The pursuit of perfection is built into every professional training. But wholeness lies beyond perfection. Perfection is only an idea. For most experts and many of the rest of us it has become a life goal. The pursuit of perfection may actually be dangerous. The type A person for whom perfectionism has become a way of life, is vulnerable to heart disease. Perfectionism can break your heart and all the hearts around you.
A perfectionist sees life as if it were one of those little pictures that used to appear in the newspapers over the caption “What’s wrong with this picture?” If you looked at the picture carefully you would see that the table only had three legs or the house had no door. I remember the, “Aha!” that these pictures evoked in me as a child. I wonder now why anyone would want to take such satisfaction in seeing what is missing, what is wrong, what is “broken.”
The pursuit of perfection has become a major addiction of our time. Fortunately, perfectionism is learned. No one is born a perfectionist, which is why it is possible to recover. I am a recovering perfectionist. Before I began recovering, I experienced that I and everyone else was always falling short, that who we were and what we did was never quite good enough. I sat in judgment on life itself. Perfectionism is the belief that life is broken.
Many adult perfectionists had a parent who was a perfectionist, someone who awarded approval on the basis of performance and achievement. They learned early that they were loved for what they did and not simply for who they are. Sadly, for a perfectionistic parent, achievement is rarely ever good enough. The lives of their children can become a constant striving to earn love. The confusion between love and approval is so common in our culture that we have found it necessary to create a special rare sub-category of love, “Unconditional Love.” Of course love, like grace, is never earned. All love is unconditional. Anything we need to earn is only approval.
Long before I went to medical school I was trained as a perfectionist by my father. A ninety eight on an exam got the same unfailing response, “And what happened to the other two points?” I adored my Dad and my whole childhood was focused on the pursuit of the other two points. By the time I was in my twenties, I had become as much a perfectionist as he. It was no longer necessary for him to ask me about those two points. I had taken that over for myself. It was many years before I found out that those points don’t matter. That they are not the secret to living a life worth remembering. That they don’t make you loveable. Or whole.
Life offers us many teachers and many teachings. One of mine was David, who was an artist and my first love. The living proof that opposites attract. While we were together, my driver’s license came up for renewal. And I needed to take a written test of the traffic laws.
The DMV had sent a little booklet. I studied it for days. All the while I was memorizing the meaning of the white curb and the yellow curb, David would try to persuade me to join him for a walk or to go to a party or out to dinner or dancing or even just to talk. I told him I couldn’t take the time. Of course I got 100% on the test. Triumphant, I rushed into his studio shouting that I had gotten 100% on my driving test. David looked up from his painting with an expression of great tenderness. “My love,” he said, “why would you want to do that?”
It was not the response I had expected. Suddenly I understood that I had sacrificed a great deal to get 100% on a test that I only needed to pass in order to drive. I had spent days studying for it that I could have spent in much better ways. I had learned many things that I did not even want to know. It had felt as if I had no choice. If my father could not approve of me with anything less than 100% I could not approve of myself with less than 100% either. Even on a written driving test. Like most addicts, I was out of control, pursuing something that had no meaning or even reality in preference to all that life can offer.
Fortunately, David did not play by these rules. He didn’t even know the game.