I have never been some kind of child prodigy on the instruments that I play. I am, by nature, imperfect. Human. But for my part, perfection exists in the moments—both small and large—of high quality. It exists in a sentence I speak in Mandarin with completely correct tones on any given day, in the sunny days spent by Lake Michigan in my hometown with my best friend, in the laughs I’ve shared and the chocolate I’ve eaten. It lives in the times I wrote an essay or story I was proud of, and in the moments I connected on a deep level with another person. It permeates my memories of my lessons with my erhu professor. Yes, it’s true some of these examples pertain to school, but they don’t inherently have to do with achievement. They have to do with finding joy in going about one’s life and in learning, and I think many other people actively seek out such moments of “perfection,” as I’ve defined it, and consider themselves perfectionists too.
To know perfection, you must necessarily know imperfection. Yet, for the moments of excellence in your life, you hardly know anything else and you wish simply for this “perfection” to continue forever.
It is this desire that signals true perfectionism, and perhaps all of us are perfectionists at our core—a good thing, not a bad thing.