Perfectionism: The Dangerous Pursuit of Perfection

The French writer Balzac tells the story of the art master Frenhofer in the short story “Unknown Masterpiece”. Frenhofer spent ten years trying to paint a masterpiece called “The Beautiful Woman of Noisy”. The young painter who came to visit him wanted to see the painting, but Frenhofer refused to show it. He thought it was not the time yet. He wanted to make the painting perfect. Frenhofer sometimes felt that he was done, but soon discovered new problems. He seemed to never reach the “glorious final step.”

Finally, the young painter finally entered the old artist’s studio. Frenhofer proudly led the young painter to his “Beautiful Woman of Noisy” and said how perfect and unparalleled it was. However, the young painter only sees layers of paint on the canvas.

Frenhofer’s ten years of revisions eliminated all the shortcomings, and the image in the painting also disappeared, leaving only a graceful, lifelike foot in the corner of the canvas. The young man told Frenhofer frankly: There is nothing on the canvas. The old painter died that night, burning his works before he died.

This short story seems to be an allegory for the fantasy of perfectionism. People always regard the pursuit of perfection as a virtue, but it does not really lead to perfection.

In 1978, German DE Hamachek proposed the concept of neurotic perfectionism. He believes that neurotic perfectionists tend to strive for unrealistic goals and feel dissatisfied when they are unable to achieve them. Psychologists have found that many times, people’s pursuit of perfection is not driven by a desire for excellence, but by anxiety about being “not good enough” and “imperfect.” They need to feel in control at all times to protect themselves and keep themselves safe.

Contrary to expectations, perfectionism does not lead to success. Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar believes that perfectionists will think that the road to success is a straight line and refuse to experience any failure, but a flawless road to success is of great significance to life. is unrealistic. Perfectionists, then, live with a paradox: they are filled with the fear of failure. Driven by this fear, their first concern is how to avoid falling, going the wrong way, making mistakes, or doing the wrong thing. They try in vain to force reality (where failure is inevitable) to conform to their linear expectations of life (where failure is not allowed). When they realize that this effort is futile, they will avoid challenges out of fear and stay away from anything that risks failure.

Perfectionism also does not bring happiness and satisfaction. Perfectionists pursue extreme goals: lose 15 kilograms in six months, earn 1 million in three years, read a book every week… If the progress is not as expected, it is failure. Such goals are like pole vaulting: it doesn’t matter how high you jump, it’s whether you jump or not that matters. If we cannot recognize the value of small progress and only value grand, smooth, and perfect success, we are destined to be exhausted or fall into the self-denial of “failure” again and again.

Ben-Shahar said that the life of a perfectionist is in a cutthroat competition and is swallowed up by the inescapable thought of “achieving goals.” The next promotion, the next reward, the next milestone… they are convinced that only then will they be happy. The process is just a means to the end, the shorter the better.

Just like in the movie ” Click “, the hero Michael Newman gets a remote control that can fast forward his life. He used the remote control to fast forward all the chores on the road to promotion – not only all the efforts and difficulties, but also the daily joys in life. As a result, Newman seemed to have been asleep for the rest of his life. In the movie, Newman is given a chance at a new life. This time, he chose to experience his life and became a happier and more successful person. But in the real world, none of us will have the chance to start over.

Perfectionism can also lead to low self-esteem. Imagine this situation: a child will be criticized and belittled no matter what he does; an employee is criticized by his boss for his shortcomings and cannot always satisfy the boss. We can easily understand that it will be difficult for such children and employees to maintain a healthy mentality. For perfectionists, they become their own 24/7 critic. In fact, psychology believes that perfectionism is also an instinctive defensive reaction in children who have been emotionally abandoned. Children hope to pursue perfection in order to win the approval and care of their parents. Perfectionism brings a sense of direction and a certain sense of meaning to weak and helpless children. But because their pursuit of perfection always fails, they still find it difficult to gain the approval and care of their parents, and the children increasingly believe that “imperfection” is equivalent to shame and fear. Denial and disgust of the “imperfect” self will extend parental abandonment into self-abandonment. Perfectionists are so critical of themselves that every small setback becomes a blow to their fundamental value as a human being.

Perfectionism can even be harmful to health and life. Negative perfectionism is not only associated with eating disorders, suicidal thoughts, depression, anxiety, and procrastination, but can lead to physical symptoms such as energy exhaustion, fatigue, chronic and severe headaches, and is also a diagnostic criterion for obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. American clinical psychologist Margaret Robinson Rutherford writes in “Perfectly Hidden Depression: How to Heal the Hidden Depression: How to The book “Break Free from the Perfectionism That Masks Your Depression” records a special type of depressed patients. They are usually the best in various fields and are perfect models in the eyes of outsiders, but one day they suddenly collapse or even commit suicide. These patients with latent depression are usually perfectionists.

Rutherford points out that the two things perfectionists fear most are exposure and loss of control. Therefore, they often deny all emotional pain. They can describe feelings but will not show emotion. When pain occurs, they will make a box in their brain, package the pain, and stuff it in a locker in their mind. Once this box of emotions is opened by something, what comes out can be extremely disturbing. In the perfectionist’s view, depression is a shortcoming that should be hidden. They’ll say to themselves, “Oh my gosh, I’m not depressed. I’m probably just crazy busy lately,” until the final straw hits them.

It is particularly noteworthy that people in our time may be more susceptible to perfectionism than people in any time in history. The explosion of information sources and the richness of communication channels have led to the endless emergence of “myths” of various levels and contents. We have the myth of starting a business from scratch, the myth of scores that “you can get a good job if you get into a good university”, and the myth of hot moms who are outstanding in everything from parenting, relationships, career, and personal life… They imply that an ordinary person can do it too, and It should be perfect.

These “myths” raise our expectations for everything. Ben-Shahar found that he often encountered people around the world who said they were unhappy, but when they described their lives and emotions in more detail, Ben-Shahar realized what they really meant. But they are not happy all the time. Sometimes, when Ben-Shahar talks about his failures and fears, many people will ask him in surprise: How can you still feel that you are a happy person with so many unsatisfactory experiences? The implicit assumption underlying these two reactions is that a truly happy person should be immune to sadness, fear, anxiety, and the failures and setbacks in life.

All kinds of “myths” also put us in a deep fear of being scrutinized, because they shape a unified standard for “good”. “Body perfectionism”, “achievement perfectionism”, “love perfectionism”, “performance appraisal perfectionism”, “healthy perfectionism”, “character perfectionism”, “achievement perfectionism”… Psychological counselor Zi Fei pointed out that regardless of Whether it is perfectionism at the perceptual level or perfectionism at the abstract level, from the perspective of cultural and social operations, they all have something in common: perfectionistic behavior is often done by the “viewed” in order to win the favor of the “viewer” Impression modification made. In short, perfectionism largely stems from an unequal power relationship between “seeing” and “being seen.”

British social psychologists Thomas Curran and Andrew Hill conducted a survey of 41,641 college students and found that between 1989 and 2016, self-oriented perfectionism among college students ( Placing too high expectations on oneself), socially demanding perfectionism (having too high expectations of others), and other-oriented perfectionism (having too high expectations of others) all increased significantly. Among them, the growth rate of social demand perfectionists is twice that of the other two types.

Being able to truly face and express one’s own needs as an individual, rather than succumbing to illusory social rules, may be a required course for everyone in the current era of “perfectionism”. “I am just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.” In the 1950s, Rollo May, the founder of American existential psychology, wrote in “Man’s Search for Self” The book describes such a common situation among modern people.

Rollo May believes that in an era of drastic changes in standards and values, an era in which everything about the present and the future is uncertain, if people want to achieve long-term development and inner integrity, they cannot just dare to meet external expectations, they must Reawaken yourself. In Rollo May’s view, a person needs to have the core of himself and the courage to maintain his core. He participates in the world while maintaining his core self, feels directly about others and the world, and has the ability to jump out and reflect on himself.

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