Reframing Perfectionism: Knowing the Difference Between Absolute and Relative Perfection Can Alleviate Your Inner Struggles

One of the questions I get asked most frequently is: what can I do about my perfectionism? People understand where it came from, but that doesn’t seem to be enough in order to challenge it. Most perfectionists can accept that their malady is rooted in a difficult childhood, wherein perfection was the explicit expectation or the implicit survival strategy. They’ll tell you they know their past is gone but can’t seem to shake their core belief of who they ought to be. If you believe that insight is synonymous with change, then understanding perfectionism as an unhealthy coping mechanism rooted in trauma should be enough to vanquish it; yet, it abounds.

I often ask my clients: do you believe perfection is relative or absolute? Here’s an example of what I mean: Imagine you’re a teacher trying to teach a group of college students. At the end of the year, you receive an overwhelming amount of positive feedback, with the exception of one comment, which reads: I have ADHD and the class went too fast for me, so I didn’t learn much. If you’re an absolute perfectionist, you’re trying to be perfect all of the time and to everyone. Thus, if you’re the teacher, you’re now heartbroken because you didn’t meet your own criteria, which you believe to be objectively good. But, if you’re a relative perfectionist, believing that you can be great some of the time and only to some people, then you acknowledge that your class and teaching style are structured toward some section of students, hopefully large but perhaps even small. Fundamentally, genuine perfection (grounded in reality) is an adaptation to a set of circumstances that helps one thrive. If the teacher in this example adapts to the student with ADHD and continuously repeats all of the parts that student missed, then others won’t learn as much as they could and, therefore, perform poorly on the class’s assignments. (None of this is to say that that student shouldn’t be helped in the course in other ways.)

When we think of perfection, we tend to conceive of some notion in which the perfect person has it all and thrives in every environment. But, what does that actually look like? Species, including humans, have evolved to adapt to their own environments, implying, for example, that while a coat is adaptive in a cold climate, it’s much less so in a hot one. So, if you can figure out how someone can develop the perfect set of traits, I’m sure there’s some grand philosophical prize waiting for you. But, if you can translate my example into areas of your own life, you’re now much more of what’s known as a relative perfectionist.

Unfortunately, black and white thinking clouds our judgment of perfectionism, engendering the belief that it’s either beneficial or harmful. Yet, it’s neither in and of itself. Relative perfection, in most domains, is worth striving for. I try to be the best therapist I can be with the clients who like and mesh well with my treatment style. An athlete might attempt to become the best at her sport. And on it goes. This isn’t to say that one can’t excel in multiple areas; only that one can’t excel in all of them. Absolute perfection is, in itself, an oxymoron; if perfection implies successful adaptation, then that evolution can’t be helpful in every domain. Therefore, the proponents of that term are inextricably flawed, accepting and living by a concept that just doesn’t make sense.

For the person who needs to just feel loved as they are, most of the above may not feel as relevant; but, separating the two, at least to me, misses the mark. You can first feel loved and then realize that you can’t be loved by everyone, or you can learn about the philosophy of perfectionism and then decide to take the leap into forming healthy relationships. Either way, a basic reframing and deeper understanding of how and why absolute perfectionism is an intellectual failure is really needed. I’m not saying that it’s the answer; only that an effective resolution can’t, and shouldn’t, be formed without it.

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