Nobody's Perfect

David Pacchioli
September 01, 1996

Recent studies simply do not support the contention that having lofty personal standards or being highly organized is, per se, a negative psychological trait. So concludes Robert B. Slaney, Penn State professor of clinical psychology, according to a press release.

This is another of those sad cases where a prevailing theory is debunked before I can wring any use from it. Before I am even aware of it. Just thinking of what might have been, had I been cognizant of what was supposed to have been, makes me wonder: Where have I been? And where, when I needed it, was the press release that said high standards and "a place for everything" were certain signs of mania?

I mean, I could have used that sucker.

My indifference to grades in high school, my messy room, these could have been interpreted, reassuringly, as portents of a robust mental health. Thus also my later tendency to consort with beer drinkers and other laissez-faire-ists of various stripes: Clearly, it could have been argued (over the suppression of a belch), we were the sanest of the sane. Spelling tests could have been labeled rightly, as persecution. I would have felt better about misplacing the car keys, and on occasion, the car. I wouldn't have spent so darned much time ironing.

Alas, I had nothing but anecdotal evidence that perfectionism was bad for you. Usually, this wasn't enough.

Thus, growing up, was I instructed to cut all the grass, when I cut the grass. Thus was I directed to clean the bathroom even when I hadn't really noticed its being particularly dirty. (And the same goes for myself.) I could have fought these requirements, had I but known, on grounds of peril to my psyche. Whaddya expect me to be? I could have moaned, on report-card day: Perfect?

It's too late now. Perfectionism is okay, Slaney affirms. It's nothing to be ashamed of. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, one of perfectionism's all-time greats, we won't have lofty personal standards to kick around anymore. It just isn't fair.

But wait. I guess the real point, as Slaney helpfully acknowledges, is that there are healthy and unhealthy varieties of perfectionism. In practice, these are reasonably easy to distinguish. The unhealthy perfectionist is a debilitating torment to him (or her) self. The healthy perfectionist is a torment to others.

So there remains a sort of perfectionism that is justifiably lamentable. The question is, Which type?

Where it gets confusing is that in many situations a little self-torment is to be preferred. I don't ever want to wake up, for example, and hear a surgeon saying, "Looks close enough to me." Or an airline pilot mumbling over the P.A., "I wouldn't worry about that one." (I don't want to hear a pilot mumbling, period.) Nor do I want anybody teasing these people, or suggesting that they "lighten up."

On the other hand, I hope that press release doesn't fall into the wrong, impeccably manicured, hands: those of, say, the local librarians, or the people in my neighborhood who own leaf blowers. I don't want the Little League coaches or the campus parking officers getting any ideas.

Looking at it this way, one might almost be tempted to say that, despite this latest shift in orthodoxy, we could maybe stand a little less of some varieties of perfectionism even as we give a boost to other sorts. It's all in the interpretation.

In sum, I guess it's actually good, finally, that perfectionism can come out of the (immaculate) closet. Especially now. Because now, whenever I am helpfully reminded that the deadline for this story is coming, is here, is gone as the Broadway Limited, I can be a little more confident in my reply.

"Just hang on!" I can tell my editor. "I want it to be perfect!"

Editor's note: Here is a more serious look at Professor Slaney's research.

Last Updated September 01, 1996