The Dark Side of Perfectionism

“When Tiger Woods plays, the market rises.” people used to say. There was a period that one single golf player could actually impact the world to such a degree, that he could drive the stocks up in the market just with his performance. The effect was especially evident at the start of the week, right after the Sunday’s games that he would participate in, and it wasn’t uncommon to witness even a 20% rise from it.

The Downfall Of Tiger Woods

There are few athletes as obsessed with perfection as Tiger Woods was. His drive for excellence was ferocious and unprecedented. He re-invented his swing 3 times in his career when he was already ahead and there was no apparent reason for it. And just to get a glimpse on the size of that change, for that shift in movement, every time he would embark on such an endeavor there was a period of approximately 18 months that his performance would be driven down and he would lose a number of matches till he gets the gasp of the new move. Swings are notoriously hard to get right. Their mechanics can get overwhelming and many players have been lost in the pursuit of conquering them only to succumb to injuries or phycological dead-ends by over-analyzing them.

But even though Tiger Woods would always strike back after a while there are many people speculating that this drive for perfection is what drew him into his downfall. A pattern that established by his father when he was only 3 years old ended up consuming his whole being to such a degree that the pressure proved to be eventually overwhelming.

“The greatest thing about tomorrow is, I will be better than I am today. And that’s how I look at my life. I will be a better golfer, I will be a better person, I will be a better father, I will be a better husband, I will be a better friend. That’s the beauty of tomorrow.” — Tiger Woods

How many times do we encounter people, proudly announcing the trouble their perfectionism has dragged them into, in the most draining theatrical way that deserves 5 Oscars? It resembles the hidden smugness that exists in all those around us, trying to convince us of how ‘busy’ they are. Quiet down for a second and you belong to the plebeian few with no purpose in life. Reveal any lack of plans for a day and your status is gonna fall faster than the economy amidst the coronavirus bubble. Modern society comes with new rules on what is accepted as ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ and it shouldn’t be surprising that most of them are actually quite superfluous in nature and shine as good when in the inside they hide rotten moist.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with striving for a job well done. There is nothing contemptuous or destructive in and of itself, and I actually have been a victim of such a mentality more times than I can remember. I would keep working the details of an already finished and good-enough project, just for the sake of it and I would keep refining that little sentence like it’s the most important part of the article and a crucial detail to the whole piece when I kinda knew full well it wouldn’t make much difference anyway. But still, I would drain on it as if it was the last thing on earth that could make it bind together and make sense. And as noble as the whole act seems to be superficially speaking, someone needs to ask where the whole play is originated from and what kind of needs it is trying to cover.

The Pursuit Of Excellence

Perfectionism has its basis in the feeling you are not enough and that you are lacking behind. It’s a raw attempt to cover for that emptiness and balance out this deficiency by covering at all angles. Of course, it’s gonna be well received by everyone else. Of course, it is gonna generate that spark of good emotions by watching the smile on your audience’s face. But the problem with perfectionism is not the end results of it but where it is coming from. And the fact is that it is trying to cover a need that requires different means to be fulfilled.

“But I am learning that perfection isn’t what matters. In fact, it’s the very thing that can destroy you if you let it.” ― Emily Giffin

Imagine a person that is always there for everybody else. He is listening to his friends and their needs; he is trying to help them out with the best advice he can give and he is even getting out of his way to make sure they can solve any issues. Wouldn’t such an attitude be received with open arms by everyone else? I mean, who doesn’t want someone to help them out with what they are going through. But this is the tragedy of the situation because whatever benefits the bigger whole is gonna be applauded and tagged with the label of ‘good’ when in reality is a one-sided game that is meant to help only the receiving part.

Besides that, it’s gonna set the basis of a contract that sets the bar really high and is gonna burn you down with high expectations that everyone assigned on you. From then on, it can only go negative as you either delivering on them or you are losing their approval.

The Inner Praiser

Most assume that people have to deal with their inner judge throughout their lives. The voice that speaks of ‘how stupid we are’ and ‘how heavily we failed to deliver’ and yells and screams in the first sign of a mistake we make. But in reality, we have a number of different voices working around in our minds most of the time. And in perfectionism, we may deal with the fear of failure but we also deal with a hidden desire to be discovered for our abilities.

When you get into the mode of perfectionism, you are creating an imaginary audience that is gonna be astonished by your attention to detail and strength of character. It’s as if they are your cheerleaders rooting for you all the way to the end. And these ‘praisers’ are nothing but the internal image you hold of being that person that is attentive to details and has the integrity to keep working on a task when there is no real need. It is basically an easy way to re-establish the idea of how good and honest-sided you are.

Perfectionism is a self-fulfilling loop of you giving props on yourself and feeling good about it. Kinda like how a self-affirmation works but more abstract. And thus being so elusive it can even propagate non stop till it consumes your whole energy.

“Extreme perfectionism is distinguished by never being satisfied,” says Gordon Flett, a psychology professor at York University in Toronto

Perfectionism And Mental Illness

In that sense, it is not hard to see how strongly related perfectionism is to mental illness. The way I like to think of it is like this:

Mental illness is any kind of exaggerated attachment to feelings. Any time you lose yourself to emotion, whether it’s good or bad, it is the precursor or mark of going down the wrong path and you should look into how to get passed it. It’s a mistake to believe that mental illness happens only when you are filled with negative emotions and anger. That’s only one part of it. It happens when you are exceedingly day-dreaming or you ruminate over the impression your nice dress is gonna make or even when you keep a grudge for more than is reasonable. Say what? Is keeping a grudge a sign of mental illness as well? Well, to the degree that you grab it by the neck and hold it close to your heart, for eternity and beyond… I would assert that it is. Obviously there is a healthy way to experience these emotions when you are not allowing to overwhelm you, but instead, you let them go and pass down after a short period of time.

Perfectionism And Procrastination

The main problem with perfectionism is that it takes your eyes away from what matters and pushes you towards the dreamy land of good emotions and fake ideals. You are losing your sense of your purpose and obsess over the critics and opinions of others. A pattern that diverges you from what's important all the while it is making the false claim that you are progressing. In reality, it is a way to procrastinate the crucial tasks and avoid any anxious feelings they would create.

Fear Of Abandonment

So is perfectionism nothing but a vehicle for feel-good emotions. Not merely. As was said there is a social component to it on fearing you are not gonna reach the standards of others and being disapproved for it. There is this fear of abandonment that is actually the biggest driving force of this behavior and pushes you towards allocating all your sources into this mechanical behavior. But what a distorted view of the world would that be, to say that you can only be accepted and liked if you make everything perfect. Or that in the first sign of mistake you are gonna be rejected.

This whole attitude has its base on past experiences, of you being scolded or disregarded out of mistakes you made. And many times, as in the case of young kids that are reprimanded from a young age, and that lack the necessary warm welcoming environment that is so crucial, it can be created by the idea that you did something wrong when in reality it had nothing to do with you. What matters is that somehow you shifted your focus towards believing that the service you are providing is the only criterion of whether you are gonna be accepted or not. And that delivering something good is the only reason to be liked or not. And that is a distorted view of the world.

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