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Lady Justice with sword and scales

Idealism and perfectionism prevent creative people from seeing their work objectively, thereby impairing the ability to assess its worth. (Image: public domain)

Idealists can only love, respect, or admire that which they recognize as superior. Nothing else will do. The impractical idealist routinely overestimates some of the people and things around them. They want to believe they have found something or someone who is ideal rather than ordinary. Naturally, when idealists indulge in this behaviour they are inevitably disappointed. Rather than learning their lesson, the idealist sets out on an endless quest for the superior. Once established, the habit of idealization spreads into all areas of the idealist’s life making mischief wherever it goes. The true situation can be hard to grasp since many consider idealism a virtue. It is high-mindedness or even noble-mindedness. How could something so wonderful-sounding be a problem? The ego-enhancing benefits of being “an idealist” obscure the actual damage done by holding the belief.

Imagination causes the repeated overvaluations as the idealist replaces actual qualities with imaginary superior ones. The resulting disappointments initiate a nasty psychological process. The disappointments cause discouragement, which generates depression, which stops work, which sparks self-loathing, which decays into a sense of worthlessness. This is a classic example of a “vicious circle.” For many idealists, their expectations are always so high nothing could ever meet them. What the psychiatrists call “unrealistic expectations” condemn idealists to a life of chronic disappointment and unhappiness.

Perfectionism is the opposite of idealism in one vitally important way. Where the starry-eyed idealist sees an illusory superiority, the nit-picking perfectionist sees an exaggerated set of flaws. A similar characteristic to the idealist’s exclusivity is the perfectionist’s tendency to feel that anything less than perfect is completely unacceptable. Just as the idealist searches for the superior, the perfectionist searches for things that are good enough to meet their impossibly high standards.

Idealism and perfectionism are difficult habits of mind to dislodge. The best plan is to borrow a key concept from psychoanalysis. Analysis does not provide a cure. It is more about raising awareness. It reveals your “enemies” and then leaves you to battle with them on a daily basis. The idea is simple. You are more able to cope with your difficulties if you are fully aware of what they are, where they originated, and how they work. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Both idealism and perfectionism impair creativity. In either case, the toxic thinking compromises the creator’s ability to estimate the quality of their work. Idealists want to see their field in general and their own work in particular through rose-tinted glasses. Art or science is noble. They are doing significant work in an important area. Perfectionists are more likely to feel their field is in decline and their own work is unworthy. Art or science is, in some way, not what it once was or should be. They are struggling.