I have long been surrounded by, interested in, and comfortable with people who hold themselves to standards that would seem, to any jury of fellow human beings, to be almost impossibly high. At one point, the drive for excellence in all things became such an annoyance to ourselves that the “p” word was banned. I’m not talking only about the people who come to the public’s attention for doing so, like someone who wins an Olympic medal or attains the stature of Albert Einstein, but about people in all walks of life, whether or not any part of that walk ever takes place in or anywhere near the public spotlight.
For the sake of this little essay I’m thinking of a kind of everyday, rather humble, self-critical kind of perfectionist.
The standards this perfectionist evokes are of every variety, especially those that involve what might seem to others to entail matters of almost minute importance. Considering the internalized standards requires what might appear to be small decisions, but keeping them (or not) can be of enormous importance to the person involved or, so they think at least, people around them. Their decisions can have long term consequences and in the meantime greatly affect everyday life in the present. Or they can have little real effect in the outside world and remain matters solely of internal importance.
Of course we must admit it is not really accurate to say there are such people. Freud gave us no uncertain terms for understanding the predicament at the heart of our social connection to other people. In Civilization and Its Discontents, he laid out the situation. For collective life, we give up so much of what we by nature and instinct think we want. Our conscience becomes the arbiter, where we come to harbor the ideals for our behavior, and the cost of violating the internalized social standard is, as Philip Rieff, one of Freud’s interpreters put it, the “terrible cost of guilt.”
So, to some degree everyone–at least everyone trying to live in some degree of relation to fellow human beings in anything close to a peaceful, functioning social order–has a strain of perfectionism. This notoriously both helps and hinders us. There exists only the finest of lines between the kind of perfectionism that allows someone to live from day to day with smooth sailing and the kind that causes even our most wrenching inner agonies.
So much of what occupies us from day to day–whether it is in our work or entertainments, idle gossip or philosophy of life, struggle with addiction or search for spiritual understanding, adventures and woeful misadventures in love–can go either way, at any time. It can call up those inner ideals, as if mustering so many soldiers for duty, and find us seriously wanting. Punishment ensues, with luck only after judicious consideration but often in actuality by kangaroo court.
To think of all of the cultural production–the books, poems, paintings, buildings, operas, plays, films, meals–that has something to do with the oft troubled nexus of desire and ideal is, most likely, to gaze upon the entire history of mankind’s expression. In a recent article on Huffington Post‘s blog (12/21/2012) journalist Jim Sleeper, referring to novelist D.H. Lawrence, recently called it “the eternal tension between impulsive, selfish desires and deeper strivings toward a common good.” In Lawrence’s word to the wise, quoted by Sleeper: “It is the business of our Chief Thinkers to tell us of our own deeper desires, not to keep shrilling our little desires in our ears.”
Perfectionism’s taproot is nowhere if not sunken in deep here. And rightly so, to remarkable ends. From a painted ceiling with one telling of the entire human story, to glorious church spires reaching to the sky, our striving toward the ideal is responsible for much, if not all, of the beauty and majesty that exists in the manmade portion of the world.
Yet we know that even in those very mortals by whose hands immortal-feeling creations are delivered an inner struggle of unseen magnitude was often part of the inner territory traversed. Gleaning, glimpsing, let alone aspiring to our ideals can bring us to the very edge of the abyss.
The urge toward perfection is responsible for so much that is good, but at least in equal proportion, so much that is bad. We see this in the utopian impulse. Who wouldn’t want every single aspect of human life to be reformed and put in line with the highest ideal we can imagine? Only those who know the horrors of totalizing movements to remake all of existence, even at the cost of human life, both physical and spiritual. It is sheer heroism that makes it possible for us even to continue to speak of ideals in the aftermath of such destruction.
Though it must be put in an entirely different light, perfectionism on the more modest scale of the individual can also have devastating effects. One of Freud’s main preoccupations was, after all, the debilitation and suffering of the human person. Not only can instinctual drives force us to veer off course, but so can the very ideals inculcated by our upbringing and encounter with the outside world. A superego out of control can damage everything around it.
Everyday, rather humble, self-critical perfectionism takes as many forms as there are people so inclined: a father faults himself for not spending more time with his children when they were young; a wife suffers inner torment for having violated her wedding vows; a graduate student painfully regrets missing a deadline; feeling impure or rejected, a teenager commits suicide; a child erupts in anger for accidentally coloring outside the lines. The results of this kind of perfectionism can be, in some cases, insignificant and even laughable but in other cases, nothing short of fatal.
In the less significant cases, we get a lot of mileage from the details. While the serious illness involved in a true, full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder is another thing entirely, the more mild tendency to keep things a bit too orderly is often something we find amusing. The television show “The Odd Couple,” about two men sharing an apartment, one sloppy and one obsessively neat, is a well-known example. While some people have more than others, we are all acquainted to some degree with these milder tendencies. So when we laugh, we are laughing at ourselves.
But a lot of time the people closest to me with perfectionist tendencies that are a bit too strong to be considered mild, if (blessedly) too under control (most of the time) to be anywhere close to fatal–are not laughing. In their (our) struggle to adhere to the standards for behavior humans set for themselves, they must face tremendous, sometimes ever-renewing disappointment. Intellectually, we might grasp the idea of human limits and shortcomings. If we fall short of what we think is good behavior, we can repeat several mantras: we are all flawed; we all make mistakes; we are not gods; we are not God.
Does this bring comfort? It seems like all we have, this intellectual proposition, but to derive any comfort from it, it is the emotional content of the acknowledgement of our limits that we need, and this must be a renewable source for those whose capacity to feel self-disappointment seems sometimes to know no bounds. Is there any time our limited being, flaws, mistakes, and all the rest of the things we are, have, and do, can actually be a comfort? This is one focal point of religious and spiritual tradition, of course, but even then, teachings must be borne out in experience for them to provide succor.
Not emanating from the same place as arrogance or delusions of grandeur, everyday perfectionism does not necessarily prevent us from functioning in the world on a day-to-day basis, however much it threatens to do so and even manages in some periods. However, it can be everything from a constant nagging and distraction to a source of anxiety, inner turmoil, and disconnection from others. Even when one manages to refrain from holding other people up to one’s list of standards, which can sometimes be a small feat in itself, one can cut oneself off from living in true relation with others, lost in this inner realm of standards and disappointments.
If examined in isolation, the individual can look so meager and inadequate, especially in light of his or her own ideals. The flaws are all too readily apparent.
But isn’t it the case that when examined in connection with another person, it is precisely what we internally determine as a shortcoming that might have some role, purpose, or meaning? What if it turns out to be just what another person needs, even for mere survival? What if an error in one light is the source for another’s completion in another? There are so many other possibilities.
If we change the vantage point and stop looking merely at ourselves, as if in a mirror, but broaden our perspective to include other people–sometimes even just one other person–we might find the perfection we crave.
On a light note, as partial illustration perhaps, a couple of years ago, I was sitting with a dear friend late at night at a New York City diner of the humblest sort (both the friend and the diner). We ordered some of the stock diner fare on the menu and ate and talked. When the waitress saw we were not eating anymore, though there were a few fries and things left, she began removing the dishes. My friend asked her to leave everything, though we had been there a very long time. We were surrounded by empty tables, and she made it clear we were welcome to stay and kindly poured us more coffee. After the past couple of decades of eating in setting after setting in which the unspoken rush to get to dishes off the table sets the tone of things, I was curious. “Why do you want her to leave everything?” I asked. His answer was sweet and moving. He said that in times like these he wanted to be able to see all of the “remains” as long as possible, a beautiful sign of our enjoyable conversation and time together.
What might have appeared to another person, whose cleanliness drive is near the top of their inner standards, to be a mess in dire need for removal was now to me a gift.
In the case of internalized standards and the vexations of our own perceived shortcomings, in certain particular cases (not all, of course) the very thing for which you are raking yourself over the coals might be the thing that gives me joy, interest, hope, or wholeness. I can think of other examples, large and small, of how what looks like a shortcoming from one vantage point is the very essence of perfection from another. Can you?