Adroit blogfriend Frugal Scholar recently raised the issue (or rock) of perfectionism in her post "Thrift Stores and the Lure of Perfectionism", in which she considers perfectionism and shopping.
I commented that "... perfectionism, whether in shopping, work or choosing a mate, is a mug's game. One will never achieve it, nor feel content for long."
I began to think about the perfectionists I've worked for. "Every one has been a woman", I thought, "and why is that?"
Underneath, these women were terrified; their obsessiveness was based on fear, fear of being discovered as an imposter, fear of being judged less than the ultimate, fear of losing what they'd gained. (If you've never worked for one, watch "The September Issue", the doc about Anna Wintour.)
One person's "just being thorough" is another's "perfectionism", but you know it when you see it. One of my friends jokes that for her husband, the words good and enough will never be spoken together.
A pinch of perfectionism can be terrific: the colleague who proofreads one more time (and catches your error), the friend who searches for the right shade of scarf for your new coat on her trip to Italy, the painter who fusses with your nicked walls till they look new.
This is what psychologists term normal perfectionism. They care intensely, and we are the better for it.
Maladaptive perfectionism is the type that drives employees nuts: the nit-picky nervebag who drives her team to unachievable goals and rips them apart when they don't "meet expectations"– and they never can. Turned inward, perfectionists' damaging behaviour may include anorexia, compulsive spending, overexercising, endless cosmetic surgeries.
Rather than a perfectionism/indifference dichotomy, most of us live on a shifting continuum of rigour, from "What the hey" at the low end of the scale through "just fine" in the middle to utter perfection at the high (and usually illusory) end.
I depend on colleagues or Le Duc to warn me when I veer toward the high end, where life feels fraught and people around me walk on eggshells.
But is perfection even possible, save for an initial moment of giddy endorsement? Dresses that I thought were perfect at first sight have, a short time later, looked only okay. Not to mention men.
Maladaptive perfectionists, like snobs, may think they're doing the world a favour by raising standards for the general population. The two are cousins, because both have a deep desire to be or have the best, thus differentiating themselves. The locked-down perfectionist, like the snob, ends up isolated when others decamp, feeling that they can't measure up, or are set up to fail.
This post was distressingly easy to write: all I had to do was think of my mother, who was never satisfied, even as she climbed toward a great age. Her perfectionism diminished love, both received and given.
Sometimes I look at a meal I've cooked, a shirt I've ironed or a piece of writing and feel absolutely transgressive that I've decided it's all right as it is, and I'm letting it go at that.
It is a necessary, liberating rebellion.