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Perfectionism, Stress, and Living in the Real World

"One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. Perfection simply doesn't exist.....

Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist” Stephen Hawking The above quote, from one of the greatest thinkers of the last century, illuminates something self-evident, yet I think underappreciated, about the conditions in which we find ourselves. Namely, that error is the norm, and that this is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but a simple, cosmic truth about the way things are and will always be. Whatever the word means, ‘perfection’ is an illusion. Indeed, the only place in the universe in which something like perfection can reliably be found is in the mind. Perhaps somewhat absurdly, our minds appear capable of generating incredibly powerful beliefs in both the possibility and desirability of this thing we call ‘perfection’, in spite of the fact that no one has ever seen it, heard it, touched it, nor smelled it anywhere in the real world. Perfectionism, then, is the pursuit of something which can never be truly actualised in the world, but is strictly confined to our imaginations, destined to stay there indefinitely. Some have taken this further, declaring that a fully committed perfectionist is someone who vows never to do anything at all, because to undertake any action in the real world is by definition, to render oneself vulnerable to forces of error, and to thereby corrupt the imagined form of ‘perfection’ that rests so comfortably within the mind. This is where perfectionism seems to run into trouble for us. It is in the collision between the physical world of flaws which we must inhabit and this imagined one, between the actual and the unrealisable, between the facts out there in front of us and our deeply held hopes, expectations, and intentions of producing something which cannot be externally expressed.

When this conflict emerges; that is, when perfectionism meets reality, stress becomes virtually inevitable. Stress is produced when the demands placed upon a given physical system far outweigh its capacities. Some stress is good. It allows us to adapt, and thus to incrementally improve ourselves. We see this quite clearly when we engage in exercise. By choosing to impose some physical resistance on our bodies, we endorse the idea that over time we may become stronger, quicker, or more powerful than we are today, bit by bit. But too much stress and we injure ourselves. For the same reason that none of us would try to lift the absolute heaviest weight in the gym, none of us have been built to meet the demands of perfection, whether it be in sport, in academics, or in our relationships. And so when we actively seek it, we simply exhaust our capabilities in trying to bridge a gap which simply cannot be bridged.

My advice for perfectionists, then, is broadly this: There is no need to resist or to fundamentally change who you are. But you may benefit from recognising when a commitment to perfection as an ultimate goal or ideal holds you back, if indeed it does. Noticing when you are clinging to standards you wouldn’t apply to others, and instead setting targets for yourself which are specific, attainable, and measurable, will likely be strategically more effective and enjoyable for you in the long run. You might try to channel your impulse for perfection, to use perfectionism as a kind of internal ‘improvement detector’ of sorts, alerting you to things in your life you really wish could be better. If and when the alarm buzzes with some perfectionistic thought or desire, identify whether it is calling your attention to something you have the ability to improve. If so, try to improve it as best you can. If not, seek to fully accept it as something which is consistent with the natural order of the universe and entirely out of your hands. All we can really do is get better. The world is made of mistakes, and so are we. Recognising this enables us to remain in contact with reality. Figuring out which mistakes in the world we can do something about, and distinguishing these from the ones we can't, endows us with the capacity to thrive in it.


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