We are, as a species, master imitators. In fact, we anneal ourselves to our environment from the moment we’re born. Psychosocial influences are constantly molding our self-concepts, values, attitudes, beliefs and behavior. The most significant of these influences are educational systems, workplace structures and entertainment (movies, T.V. shows and commercials). Contrary to the opinion of many academics, conscious awareness of how these climates operate allows individuals to evolve into healthier and happier human beings.
The “P” word
In hopes of illustrating this theory, we’d like to focus on one simple word that significantly influences our psychosocial system in ways that are generally beyond conscious awareness. It’s the “P” word, Perfect. This very important word helps explain the fundamental structure of our socioeconomic system. The story begins with a crash course in perfectionism and ends with a hope for a better, more egalitarian, future for our country. So, let’s begin.
Perfectionism is defined as an inability to accept anything less than perfection; it’s rooted in fear and can result in abnormal behavior. This thinking pattern is logically flawed. Nothing’s perfect. If nothing’s perfect, then it’s illogical to think that anything can be perfect. It’s similar to telling children that “the bogeyman” will terrorize them if they behave poorly. There’s no such thing as the bogeyman. But, until children reach cognitive maturity, their fear of the bogeyman remains even though it doesn’t exist.
This leads to an important point. The probability of internalizing perfectionistic thinking patterns (or any unrealistic perceptions of reality) is dependent on social-cognitive maturation. But where do these perfectionistic ideals originate? Why are so many people obsessed with perfection and what can we do to eliminate the word from our language?
Final Exam (Fill in the Blank): Practice Makes ______________!
Practice makes perfect. How many times have we heard this aphorism growing up, and how many times have we told this to our kids without realizing the social-cognitive implications? Perfectionism is deeply inculcated into our subconscious motivations. But where do these perfectionistic ideals originate?
The K-12 Experience
Teachers and parents are excellent initiators of perfectionistic behaviors. They oftentimes live vicariously through their children to alleviate their own feelings of failure, make critical comments, and deliver toxic messages that trigger procrastination and inhibit creativity. I once heard of a high school teacher saying to his class that, “You guys are so stupid!” What he was trying to say was that he felt incapable of teaching his students. Ironically, he later became a school administrator.
What about higher education? Although there’s no correlation between graduate school grades and professional performance, graduate students are generally required to make an A or a B to pass a class. In many graduate programs, B’s are considered poor performance. This expectation inherently drives students to be perfectionists.
Fierce competition in law (and medical) school also creates a significant number of perfectionists. The amount of competition and perfection needed to succeed appears to be an inherent requirement for success. What’s rarely discussed however are the value changes that occur in law school from first to third year. Research indicates that students begin and end with egalitarian/democratic and elitist/undemocratic values, respectively. In fact, competition and individualism, when combined in large quantities, are guaranteed to generate perfectionistic tendencies.
Anyone who’s gone through a doctoral program understands the amount of psychological abuse that students endure. Papers are oftentimes graded on political correctness and grammatical perfection instead of what was most important: generating and developing ideas. So, why do 40% of doctoral students never graduate? One reason is because doctoral students are expected to perform under unreasonable conditions that are saturated with poisonous levels of unconstructive and unjustified criticism.
Ivy League Students: Perfectionists or High Achievers?
Anyone who’s ever hung out with Ivy Leaguer’s from Harvard and Yale understands that the keys to their success are extremely high levels of competition, motivation, criticism and confidence. But are these elite students perfectionists, high achievers or both? Let’s review our definition of perfectionism:
Perfectionism is defined as an inability to accept anything less than perfection; it’s rooted in fear and can result in abnormal behavior.
Do elite students strive to make perfect grades? Of course they do. Is their desire for achievement rooted in fear? Certainly. Can it result in abnormal behavior? Definitely. But, does it always result in abnormal behavior? No, it doesn’t. This leads to an interesting contradiction. Our elite ivy league universities profess that perfectionism is bad, yet only accept the best students in the country of which 39% report mental health issues as undergraduates due to academic rigor. This number jumps to 80% for doctoral students. So, is perfectionism OK as long as it results in high achievement? Is our conception of perfectionism a double standard? Should highly-motivated students who live in low-performing neighborhoods with low social capital be lead to believe that they should lower their academic expectations and accept the status quo of their environment?
Unhealthy working environments are no exception. Specifically, caustic bosses tax the mind and spirit and rarely allow for opportunities to feel empowered. They describe themselves as competitive, diligent, multi-tasker work-a-holics and are described by others as controlling micromanagers. These perfectionist “control freaks” expect employees to work in overly critical, chaotic and under-resourced environments where their efforts are exploited and made to feel worse with blame, shame and guilt. They rarely give credit when credit is due and expect their staff to work overtime without compensation. If left untreated, employees develop similar unhealthy behaviors. So, why are perfectionists oftentimes placed into leadership roles? It’s because they get the job done, albeit at the cost of company morale.
How many times do you hear the word “perfect” every day? I challenge you to keep a daily tally as you interact with coworkers and watch your favorite T.V. shows, especially the commercials. I think you’ll be surprised. It’s a powerful word that has far-reaching consequences.
Perfectionism sells. Hillary Rettig in The 7 Secrets of the Prolific writes that if someone can convince you that you’re unfashionable, ugly and depressed then someone will sell you products that will solve these so-called problems. Fierce competition between companies encourages marketing experts to practice unhealthy advertising tactics. They advertise perfectionistic clichés that depict easy living or easy success and downplay family connections, luck and incredible sacrifice. Examples include: rags to riches, no pain no gain and they all lived happily ever after. These debilitating subconscious messages instill perfectionistic tendencies that are simply unrealistic.
What’s wrong with the car that we already have? Car commercials dig into our perfectionistic tendencies that have been taught to us at an early age: bigger, better, faster, shinier and more options. If it has any problems, get rid of it. Out with the old and in with the new. Do perfectionistic messages influence our desire to buy the latest trends in fashion? How about our personal relationships?
What about cosmetic surgery? Botox, liposuction, butt implants, face lifts, tummy tucks, nose jobs, eye widening, skin bleaching, crazy fad diets, etc., etc., etc. Our culture is literally obsessed with perfection. It doesn’t help that perfect-looking people are portrayed as more successful and desirable by the media. But is this true in reality? Besides actors and models who are paid to look good, I encourage you to do a Google image search on the world’s wealthiest men and women. Trust me, they’re not super models.
Even the wealthy are lead to believe that more is better. In fact, perfectionism is the wind that keeps the sailboat moving. Billionaires are constantly buying bigger and better toys to fulfill a subconscious need for perfectionism, and to impress and/or satisfy childhood insecurities. Some are never satisfied. I’ve heard stories about wealthy individuals who accepted nothing less than perfection. Some are so supercritical of themselves (and others) that they’re offended by the smallest criticism, especially from those who appear to be lower in social class and socioeconomic status.
Bonus Round: The Big Picture
We need to stop using the word perfect if we’re truly dedicated to evolving towards a healthier ideology where individuals are more egalitarian. Luckily, research pertaining to human values clearly indicates that our country is already passing over the pinnacle of our capitalistic era and moving into a healthier ethos in which hedonistic individualism is slowly being replaced with an egalitarian, cooperative and collaborative utilitarianism that expresses the adage of “greatest good for the greatest number”. In fact, the concept of “going green” (i.e., doing more with less and a metabolic understanding of production, consumption and ecology) is helping us transition into a European-like social-capitalistic hybrid economic system.
It’s unfortunate however that many individuals are suffering economic hardships during this “great recession”, the first of many hurdles on the way to a healthier democracy. Resolving income and wealth inequalities in the United States is the biggest hurdle, without which little transformation is possible. We must embrace change and continue to rely on our European neighbors for guidance. May their humanistic approaches to human value, egalitarian advancements and high levels of reported happiness among their citizens continue to inspire us.
Dr. John Hofmann