The search for perfection has become a constant, especially with the spread of technology, which allows us to edit everything to convey exactly the image we want and eliminate what we consider “imperfections.” However, this search for perfection is often a dead end that leads to dissatisfaction and frustration.
The desire to be perfect grips us, plunging us into a state of unrelenting tension that often wreaks psychological and relationship havoc. Despite this, many people still believe that striving for perfection is a good thing. Instead, as with other assumptions and operating beliefs in our culture, when we look deeper we find they don’t make much sense.
Understanding the original meaning of the word perfection could help us get rid of the wish that everything be perfect and the dissatisfaction that comes when it is not, which will end up being deeply liberating.
What is perfection and how was its original meaning distorted?
Psychologists from Bath and York St John Universities followed 40,000 university students from the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom for nearly three decades. These researchers found that in 1989 only 9% of students reported feeling pressured by society to be perfect. However, in 2017 that figure had doubled to 18%.
That means the level of “socially prescribed perfectionism” is rising dramatically. If that pace is sustained, by 2050 one in three young people will report clinically relevant levels of that kind of perfectionism. One way to free ourselves from its influence and escape this prophecy is to understand the historical evolution of the word perfection.
The word perfection comes from the Latin perfèctus, from perficĕre, which means to finish or fulfill. While the preposition per adds the idea of fulfillment, the verb fèctus, which comes from fàcere, refers to doing something.
Therefore, originally the word perfect meant something finished, which had come to an end and lacked nothing. It was referring, therefore, to a work carried out completely. Over time, the meaning of the word perfection changed, especially under the influence of the Judeo-Christian religion.
In fact, perfection became a constant theological concern throughout the centuries. However, it is curious that the word that was used in the biblical story to refer to perfection was tamim (תָּמִים), although this only designated animals without spots on the body that had to be sacrificed.
Little by little, what was a concrete concept became more abstract, so that the idea of perfection stopped being limited to what we did to also extend to people, describing a morality without stain or defect. The difference seems subtle but in reality it is immense since the concept of perfection went from being applied to a finished work to being applied to people, thus becoming a judgment about its worth.
At the same time, perfection could not be separated from the concept of sacrifice, so many monastic orders began to search for it by renouncing the world and withdrawing into asceticism, a vision that gradually spread throughout society.
As a result, today we believe that perfection is the highest degree of excellence and that to achieve it we must sacrifice. Perfection suggests an impeccable state, without defects. Being perfect implies reaching a level of excellence, both in terms of performance and in terms of qualities, that cannot be surpassed. However, as Voltaire said “The perfect is the enemy of the good”.
Seeking perfection is not virtuous, but problematic
Our culture places an exaggerated emphasis on success and goal achievement. We ask our children what grade they got and not what they learned. We ask a person what he/she works for and not if he/she loves his/her work. As a result, we have a tendency to measure our lives in terms of successes and achievements while losing sight of meaning and happiness.
However, can you imagine seeing a rainbow and complaining that one of its bands is wider than the others or saying that a cloud is too small? That judgment is not only ridiculous but also ruins the beauty of the moment. And yet, that is exactly what we do when we judge ourselves, or value the others, by looking at our supposed imperfections. We forget that, as human beings, we are also part of nature, so we don’t have to seek perfection because we are already perfect just the way we are.
In many cases, perfectionism is usually a mask to hide insecurity. Trying to be perfect is equivalent to recognizing that we are not good enough the way we are. That means many times we strive to be perfect, or to do something perfect ,to compensate a feeling of inadequacy.
Those who want to be perfect also have an exaggerated sense of their own shortcomings. In general, they are people who received messages, at an early age, that told them that they were not good enough, or suffered pressure to achieve the best results because only then could they achieve the emotional validation they needed.
Deep down, this compensatory attempt implies thinking that the others are better or superior, so seeking perfection is a way to overcome them. We judge ourselves very unfairly and that tension ends up being tremendously harmful in the long run.
Instead, we would live much happier and more relaxed if we accepted the natural flow of life by stopping measuring, comparing and judging. If we go back to the original meaning of the word perfection, we will realize that it is not a state free of defects or not susceptible to improvement, but only a finished work that does not lack anything.
Supreme perfection does not exist. It is an entelechy. What exists is a perfection adapted to the context. That means that when we have tried our best and given our best to finish a work, it is enough. Everything is susceptible to improvement, nothing is perfect. Neither what we do nor what we are.
This does not imply stop growing, give up personal improvement or try to improve, but only stop understanding perfection as an ideal, to begin to see it as a process that leads to an ideal result that will always depend on our abilities, resources and conditions. This will help us to get rid of the tension and frustration that is generated by setting unattainable standards from its own conception.
Pursuing perfection is an unattainable, unimaginable and clearly undesirable goal. Notions of what is perfect or imperfect are simply mental constructions that have no real basis other than that provided by culture. Therefore, just as we have introjected the concept of perfection, we can deconstruct it to use it to our advantage, instead of allowing it to take away our mental balance. It is much more constructive to spend our time and energy understanding how to transcend the insecurity that catalyzed the desire for perfection and then focus on what truly makes us happy. It’s a change in perspective that’s worth it.
Curran, T. & Hill, A. P. (2019) Perfectionism Is Increasing Over Time: A Meta-Analysis of Birth Cohort Differences From 1989 to 2016. Psychological Bulletin; 145(4): 410-429.
Devine, A. (1980) Perfezione, Perfezionismo. In: MB-Soft.