Our Irrational Demand for perfection
In our teachers, ourselves or others

As I have stated in other articles, that we tend to demand perfection of others, especially of those who teach, ( please see Bane of the Teacher ) Now, it is not unreasonable, to expect to get, a certain amount of knowledge higher than our own, from any teacher, and we rightfully expect them to "practice what they teach." However, is it rational to expect perfection from them ?

I've touched on this concept in other missives, but would like to explore this idea of perfectionism, in a little more detail.

A few terms to get the ball rolling here:

"Musterbation" is a term coined by Albert Ellis ( who developed Rational Emotive Therapy), to describe the tendency to think that certain things "must" occur or "must" be done. Another idea, Perfect-a-holic which is the "addiction to the perfection one can't have, in an imperfect universe" which is classed as irrational behavior, that is the need for the absolute. Meaning, that your view is the "only" view, and things must be this way ... period , no derivation is possible.

Now, faced with either of these, any thinking person, would go .. yeah.. they might be dealing with a person whose a few degrees off of the plumb line here ... however, short of these states, which are considered pathological problems, there is a very large middle ground, which is the area that can get us into trouble.

We "all" do this:

Each and every one of us has, to a degree, in their mind, their own dearly held view on anything. Where it wanders into a pathological problem is when we are incapable of thinking or considering any other view, except our own. So, our cue to maintaining a rational view, is to keep an open mind and honestly listen to other views, which does not mean we necessarily have to agree with the opposing view, but we have to at least rationally consider it, again any reasonable person would agree with this ... however, do we do it ? Not always, especially when we look at others.

Expecting perfection, in ourselves, or in others, is not only unrealistic, it is, by its very nature, a recipe for defeat.  By demanding perfection, what we will get is failure, for the simple fact, that the only way to go from the top of the scale, at 100% perfect, is downward.

A rather classic example: Many women, see their aging faces in the mirror, in horror, as the "perfection" of their youth, is going away ... now is it rational to expect it to stay at that level of youthful perfection ? No, we age, this is unavoidable, but you be would hard pressed to prove that, given the statistics for face lifts and plastic surgery done in this country, surgeries not done to correct genuine defects, but to "correct" normal aging.

This demand for correction, of a perfectly normal and natural state, is either due to their own personal view on the matter, or social pressure on them to be "beautiful", which is a demand for them to try to turn back the clock, and present the "perfection" of their youth, regardless of their true age.

Ok, so where do we all tend to wander off the path of rationality ? Passion,  passionate thoughts and views, on things that really matter to us. These are things we just might be harboring some tinges of irrational demand.

Example, as stated above ... our view of Teachers:

Any teacher, be it in the halls of academia or spiritual leaders, has run head on into this one. We, as a race, have always held high standards for teachers, and rightfully so, however there comes a point, where our demand for high standards, can become an irrational demand, for perfection.

Students tend to react in horror if the teacher, shows any flaws. However, as stated before, we have the right and very good reasons to expect them to know more than we do, and at the very least, expect them to practice what they teach ... but where does the requirement come in, that they be something more than human ?

Do we really have any right to demand that our teacher be some sort of paragon ? We put them up on a pedestal of our perceived perfection, and may the Gods help them if they fall off. And they will, count on it.

"Every human being, is by nature, imperfect", it is the degree of imperfection, that should concern us. If the teacher does not know the subject they are teaching,  then yes, we have a reason to reconsider listening to them, however, does the fact that they occasionally fall short of the perfect ideals that they teach, and fall off that pedestal we put them up on, automatically make them a bad teacher ? No, they are human beings, who will fall short of even their own desires, much less yours, and to ask them to be some kind of superhuman, is not reasonable.

Making Mistakes are normal learning experiences:

To make a mistake, is an opportunity to learn, to grow, it's how we learn, in point of fact, it's almost the only way we CAN learn, first we have to act, then we adjust for any error we made. We do not grow and learn, if we are forever hiding from our own mistakes.

An easy way to figure that maybe your not being entirely rational about mistakes, is how you deal with criticism. If you get all defensive and riled up about it, rather than consider the other party might have a point, your being for the most part, irrational, as nobody's perfect. Further, the demand for self perfection, can lead you to paint yourself right into a corner, as due to the fear of making a mistake, you avoid trying anything new, at all, for fear you might get it wrong.

Albert Ellis's studies on test anxiety is an eye opening read into this concept, for all the students who do know the subject matter, but bomb the test, as they have made such a demand of themselves to "get it all correct" that any mistake = absolute failure, which becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. A single wrong answer, can result in a sort of masochistic wallowing in guilt, and self degradation, of  "I know this, how on earth could I get it wrong .. I am stupid .. I am a failure" etc., so their performance degrades. Where the fact of the matter is, 99% right, is a very good score :). So their demand is irrational.

We are all flawed:

The trick is, discovering, and admitting the flaws, and working to remedy them. As we all have them, each and every one of us, there is always something, we could do better. Therefore, from time to time, we need to drag out our perceptions, and even our "facts", shake the dust off of them, and take a good look at them, just to see if they still hold up, in light of what we currently know and understand. However, we must also accept, that we will, being human, likely never get it, 100% right.

Demand for perfection that overrides sensibility:

I mean, lets take this demand for perfection, into the realm of the nonsensical for a second  ... I get letters from people for example, who are all over me, because I make a few spelling or grammatical errors on my pages, which means to them, since the missive presented is not "perfect", this somehow equals, I must not know what I am talking about, and they pay no attention to the pages contents. This is the demand for perfection, taken into absurdity.

We even have a name for people like this, grammar cops, :) which is generally a good natured, poking fun at someone whose a bit obsessive about spelling and punctuation, but in this case, it can walk right over into someone whose demand for perfection, has overridden not only good manners, but sensibly, as they have focused entirely on the pages lack of perfection, missing the point of its contents.

I have seen printed books, that generally speaking, have full staffs of proof readers, pouring all over them, before they go to print, that still have such errors in them, so if a few slip by me, who has only one person checking them ... me, a few errors might creep in, that I might miss, try though I may to find them. I do learn from repeated errors, but I can accept a minor error factor.

Why accept an error factor ?:

Now, this seems to some, to be an inconsistency. Should we not strive for perfection ? Two ways to look at it, as an ideal, yes, we should be the best we can be and do our best at anything we lay our hand to ... however, there is a limit to it.

If for example, we are so demanding of perfection, that we will do and re-do and re-do a thing, working it over and over, this action can, if taken to extremes, cause us to spend far too much time on it, to the point where other tasks are being left undone, so there is a balance point, between doing ones best, and what is close enough to that perfect state, to be acceptable. This is not to say we should not try to correct our errors, but we must accept we ARE going to make some.

If we spend the entire day or many days, doing one paper for example, getting each and every i dotted and T crossed exactly right, but in the process, the rest of our life and our obligations, have been put on hold, we are not behaving in a reasonable fashion. Such behavior is considered obsessive, and obsessive behaviors are not healthy, so we need to accept a certain amount of imperfection.

Further, we can so fear imperfection, that it can lead us into not doing the thing, at all. We all know people like this, who flat refuse to even attempt a thing, if they cannot do it perfectly the first time, which, by their lack of experience in doing the thing in question, of course .. they cannot even come close to perfection on any attempt, much less the first. So the demand in this case, of " if I cant do it to where NO one can find fault, I just won't do it at all", is not rational. It's much "Better to do something imperfectly, than to do nothing flawlessly."

Take art for example, as any artist will tell you ... we, ourselves, are generally never 100% satisfied, with almost any work we create, however, you can fuss with a work so much seeking perfection, that you ruin it in the process. So a good artist learns there is a point to stop and say ... enough, and accept that they may never get the perfection they seek, but they do manage to make some wonderful work in the meantime, as they strive for it.

The demand for perfection is stressful and non rewarding:

Achievement means, we have reached a goal... Yeah ! As we dance the happy dance in jubilation :) We feel a sense of accomplishment, we are "rewarded" and are pleased with what we have wrought, at least we hope so. For those who demand perfection of themselves however, there is often the opposite effect, since it involves irrational expectations and impossible goals, there is never the reward, or feeling of satisfaction. The demand for perfection, robs the person of this, as no matter what level of success they have achieved, their first thought is, I should/could have done better, so they "failed".

There is only one view for the pessimistic perfectionist, fault finding, as they zero in on, "what's wrong" and almost never what's positive, because of this, they can easily find fault in others, simply because they have had lots of practice, looking for shortcomings in themselves.

Perfectionists tend to be frantic list makers for example, and have a to do list a mile and half long, of "shoulds", and other "gotta do" stuff. The list is like a goad, standing over them with a stick, that badgers them. They can't just sit down and enjoy their coffee and morning paper, as the moment they do, the "things I HAVE to do today" list rises up like a genie, and commands their complete and utter attention. Being "in the now", is a foreign concept to them, as they push to try to do the impossible, which is live the next moment in time, rather than enjoy the one they are currently in.

( A word to the wise, the world is not going to end if you don't do the dishes right away, the housework police are not gonna show up at your door and haul you off, if you go play for the afternoon, the dishes will still be there when you get back. )

Such demand leads to burn out, non performance, ill health or even death:

Just as a side note. Lots and lots of studies done on this one, from school children, to professionals, and the conclusion is always the same. Irrational demand, leads to over stressed, people. We can push for "perfect" so hard, that we literally burn up with it.  Those who demand perfection and absolute control, create unrealistic expectations, that cannot be met ... period. 

To keep trying to meet them, or worse demand someone else to meet them, is to set up a round robin of demand and failure, that can drive a person into total mental and physical breakdown. The most common are, hypertension, heart disease, headaches, stomach ulcers, chronic depression, anorexia nervosa, obsessive compulsive disorders, substance abuse, and many others.

"Socially prescribed perfectionism", meaning a societal demand for perfection, can lead to suicidal thoughts, and even serious or successful suicide attempts, due to the parties perception of their inability to "meet the standards" of social demands, Such demands can make us feel shame, despair, hopelessness and eventually, paralysis,  which is where we fail to act, at all. This is especially common in young people.

This societal demand for perfection, often leads to self sabotage, also often seen in the young, but they are by no means the only ones who do it. This is where the person spends a great deal of  time, procrastinating, one who does not even try to prepare for, or improve their performance, for fear of failure.

Then, after having done poorly or failed to act at all, spends massive amounts of  time seeking excuses for their poor performance, normally by blaming it on someone else. "The dog ate my homework" is an old joke :) but we wouldn't have such a joke, if irrational excuses, were not so often tendered, for a failure to perform.

Demand for self perfection, can stop a person from seeking help for even serious problems, mental or physical, simply because to do so, means they have to admit they are not perfect, and they would, quite literally in some cases, rather die that admit it.

Unrelenting demand for perfection:

In our society, we have names for people who are relentless in their demand for perfection, and nearly everyone of them is an image of an unpleasant person. Bully comes to mind, or narcissistic, it defines those who are addicted to control, who tend to use their demand for perfection, as a stick to beat others over the head.

This is the boss of a successful business, who cruises the workspace all day, just looking for someone to jump on for any error, who drives their employees into states of exhaustion, with overtime, and excess workloads. 

This is the parent, who says to the child, who got straight A's on their report card, that they "should have been class valedictorian too". 

This is the mate who comes home, to find a clean house, dinner cooked, clean happy kids, who is going to have a fit, and accuse their mate of being a lousy caretaker, because there are no clean towels in the bathroom !

Now, you could look at the above and think, such persons are being irrational, end of statement, however ... lets play the devils advocate for a moment ... it could be said, that the boss feels that if they do not drive their people so hard, the business might not be so successful. 

The parent might want only the "best" for their child and is "looking out for their welfare" with their demand for excellence, and the mate might see the lack of clean towels, as a lack of concern for their personal well being vs the needs of the household at large.

Is any of that true ? Only repeated observation and direct questioning of the party making the demand, can answer that, but how such behavior, might make the other party feel is the question, the intentions of the demanding party, weather for good or ill, is not always relevant, the perception of their demands however, is the point to be pondered.

The employees, might very well feel abused by the boss, and live in dread of them coming into sight range, which, predictably, degrades the performance of their work, so the bosses demand for perfection, is setting itself up to fail in this case. We have all seen this happen, work is going along just fine, but let the boss show up and start looking over your shoulder, and suddenly, your all thumbs and can't seem to get a thing right.

The parent and child, the child may well have worked very hard on all those A's and now, in the face of parental disappointment, that they didn't achieve even more, the child may then feel, "why bother, they are never going to be satisfied" and next year, blow off their class work, and no longer care if they achieve, so the parents demand, is self defeating, much to the parents dismay. Which causes the parent more concern and tends to create even more demands, to the point were the child will rebel into apathy, as they feel they cannot meet the demands.

The situation with the mate, the house mate, feeling that the rest of their work is not being acknowledged, may well stop trying so hard at it, which leads to more and more dissatisfaction by their mate, which leads to more complaints, and so on and so on ... until the union explodes into dissolution. Not to mention, at the very least, the complaining mate is libel to get their dinner served to them in the dogs dish, if their house mate is having a bad hair day. :)

The need for change Vs perfection:

Take any thought we hold of "how things should be" and you get one persons view of Utopia. In a perfect world, things would be thus thus and so. Nice dream, but a dream is what it is. Now, does this mean we should not strive for ideals ? No, of course not ... how else would we improve things ?

If we just accept things "as they are" ... always, and lived our lives in fatalistic complacency and total agreement to the "majority rule" we would, in all likelihood, still be back in the stone ages swinging clubs, as it's unlikely we would have ever grown beyond that state. There would have been little, to no desire to seek change.

And some things need to change, and it's only when we challenge them, that they will they ever BE changed. So it's balancing act, between acceptance of the realities of imperfection, the need to strive for ideals and make changes toward that state, and avoiding having expectations that things will be "exactly" how we want them, even if we do manage to change them.

As was recently pointed out to me ... yet again, is that we cannot "know" all the factors involved, so having an absolute perfectionist view on anything, is not even possible. "Probability, not certainty, is the only real basis we can have for any view we hold", no matter how passionate we are on the subject.  Well reasoned probability, is as close as we are going to get, in almost any situation. And that should be good enough, for any of us, as we strive for more and better understanding, of our teachers, others, and ourselves.


Back to some of this and that