Aug. 26, 2011, Perfectionism: a New and Old Perspective

Recently we have begun to focus on how to change specific behavior patterns.

Today’s subject is perfectionism.  You might be expecting another of the many articles on the subject that tell you what you already know:  perfectionism is both a mistake and a psychological disorder.  As it is impossible to be perfect, you have learned that it is an unhealthy goal.

At the same time it is important to grow, even to push ourselves  beyond what we thought we could do, in order to have a full life.  How do we strive for excellence without perfectionism?  It seems an elusive distinction.

Surprisingly, the problem may be that we are imitating the wrong Greek philosopher without knowing it.   The ancient world offered us two disparate versions of what constitutes  perfection.  For reasons having to do with both Judaism’s and Christianity’s responses to these philosophers, Plato infused our culture more than did Aristotle.

For Plato, perfection consists of the ultimate achievement of the better of a set of opposites.  This is the version of perfection that leads to the problem of perfectionism.  According to this version, if productivity is better than idleness, then one would aim to be perfectly productive.  Pick any set of dichotomies and imagine an infinite extension of the one seemingly most virtuous, and you  are thinking as a Platonist would.

Is there any other type of perfection?  To answer this question, find a healthy tree or think about one.  Doesn’t that tree seem to exhibit a different variety of perfection?  Branches are scattered this way and that, but usually weighting the tree into perfect balance.  Life sprouts forth and dead elements drop.  While strongly rooted in the ground, the limbs flexibly sway with the wind.  This is the perfection of balance, and it is Aristotle’s version.

He suggested that perfection is the mean between extremes.  For example, courage is the mean between fearfulness and rashness, and generosity is the mean between being stingy and being a spendthrift.  This version is both psychologically healthy and comprises a direction toward which we can grow, just as the tree grows.

Because Plato’s version of perfection is actually impossible, it oddly leads to discouragement and poor performance.  For instance, it is common for people suffering from Platonic perfectionism to be late on assignments, thinking that the product to be delivered is not yet good enough.

Not only does aiming for Aristotelian perfection feel better, it brings much better results.   So, make a pattern-breaker out of this.  Using the methods on the following linked page, short-circuit your unhealthy version of perfectionist striving, such as by practice in attaching a phrase like, “I can’t afford to perform as poorly as a perfectionist!”  Then move into the balanced version.

Next week, I will give you a method to know when you are in your own version of a perfect balance.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, August 25th, 2011 at 8:28 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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