Perfectionism as fantasy

Every time I sat down at the piano I wanted to write ‘Songbird’. Perfectionism does not work, for adults. The bright child can be perfect, sometimes: you can get 100% on that maths or grammar test, if you are intelligent, focused on it, and apply yourself. You get straight As on your report card, as if success is quantifiable and you have achieved it.

The focus is not yours. It has some value, as school success leads to good university courses, and a good degree can start on a good job, yet it is based on luck and birth, as comprehension tests reflect middle class values and what the middle classes speak of at home. (“Middle class” is another term which means different things in UK and US.) Many fail: my friend failed the 11+, then got a PhD. The reward is external. You will win praise for achieving others’ goals. You crave the praise, because it is a sign of acceptance you do not get otherwise. Some may find maths beautiful, but you learn it for pats on the head.

In work, perfectionism is possible for very few. It was the root of my procrastination. I would not do a task, because I imagined it perfect, achieving what I wanted to achieve, and then judged my actual performance as less, rather than seeing that what I could produce with the tools available was the best I could manage, and just doing it. So I lost my job.

Perfectionism is a fantasy, unrelated to what is possible. Rather than wanting a result linked to the actual work, I wanted to feel good about myself. Ashamed of who I am, I could only feel good about what I achieved, and when that seemed impossible I gave up. With a fantasy of an ideal self, focused on goals I was taught to value and consistent in the character I was taught was good, I could not accept the real, messy human being I was.

If you do something because you ought to, the parent who pats your head no longer exists, so you get nothing from it. What do you want? You, yourself, from your own desires and not others’. I do not clean my teeth because of the rules, it is just what everyone should do, but because it makes my mouth feel better. In listless depression, I might not do that, because it is so little improvement of such a bleak-seeming situation.

That musician who had great success stopped making music, even for herself. She was not good enough. Better to be the band that achieved fame, and then fell out of the charts but continued touring, in smaller and smaller venues. How much Love do you need from an audience? If it must always be more, you will fail. How much can you appreciate the beauty of the music simply for itself? I have not been playing the piano, out of perfectionism, an idea of something more than is possible. What is possible?

This human being pursues its desires where it sees possibilities. The desires and the perception are partly unconscious, and partly in conflict with conscious ideas. Having to make myself acceptable when I was never simply accepted, wanting that before any other want, made the burden of my tasks too great, so that I felt incapable, and gave up. That increased my shame.

Ideally I want An Answer at the end of this, but it is a blog post, a work in progress. I still face the question What do you want? In my depressed state, my answer is “Nothing that I feel I might achieve”.

14 thoughts on “Perfectionism as fantasy

  1. Nothing I ever did, as child, was good enough for my mother. One day, though, she called me a perfect idiot. I’ve spent a good part of my life trying to live up to that standard. 🙂

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  2. Great insight into wanting perfection. I struggle with wanting the world to be perfect but have given up with myself and those who are close to me. It helps a bit but sometimes there is hurt especially when offspring wanted a perfect parent! Or a different one? I have lived with ‘good enough’. Most of us are but today I see young teachers overstretching themselves and burning out with the desire to be ‘outstanding’ in the targets of ofsted and others.

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    • I have got the impression from teachers that the travail of recording evidence that a particular child had made a particular step forward got in the way of helping the child to make the steps needed. There was so much time spent recording it.

      I don’t think it’s that offspring want a perfect parent, but that they have not been given the tools to deal with a particular situation. For me, it was hard even to perceive that the situations I could not deal with were actual problems. It was a blind spot. Or parents’ insecurities are projected onto offspring who find themselves unacceptable. Now my parents are both safely dead, so that there is no continuing sore from their actions and attitudes, I can “forgive” them, even see them as whole human beings, see they always did their best for me. It was harder when they were alive.

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  3. Clare Flourish, I have a few questions for you: 1: Do you think the word perfect can be used too loosely in some ways? 2: Since what may be perfect in your view may not be that way for another person, is being perfect not a subjective concept?

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    • “Perfect” is objective, but the perfect sought by perfectionism is subjective. Like all words, we use it differently in different contexts. “Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect” means be perfectly, idiosyncratically you, the unique human being God created without slavishly following others.

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    • Jeffrey Liakos, I understand why those other bloggers think you are a troll, and indeed I wondered if you came here to comment when too many comments elsewhere were getting spammed. However your comments on this post have been beautifully expressed and thought-provoking. Thank you.

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  4. Clare Flourish, the troll accusation that had been made against me by one guy on Flowers For Socrates is blatantly dishonest. I asked him, very politely in my opinion, if he remembered what he was doing on the day of the 2nd WTC attack. He told me that it was none of my business. Obviously, it is not, however, it was purely a curiosity to see if his claim of remembering everything was accurate.

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