This article is aimed at sketching an overview picture of the many interpretations of the concept of perfectionism. Offering a wider picture of the phenomenon, as described by modern psychology, will help to investigate those intersections that both historical perspective and conceptual analysis can provide for the same notion of perfection.
Before considering perfectionism as a risk factor for behavioural disorders requesting specific interventions of self-help, or cure (described in Donachie’s work, here aside) it is important to stress that high achievement and high achievers themselves are not to be considered as pathological, or even problematic, in any way. Particularly when focusing on competition in sport, a just balance between modest and sombre awareness toward reaching reasonable objectives and a strong desire of success is the right aptitude for a complete and wholesome realization in order to get personal gratification. Therefore – as a standard approach – only unworkable, unrealistic, or vane attemps of accomplishment are what has to be avoided in the process.
When we look at the dynamic involving 1) need and/or 2) desire (to be perfect), only in the first case are we to be worried about what we define as altered, personal or social, orientation of the self. And this is not just important for modelling any intervention of self-help on perfectionism, instead as for understanding what perfectionism itself is all about.
In ancient philosophy this ideal of perfection is represented by virtue. It’s the idea of a disciplined, self-imposed style of life that both stoicists and epicureists assumed to be the path toward a source of unshakeable certainty in practical life. As Pierre Hadot – who is rightly credited for opening this field of studies – argued in recent times, what is shown in the work of ancient classical Greek and Roman writers is exactly this same ideal paradigm of the standard of moral philosophy; perfectionism being, in this strict sense, the embodiment of morality, at its pick. As it is in Marcus Aurelius’ meditations.
Let’s see what an essential scheme of perfectionism could look like onto the horizon of philosophical, religious and spiritual traditions regarding soteriology, cure and self-help: the spirit of perfect standard is moral, which means it has to be referred to the inner self, not to the outside world; on the other end, only in harmony with the entire “being” a perfect model for the living drama regarding the expression of a spiritual (and interior) journey can be found, which means this same model of perfection has to be natural (and exterior) for the self itself. Put another way: a balance between those two focuses of dramatization is centered at the middle of this same dynamic, and it will emerge as a flow that must not limit us, or limit us as less as possible. This is the flow of conscience that – as far as ancient spiritual traditions convey – perfection is.
“Perfect!” (perfetto, in Ital.; parfait, in French; both from Lat. perficere: comply) is what we mean to be ultimate, unobjectionable, well said or “fair enough”; it is used in every reachable senses meant to be considered as ending any possible discussion in logic: something true, but again limited – say, to the context, or the perspectives – thus “relative”, and insufficient… Something evident as well in other areas of thought, or action, where judgement (and self-evaluation) is mandatory: an unsurpassed dance step for tango dancers, or a collective movement for a rugby team. All perfect, and still perfectible! Perfectionists don’t comply, and deliberately confront complaisance. It can be found in human persistence: like Kobe Bryant, anticipating every single training session in his NBA team, the Lakers, with a two hours extra-session at home; or we can think about the special effort required in trying and repeating a single stroke, a penalty kick or a drop at goal, for a player. Here is another clear way of saying which the same notion of perfection suggests: perseverance brings success!
Yet perfectionism still can signify a whole lot of things altogether. In fact, celebrating the beauty of spirituality in sport means thinking differently. What is important to note is that in all those examples mentioned above are we to enter a special, non-ordinary idea of completeness. Spiritual unity is implicated. And, again – as ancient traditions convey – a world apart is evocated: often called mystical (even in sports competition, as in competing tasks: a music show, or an opera ballet), rather then dialectical. As for logic, a rational attitude is nonetheless requested. Approximately the same way, in all those performances there’s a request in being coherent with the ideal requested in activities involving judgement and, in general, interpersonal relations, when exposed to public interest. This same request implies a more profound idea of perfection. One that open a sphere of realistic self-esteem, and a positive mindset toward the existing, imperfect world that we live. A last example can help understand the point about imperfection: the question being here if this same idea of imperfection can be brought into practice.
Christian practice, for instance: in Matthew (38-48) we read of how the teaching of Christ refers to judgement; in fact, what is demanded in order to be perfect, “just as your heavenly Father is perfect”, is to take responsibility in front of what ordinary people (the Gentiles) think is right, and do the opposite… It’s directly against an ordinary view of rightness that foolishness has been summoned by the Master, and it’s against the background of an archaic law (lex talionis) that has been posed: Judgement against judgement – as we may say. Call “exterior judgement” the second, and you may have a better idea of it: opposing all exterior self-image is not to be considered “opposition” strategy. Magnanimity – according to the Gospel (in order to gain redemption of the soul, one needs to loose it) – makes no misurement, or calculation. A conscience that never concedes judgement as “exterior”, as something superior, or conclusive, in any sense. On the contrary, such is the conscience which depend upon something that links morality to humility, simplicity, poverty, and imperfection, mysterious and unconscious as it may be.
What about “interior judgement”? What if this is the one that is subject to conscience? What makes it liberating and alternative, even though inferior to the prior? The Gospel explains: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if one forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile”. The answer seems to be eccentric, to say the least… Acting like foolish, being insane: a strange performance, after all! Given the agonistic background. we may probably better consider this model of morality when applied to extraordinary public shows and events, or once been impersonated by eccentric sportsmen: something like an all unexpected, unprecedented move, like Cassius Clay’s; one who by no surprise, in order to be so surprising, masterminded his own “show of greatness”; and one who had something (starting from his adopted name, Mohammed Ali) to share with creed, faith, trust in something “other”, transcending ourselves. Maybe this is exactly the path toward undertaking conscience of a positive spiritual agonistic behavior, when acting, or playing sports.
Now, if we consider perfection beyond any understandable dream or fear for open confrontation, or any unacceptable craving for results at all costs, conditional with the empowering and misleading horizon for glory, and if we overstep the insane dimension of anger, worry, anxiety, which come with misery and failure, we can understand that denial of true, realistic acknowledgment of the limits of perfection is what makes the journey so hurtful, and that the dualistic reality (be it victory, or defeat) of our contracted spirit is what makes it impossible to prosper. A just homage for the values of life, acquired through effort and sacrifice, is exactly the opposite.
Tuition of imperfection is the mandatory path, and quest for perfection is a consequent achievement. This is true for other religious traditions as well. But, as a zen edifying story on the perfectly coated bucket goes, there are things that even perfection simply cannot do.