Present Perfect Series Part 1: Three Types of Perfectionism (+ a new definition of ‘perfect’)

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I recently finished reading Present Perfect by Dr. Pavel Somov and thought it would be fun to do a four part series on some of the major themes that he presents about perfectionism. As the cover states, this book gives its reader, “a mindfulness approach to letting go of perfectionism and the need for control.” The book itself is not too lengthy but is very dense, and also has numerous exercises to complete while reading, some of which I found more helpful than others. Therefore, I thought that any fellow recovering perfectionists (as Brené Brown would say) out there could find a recap of sorts useful.

Today’s post is about the three types of perfectionism, as well as a “new” definition of perfection that I have already found to be very helpful in letting go of my previous association with and striving for the term “perfect.”  I plan on doing one post per week for one month, so the breakdown (as of now) is as follows:

  • Part 1: Three Types of Perfectionism
  • Part 2: Making Mistakes and Dealing with Guilt & Regret
  • Part 3: Ceasing Control of the Future and Practicing Mindfulness
  • Part 4: Cultivating Forgiveness

I felt that these overarching themes would be helpful to touch on for every type of perfectionist out there (and even for individuals who don’t necessarily consider themselves perfectionists – we all have room to grow). As I mentioned earlier, the book contains a large amount of exercises, especially in the first chapter. I thought it best to include the ones I found most poignant below because they truly helped me to understand my true view of what “perfect” meant, and just how ridiculous of a notion it was to be striving for. Here are just a few of Dr. Somov’s opening questions:

  • What is the history of your perfectionism? (Who do you think “programmed” you to aspire to be perfect? Who loved you so conditionally that they needed you to be perfect?)
  • Do you know anyone who is perfect? (What makes them perfect? Are they perfect in absolutely every respect? With whom are you competing? God?)
  • How do you define perfection?

Now, let’s turn to the three types of perfectionism and then return to that last question and redefine perfection toward the end of this post. It is important to understand the type (or types) of perfectionist that a person operates from in order to more constructively deal with what is going on psychologically. If there is a particular thought pattern that has been pervasive in a person’s life and has been more of a detriment than a motivator, the only way to begin to let it go is to first be able to define it.

  1. Approval/Validation Perfectionism 

These are the perfectionists who thrive on approval from others, which essentially functions to soothe them from self-doubt and insecurity. There is a big push for these individuals to meet the expectations of others and to be well-liked as a result. The positive aspect of this pattern is a feeling of value, but the negative is that this value lies in the hands of another person’s approval, which often subsequently leads to “living in fear of their disapproval.” (p. 13)

2. Reflection/Attention Perfectionism 

This type of perfectionism is all about the need to be, “seen, acknowledged, and attended to.” (p. 14) Somov defines these individuals as attention seekers who are essentially seeking special treatment in their lives. Their demand for perfectionism within themselves is also projected onto others, who are expected to meet standards that are simply impossible.

3. Control/Certainty Perfectionism 

The third and final type of perfectionism deals with the fact that as we go through life and its inevitable chaos, we are, “craving certainty, yearning for a sense of control, and seeking reassurance that we are on the right track.” (p. 14) These types of perfectionists will seek out an ideological model to identify with to soothe the uncertainty of life and provide a sense of control. Rigidity is a common facet for this type, as they may become threatened with ideologies that differ from their own, causing them to become more “dogmatic” as a means of regaining those feelings of control that they so crave.

A New Definition of Perfect

After giving a breakdown of these three manifestations of perfectionism, Dr. Somov then defines perfectionism itself as a “destiny of dissatisfaction” (p. 27) We often spend our time not living in the reality of what is, but ruminating over what could or should have been. He gives a great example of someone’s practical best (getting a B on an exam) versus their theoretical best (getting an A on that same exam). This mindset leaves no room for satisfaction in life, whether it be with one’s exam scores, personal relationships, or other life circumstances.

The solution to this never-ending cycle of dissatisfaction, therefore, is to shift from rejecting what is to accepting what is – and living in that reality instead of believing that some other reality exists in which things are more ideal. He explains, “typically, we see perfection as an  ideal state of affairs, a state of immaculate flawlessness, a state that is error-free, so complete that nothing can be added to make it better.” (p. 28) What Dr. Somov then proposes is that every moment is beyond improvement and is therefore perfect. He even explains that the word “perfect” comes from the Latin perfectus which means “completed.”

When we shift our internal definition of perfect to mean “completed” rather than “flawless,” it opens the door to satisfaction in and surrender to the present moment. This does not mean an end to achieving our goals or moving forward in our personal evolvement in a healthy manner, however, because this viewpoint enables us to both accept and change our lives. We can accept the present moment for what it is and learn what we can from it to move us closer to where it is we want to be.

It is only through this reframing of the term “perfect” that we can begin to let go of rigid and impossible-to-meet standards that we have used as our personal compasses through life. This is a process and is not something that can be rewired overnight, but I have found so much solace already through the principles that Dr. Somov sets forth. I hope that this was helpful to those who read it, and please feel free to comment with some tips that you have found personally useful in letting go of perfectionism.

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