The Drive for Perfection

Everything — words, plans, designs, even people — has room for improvement. In the INTJ’s eyes, even the best can be made better.” — Tye Talk, by Otto Kroeger and Janet M. Thuesen

As long as I can remember I have been a perfectionist. People who do not understand what that drive is like cannot comprehend how impossible it is to be rid of it. The most frequent response I get is, “It’s good enough! Stop being so hard on yourself!” And while that may be true, in my mind even the best has room for improvement. There can always been a little adjustment, a different image, more poise in a dance. Even completed projects I eventually have to cease looking at because I would change this and that in an endless cycle, until the end of time, continually “improving it.” And while this desire for perfection has wide gaps in it (I am not particularly interested in making certain my house is spotless, for example), it is a driving force in my world — and something I cannot help.

This past week, I watched Black Swan. It is the story about a socially-awkward, sexually repressed, intense young woman striving to be the best in ballet, whose determination to master the Black Swan in Swan Lake ultimately leads to a psychotic break. Her name is Nina and for much of the film, I empathized with her, because I know what it is like to have that drive, that passion, the determination that kept her at the studio late when everyone else had gone home, and caused her endless frustration over her own limitations. Some might say Nina was choosing to be obsessive but she could not help it. The desire for perfection was not something she had been taught, nor a reaction primarily out of fear — it was ingrained in her personality, an inborn trait more than the result of her difficult surroundings. She chose ballet because in ballet you must be perfect, and in her eternal quest for perfection that was, well, the perfect profession. She had to be the best. She had to succeed. She had to be “perfect.” And because there was no one there to hold her back, to reassure her that perfection is not a requirement (and in ballet, it kind of is), she snapped in the end. But in the meantime, she was perfect. The twist at the end of the story came not from self-punishment or psychosis, I don’t think, as much as her desire to quit, her madness transcending ambition and wanting release. She could not make it stop any other way.

Oftentimes, this inner drive can masquerade as something else that we are unaware of and attempt to label in psychological terms. A friend is always telling me to lighten up, and not take my moral flaws and religious failures so seriously. I imagine that she thinks I am striving for perfection in my relationship with God out of fear that He will not want me if I am not perfect. And for a time, I thought that was true too — that my desire to be as good a Christian as I can stemmed from my realization that nothing I can ever do will make me worthy of the Sacrifice He has made on my behalf, and my desire to somehow “make it up to Him.” But in reality, my reaction is based on my drive for perfection in all things. It’s not about God and it’s not about me, it is about my desire to be all I can be, to pursue mightily all I pursue, my choice to either dismiss something or go after it. My decisions on whether or not to do something is because I literally cannot do anything halfheartedly. If I decide to go for something, I do it with gusto, with force, with passion, with self-analysis, and unflinching determination to do the best and to be perfect.

My choice in what I pursue is selective because I know that in order to tackle something with that kind of passion, it requires an immense amount of energy and focus. Others might do something and it takes very little out of them; I throw myself wholeheartedly into whatever I am doing. I reread. I tweak. I rearrange. It is what makes me a good editor and a good designer. Whatever I truly set my mind to, I accomplish — even if it means staying up until 4am to do it. I accept that this is who I am and I refuse to let other people make me feel bad about it. Some things you can help and control, and there are a few things that you need to learn to accept and work with. I do not have to be a slave to my drive for perfection. I can reach a point where something is “good enough.” And constantly striving for improvement in my life and my spiritual walk with God is not a bad thing. It will prevent me from stagnation, from being content where I am. Each life needs to move forward because no one is truly standing still. We are either striding into our future or slipping into our past.

I know  I can never be perfect and some small part of me will never be completely satisfied in this world. I will never look in a mirror and fail to see my own flaws, and I will never sit out on the lawn and not have an improving thought in my mind. God does not expect me to be perfect. He knows what mistakes I will make and what sins I will commit before they even occur to me. God is not disappointed in me, because disappointment implies high expectations. God has no expectations: He knows me better than I know myself. He knows where I have been and where I am going. He knows I am a perfectionist. He put me on this earth for a reason: to motivate, to constantly encourage improvement, to push others toward spiritual growth. Sometimes, my personality is a problem for me and an asset to others. He loves me in spite of my imperfection — and He can use me. Nina did not have that understanding, that moral support, that knowing that at the end of the day, your best is all you can hope for and nothing to be ashamed of, so she cracked.

We all have reasons for what we do and often try and come up with explanations for them — emotional explanations, psychological explanations. And I do not diminish the power of psychology, because quite frequently, there are emotional triggers in all our lives that do dictate certain of our actions. But sometimes there is no explanation for what we do — our striving for perfection may not be to earn the approval of others, or to live up to the expectations of our parents, or because we feel inadequate. It may be that we are simply wired that way. Could it be that our society as a whole needs to stop searching for reasons for behavior? That we should cease making everything about emotion and encourage one another to rationally know ourselves and appreciate the unique passions and gifts we have been given?

Being who I am is an intense experience but without INTJ’s, the world would crumble at the seams. It needs our logical mind, our drive for improvement, and our ability to see the big picture. Granted, that might not occur to us when we are struggling with our social inadequacies and wishing we could be outgoing and easy at conversation like most other girls, but it’s okay to be different. It does not define who you are, just how you are inclined to act.

Whatever your personality type is, whatever its shortcomings, there is a reason for it. There is a glorious purpose in your existence, even in the frustrating, mundane details. Discovering mine has helped me so much to stop being so hard on myself, to feel more normal, to understand why some things are so hard for me that are so easy for other people. Finding out my friends’ types has helped me communicate with and understand them better. So find out who you are and then ask God to help you be the best you can be.

Just not perfect!

One Reply to “The Drive for Perfection”

  1. Par usual, your writing arrives at an especially timely place in my life. I, too, have always lived with an indefatigable perfectionist drive, but only during the last few months have I been forced to come to terms with its enormity. At the beginning of this year's spring college term, I was very ill for about a month's time, causing me to fall behind in my classes, which resulted in getting some atypical grades at the end of the semester. While my GPA is at little risk as a result, the fact that they weren't “aligned” in the usual way – the fact that I couldn't beam while looking at them, even though I did my darndest to catch up – still gave me intense anxiety, so much so that I immediately starting planning for the “perfect summer” in which I expected myself to succeed at even lighthearted things, such as reading lists and which movies I would choose to watch over the next few months.
    I also discovered in the process that I actually don't suffer from OCD, as my family has always suspected, but OCPD – essentially OCD that encompasses the entirety of your life, beliefs, and expectations. Those with OCPD don't feel as if they suffer from their drive because they truly believe that it is the only way for them to live. There is no other way. I can empathize with your family and friends' confusion regarding your perfectionism – when I recognized those elements in myself it was a great relief to me, but when I tried to explain this to my mom she couldn't understand why, in her words, I “just didn't stop.” If only it were a switch.
    Reading this post is incredibly comforting. It's a relief to know that God truly has intentions for the way in which He created us. At times some people have guilted me about my perfectionism, seeing it as something selfish and indulgent, but I have never intended to hurt or ostracize anyone because of it. I deeply desire to use my motivating factors to support and encourage others and to accomplish parts of God's will that I'm best fit to achieve. I've mentioned in past comments on your blog that I, too, am an INTJ, and you have no idea how refreshing it is to read from someone who deals with many of the same issues. So thanks so much for the encouragement!
    Also thanks for sticking with this comment (if you've made it this far). 😉

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