I don’t think anyone with a moderate to severe case of perfectionism is under the impression that this is an exclusively positive trait to have, but reminders that it’s a negative one are abundant nonetheless. The latest, from The Atlantic, recalls a study from earlier this year in which it was reported that perfectionism is on the rise among millennials: “Between 1989 and 2016, they found, self-oriented perfectionism scores increased by 10 percent, socially prescribed scores rose by 33 percent, and other-oriented perfectionism increased by 16 percent.”
But are all of these things equally bad, or bad at all? I get why socially prescribed perfectionism is bad, because that relies on an external (and likely impossible) definition of perfection. I also get why other-oriented perfectionism is bad, because setting impossible standards for other people’s behavior is likely to lead only to disappointment. But what about self-oriented perfectionism, or, more plainly, the intrinsic desire to be excellent? Studies show that this form of perfectionism — in which a person sets internally motivated high standards for herself — can be healthy. This is perfectionism motivated not by the fear of failure, but the thrill of success and self-improvement. That kind of perfectionism isn’t a bad thing, or at least it isn’t something we should feel guilty about.
This, from the Atlantic piece, for instance, I find patronizing: “[Psychologist Jessica Pryor] has heard of grad students spending 12 to 18 hours at a time in the lab. Their schedules are literally meant to be punishing: If they’re scientists-in-training, they won’t allow themselves to watch Netflix until their experiments start generating results.” First of all, those students are exaggerating. Being busy is social capital, and everyone wants to brag. Second of all, maybe they are in the lab for a long time because the work they’re being given is too difficult to complete in less time, and they also have to work to pay for school, and they’re going to school because they couldn’t get a job with just a bachelor’s degree. If Pryor’s school is anything like mine was, the lab and the library are also places where students engage in their social lives for many of those so-called study hours. I guess you could argue for compartmentalization, but again, that seems like more of a systemic issue. Blaming burnout, depression, and unhappiness on “perfectionism” seems like a way to blame the individual, and absolve the culture that produced her.
Even as a perfectly rational side effect to a capitalist society, I am mostly grateful for my perfectionism. If I am not here to get better at what is important to me, what is the point? Sometimes that’s work (okay, a lot of times that’s work), but it’s also about learning to be a better partner and friend and family member and citizen. Neither are perfectionism and realism necessarily mutually exclusive; not to sound like a Sesame Street character, but wanting to be the best you is not the same thing as wanting to be the best anyone. For instance, I want to do the best writing I’m capable of. I know and accept that many, many other writers will be deemed better. They’re my competition only to an extent; my greatest, most worthy foe is … me. Ha. But really.