In My Own Write: The curse of perfection

I wonder how many regular folk are plagued in their daily lives by an image of perfection that dangles mockingly in front of them.

Scrabble_521 (photo credit: David Breakstone)
(photo credit: David Breakstone)
Perfectionism is ingrained in every fiber of my being. I can’t mess up, I shouldn’t mess up; those thoughts run through my brain constantly. Sometimes I feel like I’m putting on a big show called life, and others are watching, just waiting for me to mess up – From a blog
Both the artist and the lover know that perfection is not lovable. It is the clumsiness of a fault that makes a person lovable – Joseph Campbell
I shared the sadness of millions worldwide when singer Amy Winehouse was found dead in her London home last month, possibly from alcohol withdrawal. Adding poignancy to the loss of an extraordinary musical talent that had been compared to Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday was her age: 27.
But what sharpened her death for me was that in 2008, I had written a column entitled “No, no, no, Amy” which chronicled the singer’s descent into the hell of alcoholism and drug addiction.
The words of an entertainment lawyer I interviewed proved prophetic: “She’s pushed the self-destruct button. Many people are questioning whether she’ll still be here in five years.”
In answer to my question “Why do some people who appear to have it all seem so ready to squander it all?” a psychologist cited celebrity “impostor syndrome,” the conviction that “I’m not as great as they think I am” (read: not as perfect as people believe.) The need to escape from this “agonizing self-awareness,” as the psychiatrist put it, could drive some celebrities to adopt self-destructive lifestyles.
Now most of us aren’t celebrity idols continually in the public eye. Yet I have wondered how many regular folk are plagued in their daily lives by an image of perfection that dangles mockingly in front of them, filling them with fear of failure and undermining their ability to function effectively.
This musing isn’t academic: All my life – from schooldays through adulthood – I have struggled with a strong reluctance to begin important tasks because I have some idea of what the “perfect product” should look like, and feel in my gut that I can never attain it.
The result has been considerable angst at leaving things undone until there is no choice but to do them, and a concomitant awareness of much time and mental energy wasted in putting – or rather, pushing – them off.
It really is emotionally wearing.
This striving for an elusive perfection may be more common among writers – the author of Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert, famously wrote just five words an hour, 30 on a good day, and was said to roll around the floor in agony searching for the right word; and Albert Camus in The Plague paints a heart-rending portrait of Grand, the would-be novelist, never getting past his opening sentence.
But what led me to write this column was something that surprised me: the realization that the task of choosing 160 pictures for my wedding album out of the 500 supplied by Post photographer Marc Sellem was causing me trepidation rather than pleasant anticipation. I kept putting it off, and the fact that nearly all the shots were great added, paradoxically, to my “fear” that the finished item would be less than it had the potential to be.
Where does perfectionism come from? Is it seeded by parents who were over-demanding or critical? (I don’t recall mine being so, apart from one occasion in elementary school when I came home proudly with a report card that had me in third academic place out of a large class, and the response was: Why didn’t you come first or second?) My parents were immigrants to Britain from postwar Europe, not yet confident in their new surroundings, and perhaps over-eager for their child to excel.
In a heavily publicized example of the toll perfectionism can exact, Kitty Dukakis, wife of the Massachusetts governor who ran for the presidency against George H.W. Bush in 1988, admitted in her book Now You Know, published after the campaign, that she had suffered from a lifetime of depression, alcoholism and drug dependence.
Maureen Dowd, reviewing Dukakis’s “harrowing” memoir in The New York Times in 1990, wrote: “It is hard, if you ever sat across a kitchen table from this woman, to understand the fears that drove her to drink aftershave, nail polish remover, vanilla extract, hair spray and rubbing alcohol; to disguise herself in a kerchief and fake mole so that she could buy vodka to hide in the laundry hamper; to drink so much that her husband and son discovered her several times lying in bed in her own vomit; to spend months shuttling back and forth to drug and alcohol treatment centers....”
Dukakis blamed her sense of inadequacy on her mother, a cool and lovely perfectionist who told little Kitty she was “just pretty” while her sister Jinny was the one who had personality. Her father once told Dukakis that she had a talent for making a career out of catastrophe.
Not the best messages to convey to an impressionable young child.
Experts hold that perfectionism can generally be traced back to an early life experience of insufficient parental encouragement alongside criticism, blame or punishment. Even if this comes from well-intentioned parents, it fosters insecurity and the child’s fantasy that if only he or she could do things just right, mommy and daddy would be pleased and happy.
Lacking parental evidence of his or her intrinsic worth (“You’re OK just as you are”), the child grows up needing evidence of it from others. But no matter how much positive feedback is received from the outside, that need for reassurance is never satisfied, and the insecurity remains.
Without that sense of security, says clinical psychologist Margaret Jordan, a person may feel a compulsion to do things perfectly in the never ending quest for reassurance. But that reassurance never comes, because it is always possible to find fault with one’s efforts – and that is what perfectionists do.
What perfectionists most lack, then, is self-confidence. They fear failure – which to them is inextricably linked with a deep sense of inadequacy – and may go to great lengths to avoid it.
And yet failure is essential to spur progress, learning and growth in just about every field. It can be said that you learn more from your failures than from your successes.
Declares Microsoft manager Mike Torres, on his Refocuser blog: “Failing fast can shorten your learning cycle. Sometimes it’s best to… ignore perfection as a means to learn. ‘Fail fast’ is a famous Silicon Valley maxim when it comes to new businesses, because if you’re going to fail, it’s best to do it early, at a time when you have the resources to turn it around.
“If you’re striving to be perfect, you could fail when it’s too late to do anything.”
Thankfully, my confessions above notwithstanding, it seems that I am not an incorrigible perfectionist, with all the associated negativity and constriction.
I know this because last week, I was demoted at the Jerusalem Scrabble Club, and am currently skulking at the bottom of Division B2, having lost my more prestigious position in B1. It will take considerable perseverance to regain it.
Embarrassing as this failure undoubtedly is, I am glad to report that it has neither felled me nor discouraged me from attending the club, nor even lessened my predilection for the game.
See me there next Tuesday night – down, but not out.