There is a kind of person who seems – at first
glance – to benefit from an admirable degree of
self-motivation, thoroughness and drive. They
are up at dawn, they rarely take holidays,
they are always sneaking in an extra hour or
two of work. Their bosses are highly impressed,
they are constantly promoted, their grades
have been excellent since primary school,
they never miss an appointment or turn in
a piece of work that is less than stellar.
We like to say that such a person has high
standards; we might even anoint them with
the term ‘perfectionist.’ It might seem churlish
to locate any problems here. Why complain about
a somewhat overzealous devotion to perfection in
a troubled and lackadaisical world? There could
surely be nothing too awful about high exactitude?
What could be so imperfect about perfectionism?
The concern is not so much with
the work of the perfectionist
(its recipients are in a privileged position)
as with the state of their soul. Perfectionism
does not – tragically – spring first and
foremost from any kind of love of perfection
in and of itself. It has its origins
in a far more regrettable feeling
of never being good enough. It is rooted in
self-hatred – sparked by memories of being
disapproved of or neglected by those who should
more fairly have esteemed us warmly in childhood.
We become perfectionists from a primary
sense of being unworthy; uninteresting,
flawed, a disappointment, a letdown, a nuisance.
So powerful is this sense, so appalling is it in
its pressure on our psyches, we are prepared
to do more or less anything to expunge it:
working at all hours, currying favour with
authority, doing twice as much as the next person,
these are the tools with which we seek to cleanse
our apparently shamefully undeserving selves.
One part of the mind promises the other that the
completion of the next challenge will finally
usher in peace. We can be very good at
pretending that our ambitions are sane.
But our work has a sisyphean dimension. No sooner
have we rolled our working boulder up the hill
than it will tumble back down again.
There is never going to be a point of rest
or a lasting feeling of completion. We
are – in truth – ill rather than driven.
We aren’t interested in perfect work at all: we
are trying to escape from a feeling of being awful
people – and work simply happens to be the medium
through which we are striving to grow tolerable in
our own eyes. But because our problem didn’t begin
with work, nor can work ever prove the solution.
Our real goal is not, as we think, to
be an ideal employee or professional,
it is to feel acceptable. But responsibility
for a sense of acceptance cannot be handed
over to our bosses or customers or a ceaselessly
demanding capitalist system; these will never
let us rest easy because it is in their nature,
without any evil intent, always to demand more.
We need to shift our sense of where our drive is
coming from. We are not unnaturally interested
in working perfectly, we are labouring
under an unusually intense impression
that we are dreadful people – a problem for
which working harder cannot be the answer.
We need to allow ourselves to imagine that
we deserved to be accepted from the start
and that it cannot forever be our
fault in our minds that we were not.
It is not up to us to try to prove
that we have a right to exist.
It is asking too much of ourselves to have
to experience a referendum on our legitimacy
every time we hand in a report, every exam we
have to pass, every customer we have to serve.
Working well is – naturally – an admirable goal.
But it becomes a symptom of a mental perturbation
when it becomes the cover for a secret
aspiration to correct a deficit of early love.
We should welcome an ability to
tolerate periods of laziness,
not because we are congenitally idle – but
because it is a sign that we have learnt
to speak more kindly to ourselves and to be
appropriately angry with those who could not
at the outset accept us for who we were
without a surfeit of trophies and prizes.