Is ‘good’ good enough? Or is ‘great’ needed to qualify for being good enough? Although it sounds absurd if taken from a purely logical perspective, it is yet another proof of our inherent complexity that often contains outright contradictions. I know what it feels like to expect and demand greatness from myself simply to feel good enough. To allow this feeling of being good enough. It’s almost like being good enough is a sort of privilege that you have to earn, to deserve. Or at least it can feel that way. Like you need to be worthy to be good enough.
I know some of you can relate to these sentiments. Let’s call them personal perfectionism, just to keep it short and clear. What I want to explore here is the following question – considering how intensely familiar these feelings are to a number of people, is personal perfectionism really so important and helpful to keep holding on to it? Now, I am not a psychologist, but I have personal experience in these sentiments and self-reflective curiosity to guide me in this exploration. These tools, I believe, are available to anyone who feels philosophical about their life’s journey. By ‘philosophical’ I mean the original and broad sense of the word – to love wisdom. Philosophers, or those who love wisdom, strive to place it higher than any purely personal agenda. They embark on the quest for understanding and exploring, in search of truth, wherever it may lead them. This requires curiosity, imagination, and courage. So now, to all my fellow philosophical travellers, let’s see where our exploration of personal perfectionism takes us.
One of the things about philosophy is that a great deal of time and energy is spent on formulating and understanding our question/problem first. In other words, it is not immediately assumed that we know exactly what we are looking to solve and that the main thing now is to find the right solution. Instead, it is assumed that we do not have enough clarity about the question and that is where we should start. Philosophically-minded people like to reveal and question all kinds of accepted opinions. Just think of Socrates and how he annoyed the people of Athens. With this in mind, what is our question? What do we want to understand about personal perfectionism, now that we have established, at least, that there is such a thing? I propose the following – can personal perfectionism lead to personal acceptance?
Here is what I mean by phrasing our question in this way. Those of you who can relate to the feeling of having to be great in order to be good enough most likely understand where I am going with this. The sentiment here is that I, as a person, can accept myself as being good enough, as a person, if and only if I deserve such acceptance. How? By proving myself worthy of it. And how do I do that? By achieving some sort of greatness. What precise sort of greatness it is will depend on each individual, but the point is – achieving greatness is seen as a road to self-acceptance. Only if and once I achieve a certain level of ‘being great’ at something, will I accept myself as ‘being good enough’ as a person. If all of this starts sounding too severe, too self-critical, too hard on oneself, that’s probably because it is. Yet, for those who live with personal perfectionism as a condition for personal acceptance, this is reality. So, let us proceed bravely and curiously with our exploration.
Notice two things that are becoming clear at this stage. First, personal perfectionism is treated as a necessary and sufficient condition for personal acceptance. By the way, the notion of ‘necessary and sufficient condition’ is a philosophical way of saying that something absolutely must be fulfilled (necessary) to enable the achievement of some goal and that this necessary condition is at the same time the only real requirement (sufficient) to achieve that goal, any other factors playing only a ‘nice-to-have’ sort of role. So, that was the first observation. The second one is that the idea of being a this or that kind of person gets so closely associated with the idea of achieving this or that sort of thing that the two become fused. In short, being gets conflated with doing. This reminds me of the thought I’ve read or heard somewhere a long time ago: are we human beings or human doings?
Ok, what is our next move? Let’s see how we can enrich the understanding of our question in light of these last insights. Initially, I asked – can personal perfectionism lead to personal acceptance? Now, we have observed that personal perfectionism is perceived as a necessary and sufficient condition for personal acceptance. If this is true, then it must lead to personal acceptance. We also have observed that personal perfectionism can be seen as a complex state of fusion where my achievements (the sort of things I do) are conflated with my being (the sort of person I am). So, if indeed our idea of personal perfectionism being a necessary and sufficient condition for personal acceptance is true, then my self-acceptance as being a good enough person is dependent fully and only on the great quality of my achievements in the world (since being and doing are fused into one here).
At this point, we might be tempted to conclude that this over-achiever mentality cannot possibly be true and that any further investigation is pointless. Everything is clear already. Yet, there is at least one further layer that we have not yet explored. And since we are philosophically-minded explorers, we have committed to the journey of exploration. So one more layer it is then. How do I determine the quality of my achievements in the world? Since the quality must, as we just saw, be great for me to gain self-acceptance as a good enough person, it is crucial to understand – how do I assess the degree of quality? How do I know when great is great enough?
At least two approaches come to my mind (maybe there are more). I can determine the quality of my achievement either by comparing it with the achievements of others or with those of my own. For example, let’s say I am a professional swimmer and I just swam my regular distance in a certain period of time. That is something I did, it is some sort of achievement, an action done. But what is its quality? Is it great or good or poor? I can compare it with a similar sort of achievements of my peers, see how my deed fits into the bigger whole of similar type of deeds done by other agents. We can call it an external assessment because my reference is outside of my own self. Alternatively, I can compare my current achievement with how I swam on other occasions in the past. In this case, I aim to see how my deed fits into the bigger whole of similar type of deeds done by me only. For obvious reasons, we can call this an internal assessment.
There is a clear tension here. Although we live in the period of human history when we focus on the intrinsic value of an individual probably more than ever before, we also know, in part thanks to such sciences like evolutionary biology and psychology, that we humans are social animals. This means that we are not isolated, solitary islands in the ocean of humanity. We play a part in forming and are influenced by our societies, communities, families. Yet, we are also individual personalities able and often willing to enjoy a certain autonomy from the collective. So, if I may be blunt, there is no escaping the tension – both the external and the internal assessments are crucial. But this is exactly the point – not either/or. Both. A small word so easily overlooked (maybe because it entails more difficulty than the either/or approach?).
Let’s put this new insight into our exploration of the question. If the criteria for determining the quality of my achievement is supposed to be both external and internal, then I cannot rely only on one of them to define greatness and, thus, lead to my self-acceptance as a good enough person. Also, I cannot make one totally dependent on the other, as if saying that my internal assessment will always follow where the external assessment leads (I regard myself as great if the people say I am) or vice versa (the world must accept me as great because that is who I am). This would violate the requirement for both to be fully respected as valid assessment criteria. Such tension, it seems to me, is a valuable balancing mechanism. However, only as long as we are aware of it. If the tension is recognised as an internal principle of checks and balances (instead of something nasty to be avoided by insisting on an either/or approach), then it becomes of central importance to our exploration of personal perfectionism question.
We set out by asking if personal perfectionism can lead to personal acceptance. Further, we found that, if indeed there is a link, then my self-acceptance as a good enough person fully depends on the great quality of my achievements (since being and doing are fused here). Importantly, only great quality is acceptable, as that is how we have defined the sentiments of personal perfectionism. This is where our latest insight about the tension between external and internal assessment of the ‘greatness’ comes in, and the validity of both acting as a balancing mechanism. If it is this principle of checks and balances that acts as an internal judge who evaluates the quality of my achievements, then its verdicts will, by the nature of this mechanism, tend towards balanced outcomes. Sometimes they will be a little biased, a little skewed (we are humans after all), but, as long as the tension of the balancing principle works properly, I will be able to accept myself as a good enough person without the necessary precondition of having to present some great achievement. If greatness is a requirement for self-acceptance, however, it is a signal that there is something wrong with the internal judge. The balancing mechanism is off and requires our attention to be restored to its natural principle of checks and balances.
We have arrived at an important milestone in our journey. Further exploration is always possible, but I will summarise it here, for now. The way I see it, we have found that personal perfectionism cannot lead to personal acceptance. However, not because there is no link between our perceived achievement and self-acceptance as being good enough. Rather, it is because the mechanism central to the proper functioning of that link is off and swayed too much into the either/or approach. The more it is off-balance, the less it will be possible to achieve a proper state of greatness, as it will never be great enough and the chasm will keep growing.
This balancing mechanism, a natural tension between external and internal assessment inherent to all humans, social and individual beings as we are, is a powerful and complex principle of checks and balances. It requires our conscious attention to maintain its delicate nature. That, in turn, calls for self-awareness and acceptance of the tension as part of who we are. So, we can safely conclude that accepting oneself as a good enough person without demanding ever-elusive greatness of oneself is a skill that is hard to master. I believe though, it is worth the effort. Just like this philosophically exploring journey has been. Thank you for joining in!
1Image credit: By Frank Fleschner from Kirksville, United States – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3291564