Against perfectionism

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To be human is to be a work in progress. Human beings grow, change, and fail. That’s why we need compassion and forgiveness.

We ought to give people a break, show some patience, and stop scolding one another. No one is perfect. This goes for other people and ourselves.

But we remain strangely wedded to the idea that people should be perfect. Sometimes this appears as pearl-clutching indignation when other people say dumb things and behave badly. Social media is full of holier-than-thou outrage. It comes in a variety of flavors, liberal and conservative, woke and anti-woke.

Turned inward, perfectionism becomes pathological. In social contexts, it fuels anger and polarization. Let’s climb down from our high horses, study compassion, and look at ourselves in the mirror.

Pathological perfectionism in sports

Perfectionism can crack that mirror. Some people are incredibly hard on themselves. A mirror can magnify our flaws. Pathological perfectionism can lead to eating disorders, self-loathing, and even suicide.

One alarming example is the shocking number of recent suicides by college athletes. Last month, a 19-year-old cheerleader at Southern University ended her own life. From the outside, these young folks seem to be excelling and achieving. But at what cost?

Suicide is complex. The mental health of young people has been battered in recent years, and perfectionism is part of the problem, especially for athletes and other over-achievers. The quest for perfection can lead to despair.

The stress of perfectionism was part of the story of Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who withdrew from competition at the summer games in Tokyo. A New York Times article about Biles was headlined “The Weight of Perfection.”

Another recent article about elite athletes and mental health, “The Problem with Perfection,” cites research suggesting that one-third of elite athletes suffer from anxiety and depression. Athletic perfection demands constant effort, self-critique, and the ever-present risk of failure.

The competitive spirit is linked to deep psychological forces. Tennis star Andre Agassi once explained, “I’ve internalized my father—his impatience, his perfectionism, his rage—until his voice doesn’t just feel like my own, it is my own.” The sidelines of youth sports are full of parents who scream at their own kids. Few will be as great as Agassi. But some will internalize the rage and impatience of pathological perfectionism.

Fear of failure is part of the mix. In describing those recent student-athlete suicides, sports columnist Shalise Manza Young suggested, “Maybe you believe you must be perfect in everything you attempt and any perceived failure is unbearable.” The mother of one of those student-athletes explained, “There’s so much pressure on athletes, especially at that high level, balancing academics and a highly competitive environment. And there is anxiety and there is stress to be perfect, to be the best, to be No. 1.”

The danger of the GOAT

Our culture reinforces this mindset. Most recently it has taken the form of the acronym “GOAT,” for “Greatest Of All Time.” That superlative is obviously absurd. But fans are obsessed with this kind of assertion.

As coach and philosopher Jack Bowen has noted, the truth of athletic competition is that there is only one winner at a time, only one MVP per season, only one gold medalist per event per Olympiad. And everyone loses eventually. Even the MVPs grow old and eventually lose. No one wins everything or stays on top for long.

RELATED: Sports are for losers: On unavoidable suffering and learning to flourish

When the struggle for perfection runs into the inevitable fact of loss and failure, there is a recipe for trauma and despair. One need not be a world-class athlete to understand what it means to pursue greatness. The struggle to be perfect takes a toll on academic overachievers, on musicians, in the business world, and elsewhere.

There is only one winner at a time, only one MVP per season, only one gold medalist per event per Olympiad.

Our culture celebrates GOATs, and we pile on to scapegoats. The danger of chasing the title of GOAT is that you’ve got a target on your back. The more successful you become, the more enemies you create, and the more fragile your perfection becomes.

The menace of merit

Pathological perfectionism exists wherever there are meritocracies.

Academia is plagued by the problem. Helicopter dads and tiger moms urge their kids up the academic ladder. The recent PBS documentary “Try Harder!” chronicled the anxiety of youth who dream of Ivy League perfection. One student said, “the pressure is insurmountable at times.”

When those overachievers land in universities, the competition redoubles. They compete for entrance to law schools, medical schools, and Ph.D. programs. Then these young “goats” move on to intense competition for residencies, partnerships, and tenure-track jobs, only to pass their perfectionism on to their own children. The motto of meritocracy is publish or perish, eat or be eaten.

In The Tyranny of Merit, Michael Sandel, cites research indicating a “hidden epidemic of perfectionism” among the youth. In a meritocracy, “the demand to achieve comes to define one’s merit and self-worth.” Sandel continues, “Among those who land on top, it induces anxiety, a debilitating perfectionism, and a meritocratic hubris that struggles to conceal a fragile self-esteem. Among those it leaves behind, it imposes a demoralizing, even humiliating sense of failure.”

The winners gloat and their hubris grows. The losers sulk and their resentment festers. The result is an embittered society that forgets sources of value other than winning. Sandel suggest this causes us to forget the common good. It also ignores the need for compassion and forgiveness.

Pathological perfectionism grows out of a winner-takes-all environment. But no one can win at everything all the time. That’s why we need to forgive our own faults and learn to be compassionate, even to ourselves.

Tyrannical ambition

This pathology also shows up in politics. Mary Trump, the niece of Donald Trump, explained the pathological perfectionism of the Trump family. In the Trump family, she said, “Life is a zero-sum game. There’s one winner. Everybody else is a loser. If you’re not winning, you’re losing.”

This helps explain the former President’s tendency toward hyperbolic exaggeration, including allegedly fraudulent asset valuations. Trump wanted to be the GOAT. His MAGA slogan was all about “greatness.”

It was not surprising, then, that he lied about his crowd sizes. Trump also apparently lies about his golf scores. Those banal lies and his insatiable appetite for winning eventually gave way to the “Big Lie” about the 2020 election, which continues to destabilize our country.

The dream of perfection is part of the pathology of would-be tyrants. They want to be gods and to have god-like power, as I explain in my book Tyranny from Plato to Trump. Tyrannical ambition is the strange desire to win the game of life. A would-be tyrant wants, in Plato’s words, to “fill the whole world with his name and power.”

Of course, this is absurd. We are mortals, not gods. But hubris and perfectionism make us dream of being gods and GOATs.

Perfectionism in politics can lead us to think that our political opponents are evil foes who must be defeated at any cost. And it can cause would-be tyrants to lie, cheat, and worse, in pursuit of the dream of perfect power.

To prevent tyrannical perfectionism from taking root in political life, we need a system that guarantees that no single party or individual is able to establish itself permanently in power. This is the virtue of a system of checks and balances. A secular political structure prevents anyone from imposing their vision of perfection onto the rest of us.

Grumpy moral saints

And what about moral perfectionism? Well, we are all flawed. And those who claim to be saints are more often than not a pain to be around. A kind of perfectionism also helps to explain the pearl-clutching outrage that we find on social media.

Perfectionism makes us grumpy. We are quick to judge the failures of others. We set the bar quite high. And when people fail to jump over it, we pile on with scorn and contempt. Often this is perfectionist resentment projected outward. “I’m not perfect,” the critic says. “But at least I’m not as lame as you are.”

But no one is perfect. Our heroes and saints have their faults. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison owned slaves. Gandhi has been accused of racism. FDR, JFK, and MLK each had extramarital affairs. Our heroes all have the same feet of clay we do.

We arguably need heroes anyway, and there is a value in moral striving. It is good to aspire to be better. But perfectionism can lead us to think in a toxic moral binary: if you are not perfect, you are evil. And the impossibility of perfection leaves us all in a hell of our own devising.

Perfectionism creates guilt and anxiety when turned inward. When projected outward, it becomes censorious and mean.

Secular compassion and forgiveness

In the Christian world, much of this is connected to the problem of sin. Christianity offers a remedy in forgiveness and atonement. But some religious people seem to forget that forgiving is part of the story. Religious scolds are quick to judge but slow to forgive.

Nonreligious people can, ironically, fall into the same holier-than-thou trap. Secular perfectionism may grow from the realization that this is the only life we’ve got. In struggling to make the most of this life, we may believe that the goal is to win.

If there is no God to forgive us, we must learn to forgive ourselves.

That is a strange view of life. Life is not a zero-sum game. There are no winners. Rather, we struggle onward and do our best. And soon enough, every GOAT passes on.

The remedy is compassion and forgiveness. This is as true for secular scolds as for religious fault-finders. Some humanists seem especially eager to attack the failures of religious hypocrites. But we’d do better to tread lightly and stop judging.

Indeed, in a world without sin and metaphysical atonement, the need is obvious for compassion doled out between humans. We’ve got to take care of one another. If there is no God to forgive us, we must learn to forgive ourselves.

We should do our best to live as well as we can in an imperfect world. There are no saints, and no one is the GOAT. Nor should we expect anyone to be, not even the person in the mirror.

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