One of my favorite blogs, Mindhacks, has a post about perfectionism and depression.  An article from the Boston Globe is quoted.

“Perfectionism is a phobia of mistake-making,” said Jeff Szymanski, executive director of the Obsessive Compulsive Foundation, which is based in Boston. “It is the feeling that ‘If I make a mistake, it will be catastrophic.’ ”

Striving for perfection is fine, said Smith College psychology professor Randy Frost, a leading researcher on perfectionism. The issue is how you interpret your own inevitable mistakes and failings. Do they make you feel bad about yourself in a global sense? Does a missed shot in tennis make you slam your racket to the ground? Do you think anything less than 100 percent might as well be zero?

I think this is a somewhat superficial interpretation of perfectionism.  Its too easy to say that someone is a perfectionist because they are afraid of making mistakes.  De Gustibus. I think the deeper source of perfectionism is more subtle and also easier to rehabilitate.

Ironically, perfectionists are not people who have high standards.  Instead, I think a perfectionist is someone who doesn’t trust his own judgement.  There is only one way to do something perfectly, but there are infintely many ways to do it imperfectly.  Sacrificing perfection means making a decision about which imperfection to allow.  So striving for perfection is just a cover for shrinking from decision.

On the other hand, people who are comfortable with imperfection are people who know what works.  People who lack confidence in their judgement of what works insist on perfectionism because that covers all the bases.  And these people never get the opportunity to learn what works because their perfectionism prevents them from experimenting.

Of course perfection is usually impossible but what happens in this case to the perfectionist is that their final product is what’s left when they give up rather than what they carefully planned.  This usually doesn’t work and this further deteriorates the perfectionist’s confidence in his ability to do the second-best.