First published in Dutch on the 4th of October 2011
“I am quite the perfectionist” a student says when I ask him what I can do for him. He says it a bit wearily, but also with a subtle tinge of pride. After all, this is the sort of statement you make when, during a job interview, you are asked to list your weak points. The job applicant thinks he detects the encouraging smile on the manager’s face as he makes his “confession”, only to put more emphasis on his willingness to work very hard indeed.
This way, the student tries to convince me of the fact that, aside from his problems, he at least has the right mentality. Alas, he mistakes me for someone else; in both my role and my views. I am not a manager and I am certainly not amused in hearing such words. Perfectionism is definitely not something one should be proud of. In my view, the student has cursed rather than blessed himself with this typification. Only too often, do I see students succumb under the pressure to function perfectly.
Hard to counsel
Their misplaced pride makes these people often hard to counsel. I would rather counsel a procrastinator or a muddler. At least they realise that they are in trouble, and even if they are not aware of this, those around them are often quick to confront them. Thanks to this awareness, these people are usually easy to assist by means of practical tools to help them structure their week, set clear goals, and fine-tune their working method. Positive results soon follow and the accompanying positive feedback from one’s inner circle increases at an equal pace.
The perfectionist’s case is completely different. He might feel an unpleasant pressure to perform, but is simultaneously encouraged by a society that preaches that the world is fully comprehensible and malleable; that success is not only a choice, but, paradoxically enough, also a must. He sees that successes are applauded, any costs are ignored, and that failures are deeply frowned upon. All this is taken seriously to such an extent that he becomes too structured, the working method too strict, and the goals too ambitious. The perfectionist truly believes that success is malleable and an utter necessity. He is unable to refine the situation and failure, in his eyes, is not tolerated.
Regularity versus Orthodoxy
Perhaps these people should be compared to a strictly orthodox worshipper as opposed to a regular churchgoer. The latter of these extracts from his religion that which is useful and disregards the larger “inconveniences” that are related to it. The strictly religious person, however, views any slack it cuts itself, as a sign of weakness or a divergence from the straight path. The tragedy of the perfectionist is that the very same thing that gives him strength and meaning, threatens to destroy him.
A Learning Problem
Even though the perfectionist can be charged with a certain degree of orthodoxy, in this essay I do not aim to target the existential jam he forces himself into. Neither is he ready for therapy as such. It is more interesting to approach perfectionism as a learning problem. I also treat procrastination, being disorganized and ignorance as learning problems when the person in question is unable to remedy the problem themselves. Perfectionism might be the most persistent ailment on this list, but this does not make it a substantially different problem, as I aim to explain presently.
In my previous essay, I compared the learning process to homebuilding. This metaphor can be divided into three different forms of learning.
- Construction: This is where something entirely new is built from scratch. It is entirely naïve and no use is made (or can be made) of previously gained experience or formerly acquired skills. In my book, I gave the example of taking driving lessons in which the knowledge construct of DRIVING is established.
- Expansion: This form of learning uses an existing foundation as vantage point. In fact, the foundation is largely suitable and only needs expansion in a few places. When I trade my Citroën BX for an Audi A6, I can still use much of my knowledge construct of DRIVING and only have to expand some minor elements (e.g. coping with five or six gears, cruise control, build-in GPS, etc.) in order for me to benefit optimally from all the possibilities.
- Renovation: Sometimes, it is impossible either to create something new, or to use the existing structure. In that case, you must “renovate”. You will have to deconstruct some existing parts in order to replace it with something better. If I were to emigrate to England, for instance, I would have to adapt my knowledge construct of DRIVING from being used to drive on the right-hand side to driving on the left-hand side. Expansion is insufficient; I will have to “demolish” driving on the right, in order not to be a danger on the road.
Renovation rather than Expansion
A large portion of the persistent learning problems can be explained by the fact that the people in question believe they only have to expand, while in reality, they must renovate. They would rather acquire another tip or trick than to really alter something in their lives. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, in practice, the third form of learning is much harder than the second (and the first too). This is because, in addition to learning, one must also unlearn. This is already difficult in itself because old habits often emerge when we are not thinking consciously or are caught in unfamiliar situations. Driving on the left side on a straight road in England is manageable, but try to do this on an intersection and you are soon to be confronted with how vulnerable your new driving behaviour is. The second reason why we prefer to expand is that we are naturally inclined to resist adjustments. That is to say, we tend to approach the world deductively. We develop outlooks (knowledge constructs) and look for affirmations of them in the world. We ignore falsification until we are left with no other choice.
Willing to Change
The persistent learning problems I come across in my practice are frequently an expression of an erroneous assessment of the situation, mistakes, for that matter, we all make. Students think they are willing to change, but in reality, they want a straightforward expansion to their working method in the form of a technique, strategy, or artifice. Their problems, however, demand them to unlearn things, often things they do not want to unlearn. The idle student who consistently begins every morning with an extensive breakfast and a paper in order to “get the motor going” and subsequently thinks that there is time to spare for studying while he is lazily surfing the internet, has to alter his view on his morning ritual. Apparently, the strategy of starting the day calmly does not work. Planning ahead even better or getting out of bed even earlier, serves no purpose if he is not willing to tackle that starting point.
The procrastinator can be compared to the driver who consistently leaves home too late because he dreads having to fill up the tank, check the tires and oil level, and clean the windows. It is important to show him that these measures will improve driving and make sure he will reach his destination more pleasantly. Isn’t that what it is all about? Only with this change of perspective, will it be possible to help him devise a working method that will contribute to this.
The muddler immediately starts driving, has forgotten to fill the tank, visualises his destination, but has no clue of how to get there. This makes him susceptible to be distracted by any impulse (side road) that springs to mind, and every panoramic view that he crosses along the way. He will have to realise that his “relaxed free-roaming” is at the direct expense of his destinations (goals) and that a GPS (schedule) might be useful.
The Perfectionistic Road Abuser
It can be quite a challenge to provide the above-mentioned cases with the insight they need in order to truly learn. The analogy of driving can clarify why the perfectionist is even harder to help. He drives perfectly within the legal speed limit while everyone overtakes him, sounding their horns. He complies precisely to the two-second rule for distance with the consequence that someone continually merges right in front of him. He will certainly not park in reverse until nobody (not even a cycler!) passes by, causing quite a jam of impatient road users behind him. In short: the perfectionist wants to comply to the driving regulations perfectly in a world that doesn’t. He neatly collects the statistics for road traffic accidents and is very aware of what could possibly go wrong.
So this driver is right! But he also has a problem. He searches for safety and security by complying to the rules and by estimating the risks, even though blindly applying all traffic rules and knowing all road accident statistics, can lead to unsafe situations. The perfectionist sees all this, but draws the conclusion that he must comply to the rules even more strictly and has to know even more statistics. A vicious circle is created that can lead to a lot of pressure.
Perfectionists have to realise that they have to comply to the rules more flexibly in order to be safe and self-confident “on the road”. But this requires him to adjust his understanding that is somewhat more fundamental than realising that “changing oil” or “purchasing a GPS device” could be useful. He will have to accept that he cannot control everything and that being right is not the same as being proved right.