In December, The New York Times published a piece on perfectionism, how those of us who are perfectionists may be more inclined to mental distress, including depression and suicidal thinking, than the imperfect out there.
Unfortunately, I’m a perfectionist, though I tend to waver between the triad of behaviors researchers have discovered: at any given time I have struggled with perhaps overly high standards I’ve set for myself to the point in which my inner critic sends me to the edge, have placed my own high expectations on others, and have, in turn, killed relationships, and have agonized over living up to ideals I believe others expect of me to the point of being caught in downward spirals that have crushed me.
As psychology professor Gordon L. Flett notes in the piece, in some aspects of life, surgery, say, or editing, perfection is a necessity: mistakes can have dire consequences.
In my life as a writer and editor, I’ve tended toward perfectionism at each of the three levels described in the piece. In particular, I engage in self-criticism to the point of getting depressed that anything I write or edit will never be good enough. At the same time I fret outside criticism, especially when it’s negative, coming to believe that if I haven’t met expectations, I have failed others, and myself. And I’ve heaped criticism on others to the point of ridiculous shouting matches.
This morning I was close to despair when I discovered a comma splice in a comment I made here.
That’s an elementary mistake, and a mistake no good writer should make. And that just shows you how stupid and incompetent you are.
Or those were thoughts that suddenly raced to mind, and it’s taken me half an hour to overcome what might to some seem a minor lapse. In just that little struggle with perfection and error, I can see the dangers of perfectionism. I was agonized by a comma splice, feeling horrified to have committed such an elementary grammatical error. For half an hour, I was an utter failure.
I’m not dead yet, however. I’m feeling much better now.