Perfectionism should be classified as a disability.
It has blighted more lives than autism, destroyed more potential work than brain damage, stopped more achievement than miss-education. It can devour entire civilizations, and arguably has.
I don’t know how we managed to infect both boys with it, though arguably both of us have it, and also arguably perhaps it’s genetic. In their case it causes this weird veer between insecurity and what might come across as boastfulness: first by thinking they’re not good enough for even the simplest things, and then by overestimating their competence compared to other people when they figure out that they can in fact do some things. Then they get disabused of that and go back to insecurity. It’s a hell of a cycle.
I solve it by being permanently trapped in insecurity.
If you’re an artist or even just a “creator” or worker: a writer, an artist, a programmer, a cook, holy heck, even a house cleaner, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
There’s this odd tendency to be more dissatisfied with our work the better we do and then to decide not to do things because, what the heck, it will never be good enough.
The way it blights lives is… interesting. As in I’ve seen perfectionists utterly ruin themselves by doing nothing. Oh, you want to write/create/climb your work ladder? But you look at your work and you know you’re not good enough because you can see flaws, so why even try. And then you do nothing. And then… and then you’re 65 and you’ve done nothing and achieved nothing in your life, and it’s a miracle if you came close to supporting yourself. (And the only reason you’ve done so is because you did some job you considered was menial and didn’t matter, so your perfectionism didn’t infect THAT.)
If you’re a true perfectionist, you also never had any relationships. Because even though you’re far from the ideal mate, you judge every potential by tagging up defects. If you can’t have perfection, why bother.
The very smart are extremely susceptible to this, but everyone can fall into the trap. If you care or know enough about any field, the flaws in your own (and others) work will stand out glaringly and in relief and then you can’t do ANYTHING.
Of course, the more you practice and know the more flaws you see. And it eventually shuts you down. I catch myself in this trap frequently to the point of being amazed when semi-pro anthos buy my work, because I’m sure it’s the worst thing ever written. And I can shut myself down for years. (I’m not alone, I know you know other writers with this problem.)
Which, sorry to bring up Peterson again, but he’s the only person I’ve seen who said this, if you’re by nature creative can make you mentally ill. It can turn you into a depressed zombie. And the way through it and out of it is NOT to give up the art/work even though that feels like the only way. It makes life worse.
In fact, perfectionism kills. The fact it leaves an animated corpse behind only hides the crime.
And yes, it can kill societies. There is an age when people can see all the flaws in society but are too young to know what the alternatives are. Also our schools are deliberately not teaching history as it really was, so it’s really hard to know that the alternatives are worse, or that no society was ever perfect, because humans aren’t and every law is a double edged sword that cuts more on the not-intended side.
Throughout most of history that age is called “adolescent” and “young adult.” But in the US it’s called democrat or — in the rest of the west — socialist or communist.
The illusion that you can create a perfect society usually empowers the worst sort of tyrant and brings about hell on Earth. For the recent hit parade see Cuba, Venezuela and soon South Africa. Though frankly it can go back further and it has claimed more than 100000000 victims in the 20th century alone.
And that’s the active perfectionism, the let’s get out on the street and kill everyone who isn’t fully onboard (or send them to camps to die) form of it.
The passive, depressed perfectionism of “I could try something but it would be worse” is the social this and social that of Europe.
For a continent that gave the world innovation (and fire and blood, but those usually are linked) for centuries, they are now reduced to a continent that tries to improve all its little flaws and ends up creating more, and sinks more and more in morass, to the point they have stopped reproducing, are a virtual 3rd age home, and are in the process of being actively invaded by a far worse (in terms of the lives of common people under it, which is the only universal criterium) culture. And think they deserve it.
The problem perfectionism can’t be solved by rational analysis. That only gives the demon of perfectionism another place to attack, this time your character. “You can’t ever be perfect, so why bother?” And deepen the depression.
The only way to get past it is to do. Just do. Sure, it will never be perfect. The world isn’t perfect.
For a while there, don’t even try “for the best you can.” You’re wounded, bleeding, and you don’t feel it.
One way you can tell is it infects everything even slightly creative or artisan. Hell, in the depths of this, I can’t even cook.
All you can do is create. Don’t judge it. If you’re a self-publisher or an artist who sells your work directly, find someone relatively unbiased, or someone who was right about your work in the past, and put them in charge of saying “good enough/not good enough” before it goes for sale. Even if you think they’re being crazy or incredibly lenient. JUST DO IT. And keep doing it.
Because perfectionism is sterile, dead, and deadly.
Human endeavor, as messy, imperfect and all thumbs as it is, it alive and nurturing. It will keep your mind alive, and the risks you take allow you to have A LIFE, instead of death in life.
Be not afraid.
Too depressed to create, work and do? Why should you be different from the rest of all the all-too-human clay. Just do it.
Do it through the depression, the tiredness, the meaninglessness. Do it. You can only start from where you are now. The longer this goes on, the worse it gets. So, just start.
Does the perfectionism ever let up? No, not really. But you get used to keeping it in its place, reduced only to spurring your growth, but not interfering with work day to day. And sometimes looking back at something you created while half-dead with worry and self-loathing, you realize it’s ALMOST perfect and a good thing. And sometimes people email to tell you how much it meant to them. And sometimes, sometimes, you realize you don’t suck, and it gets marginally, slightly easier.
And sometimes it comes back. A reverse. Bad sales. A truly spectacular bit of bad luck, and there it is, grinning at you with its perfect, gleaming and — you’ll realize — skull like face. And if you let it, it will kill you and destroy everything you have.
Don’t let it. Nothing mortal is perfect. Don’t even try to make it perfect. You don’t know what is perfect either. You’re just mortal.
Give life a chance. Give yourself a chance to have a life.
Go and do. Create. Work. Do it now, do it today. What if it sucks? What is sucking? What makes you think you know?
Be not afraid!