By Pavel G. Somov, Ph.D.
Published 2010, 1st edition
Recommendation: Avoid | Maybe | Get It | Must Have
Why Should You Read This?
If you’re a perfectionist, then you know being one is stressful. But you may have heard about the numerous benefits of mindfulness as practiced by various successful people. It can reduce stress, promote health, improve concentration and focus, leading to increased productivity. So, if a book that can do all of that and address you perfectionism negatives, why not read it? On top of it, the Journal of Mindfulness cited a study where they found Present Perfect as an effective standalone intervention for decreasing self-critical perfectionism.
In short, this book seemed too good to be true.
Does it live up to the promise? Sort of.
What’s It About?
The book has 6 parts, covering a range of topics from identifying the personal costs of perfectionism, defining perfectionism in the context of mindfulness, overcoming mindless/guilt/apathy, rehabilitating your self-view, looking at performance and uncertainty, and addressing aspects of compassion. Within each chapter, the author Somov provides a set of exercises to practice the concepts discussed. Over 150 exercises and meditations are presented.
For those not familiar with mindfulness, this topic can be a challenging read, especially for perfectionists who are looking for definite answers. Mindfulness emphasizes making observations about your thoughts, your feelings, and the world around you. The aim is to pay attention and recognize what your mind and senses are telling you. But frustratingly, this is not about judging whether the information coming in is right or wrong. It’s about collecting the data, staring at it, and listening to what it’s telling you.
Present Perfect starts with its particular definition of perfection. The author Somov states:
If perfection is a state beyond improvement, then isn’t every moment, by definition, perfect? After all, any given “now,” any given moment of reality is what it is in the sense it cannot be anything other than what it is. Take this moment, right now: this moment is already here, and as such as theoretically imperfect as it may be, it is – at present – beyond any modification. While you could take the lessons of this moment and try to make the next moment better, this very moment is beyond improvement….
Any moment – by virtue of its already being present- is beyond betterment and is therefore perfect.
In other words, if you define perfect as something that can’t be improved upon and you take reality as the best of what could have happened, then reality is by definition, perfect.
Much of the book reads like the above passage. Some may find the wordplay to be irritating, while others may question Somov’s premise. But if you can move beyond that, he does offer some thought-provoking insights, not covered in other perfectionism books.
Key Concept 1: Defining Mindfulness
First, given this book is about mindfulness, it’s essential to start with how the author defines it:
Mindfulness, as a philosophy of living, is a pledge of allegiance to the present, a commitment to not only the destination of your journey but also “being there” every step of the way.
In practical terms, to be mindfulness is to practice the following 2 principles:
- Passive attention: attention can be active or passive. An example is to look vs. to see. The former is active, and the latter is passive. When you are looking for something, you are actively seeking it, while when you are seeing, you simply observe what is present. Mindfulness is about seeing. The emphasis is on observing and registering what is around you.
- Dis-identification: to see without attachment or identification with what is being noticed or witnessed. Again the focus is on observing and not making a judgment.
Thus it is with this mindset that Somov asks you to think about perfectionist habits.
Key Concept 2: Seeing Perfectionism as the By-product of Human Advancement
perfectionism is mostly a result of learning, programming, and conditioning. I see it as an ingenious adaptation to a hypercritical, high-pressure, invalidating environment, a psychological self-defense strategy that unfortunately creates more problems than it solves.
He argues that perfectionism is more common to developed societies, which have a higher emphasis on efficiency, punctuality, a willingness to work hard, and an orientation to detail. He states:
As soon as we separated ourselves from reality, we started trying to control it, improve it, and perfect it. Having inevitably failed, instead of accepting our limitations, we chose to transcend them. Perfectionism was born.
So, while perfectionism seems to be the natural outcome of today’s fast-paced world, its origins go back to when man made his first attempts to control his environment through science and technology.
As our civilization advanced, we faced the possibilities of realities outside the ones that existed. We could see a better world and therefore yearn for ideation of what reality could be versus what it actually was. Hence, he argues that most perfectionists
define perfection as a theoretical best. That’s exactly why are you are never satisfied with reality as it is. The real world – the one and only world that there is at any given point in time- always pales in comparison with a better world that you can imagine. In any comparison of the real and the ideal, by definition, comes out on top and the real loses out. No matter how great you are, you can always imagine yourself being better. This conclusion is in the nature of imagination. To repeat: the ideal, the fictional, the imaginary is always better than the real, the factual, the existent. Thus, perfectionism is a destiny of dissatisfaction.
In brief, being a perfectionist is condemning oneself to never being satisfied. Our minds are always capable of generating a better world than one that could exist.
Takeaway 1: Viewing Perfectionism as Hungry Ghosts
Somov uses the Buddhist concept of hungry ghosts to illustrate perfectionism as a form of striving on a feedback loop. Hungry ghosts are creatures with bloated stomachs and necks as narrow as a needle’s eye, so food cannot pass fast enough to satisfy their desires. Called Pretas, they are perpetually dissatisfied. The more they want, the emptier they feel.
In the context of perfectionism, Somov identifies 3 kinds of perfectionistic hunger:
- Approval/Validation: these individuals seek constant approval and validation as both are effective in putting a self-doubting mind at ease, but to satisfy this hunger they are continually striving to meet everyone’s expectations, and they live in fear of their disapproval
- Reflection/Attention: these perfectionists take the natural human need to be seen, acknowledged, and attended to and take it to the next level; this hunger manifests when the person loses their sense of self as their parent or environment asks them to mirror someone’s desires and wants. The only way to feel good is to stand out by being a perfect model of another’s expectation.
- Control/certainty: as life can be unexpected and confusing, people crave certainty and yearn for a sense of control, but a perfectionist with this hunger once they find something that makes sense they latch onto it. They become so invested in that model that they dislike anything that does not agree with it.
Somov argues that most perfectionists are afflicted with one or more of these 3 hungry ghosts.
Takeaway 2: Feeding the Ghosts
The key to feeding these ghosts is the idea that if you are content with what you have, then are you are full since you don’t want anything else. This solution can be achieved by following practices built around these 3 principles:
- Experiencing reality as imperfect and inevitable
- Recognizing that the source of suffering is the desire or expectation for reality to be different than how it is, to be better than it is.
- Accepting that reality in its imperfect form is a form of perfection
Fundamentally, Somov is arguing that we are all doing the best that we can at any given moment. Does this mean it’s the absolute, all-time, theoretical best? No, but neither is life. So, why should perfectionists hold themselves to a standard that even reality does not achieve consistently. The universe doesn’t wait for the perfect day or ideal conditions to arrive. It simply moves on and what happens happens. Some days are great and some awful, but things continue.
Accept reality for what it is rather than what it could be. Once you do that, you can start disassembling the filter perfectionism places on how you view the world and your role in it.
Takeaway 3: Recognizing the Mindlessness of Habits and Seeing the World Again
Habits are powerful tools. They get things done and help achieve goals, but Somov cautions in the hands of a perfectionist they can be prone to corruption.
Perfectionists view actions as “shoulds,” which are have-to’s not want-to’s. Over time, many of these shoulds become embodied as habits, which, in turn, reinforces the should behavior. The danger is you start to go into auto-pilot. Somov states:
Mindlessness of habits saves us time and energy. Habitual behavior is a functional shortcut that spares us the trouble of thinking and the hassle of conscious choice. As a perfectionist, you are a master habit builder. This skill is part of your efficiency, part of what helps you excel. But, as powerful as habits are, they can also disempower us.
Because we do so much in a mindless state, we don’t pay attention to what’s around us. Life becomes more of a check the box exercise.
As a perfectionist, you suffer from a motivational crisis: you’ve replaced enthusiasm with conscientiousness and zeal with obligation. While productive, you don’t enjoy what you do, just the fact of being done with it. You tend to value only the activity that can result in a sense of accomplishment. Only doing something is living, whereas living itself is “wasted unless it ‘adds up to something” (ibid). You don’t want the journey; you want the destination.
This quote resonated with me. I have been in situations where I had to do things not because I wanted to but because I had to. Now, I recognize every day at work isn’t going to be a party, but when you start counting more “off” days than good days, you have to wonder why you are doing it in the first place.
You can say, “Oh, what choice do I have?” The point is to open your eyes and look around. Choices are always there, and the ones you have now may be different than the ones you had earlier. But until you look and ask, you don’t know.
By becoming more conscious about your actions, Somov says you become aware of the choices in front of you or look for other options. You start to question whether what you were doing before still makes any sense. This action does two things. The first is if you stick to what you do, at least you acknowledge the reasons why you do it and not just “because.” Second, you have a chance to make a different choice and see what happens when you do.
Takeaway 4: Focusing on the Destination Rather than the Journey
In today’s high-paced, information-overload world, it’s not unusual for you to be running from one fire to another. For a perfectionist, there is never enough time, energy, or resources to do things the way they want when they need it. In their drive to focus on excellence, the metric of success is hitting the target. Somov points out this can lead to some bias:
In your fixation on meeting goals, you are speeding toward the future, dismissing the present as having only the significance of being a step on the way to a future moment of completion and accomplishment. Ever focused on efficiency and optimization and overburdened with duties and obligations, you are perpetually in a rush, running out of time, too busy to pause and soak in the moment. Punctual yourself, you are unforgiving of other’s lack of punctuality. You scoff at breaks as a waste of time, stay late at work (often without getting paid), and bring work home, constantly multitasking in an attempt to pack the present moment with as much productivity as you can possibly squeeze into it. You live for the destination rather than for the journey; for the finish line, not for the scenery. You burn through time like it’s going out of style. The past is a painful archive of imperfections, mistakes, and failures. The present is a painful reminder of all that is yet to be accomplished. But you are in love with the future.
And this is a problem because? You burn out. You are running from one emergency to the next. Work is an obligation and a chore, not a source of meaning or energy. It’s not unusual for most people to be dissatisfied with work, but a perfectionist can take that to another level yet they have the grit to continue.
But even if you are not unhappy but successful, Somov states:
As a perfectionist, you dream of perfect outcomes. If you achieve these goals, you celebrate with nothing more than a sigh of relief…. Regardless of how stellar your track record may be, your anxiety-ridden outcome-focused approach has probably sometimes harmed and undermined your performance.
How many times have you celebrated your wins? Do you take a well-deserved break? Or do you just give yourself the minimalist of time-off to jump back into the rat race.
This constant go-go-go and the lack of appreciation for the hard effort you put is not sustainable. It’s like going on a cross-country road trip where you regularly hit the gas and check off all the key tourist spots spending 15 minutes on each, so your schedule doesn’t fall apart. Was the goal to have a fun trip, or was it to check off your itinerary?
Somov advises to slow down and:
Focus on what you are now, not on what you want to be. To exert maximum effort, first accept what you are now, then use all you’ve got, however much of it you have. Effort is self-acceptance not self-transcendence.
Ironically, this emphasis on the present may improve your work quality as Czikszentmihalyi (expert on flow state) states that for peak performance, you focus on what you’re doing, not the outcome of your actions. His research finds that when top performers focus on process, they are likely to achieve optimal results versus those who focus on outcomes from the beginning. So if the drive for excellence is the goal as many perfectionists claim they seek, then he recommends the following process:
- Identify task-specific base skill
- Practice engaging in the skill w/o regard to the outcome
- Practice this when you don’t need to so you can draw upon it at any time
- At make it or break it time, permit yourself to not worry about the outcome of your effort
- Believe that you are giving your best effort
- De-catastrophize the consequences of your performance- understand that even though you might not have done your all-time best, you have done the best you could have at any particular moment in time.
By doing the above, you focus on what you are doing at that moment.
Takeaway 5: Finding Perfection in a Mistake
Consider the following situation:
- You make a mistake (or fail at a goal)
- You feel ashamed and guilt-ridden
- You set more ambitious goals that are harder to reach
- Your memory of past mistakes creates performance anxiety
- You make another mistake
- You feel even more ashamed and guilt-ridden
- You withdraw, snap, self-medicate
- Try even harder and the cycle repeats
The above is often true for perfectionists. In contrast, a nonperfectionist views mistakes differently. They may feel shame, but they view their mishaps as learning experiences. As such, nonperfectionists are less likely to increase their goal. Their logic is “I’ve probably bit off more than I can chew so I should scale back.”
So, where does this difference in attitude come from? In part, Somov argues a perfectionist’s mental model is as follows:
You are upset by the consequence of the mistake but just as much, if not more, by the belief that what happened didn’t have to happen in the first place, that the mistake could’ve been prevented.
To make a mistake” implies purposive action. There are no intentional mistakes. If we fail on purpose, then we succeed. No one makes mistakes. And yet mistakes do take place.
….If a mistake happened, it had to happen. If it had to happen, it was necessary. If it was necessary, that was the best that could be. If it’s the best that could be, then how can it be a mistake?
Mistakes happen because of chance, not because of intention.
It is essential to distinguish the role of guilt and regret in mistakes. Somov describes a fictional account to illustrate. Imagine you accidentally step onto someone’s foot with high heels. Long story short, the victim’s foot never heals, and as a result, they are always in pain, get divorced because of the prolonged suffering, and their life falls apart. You might feel bad and regret about what happened to the person but should not feel guilt. Guilt implies intention. But this started as an accident. The fault is not yours. The victim may blame you for “starting” all of it, but that was a chance encounter.
This distinction is relevant as guilt and/or shame leads to rumination- dwelling on the causes of what happened- a common perfectionist trait. But as the story shows, not everything bad that happens means you are guilty. So, if you are to going to ruminate, it’s because you failed on purpose. That does require reflection, but overthinking because of a chance occurrence no.
Cons: Gaps & Issues
This was a hard book to review. While many concepts resonated with me, I could see why a lot of people might have problems reading this book. Four concerns stand out.
First, for analytical types, mindfulness is not an easy concept to swallow. Primarily, mindfulness is really about observing and not making judgments. Simply stated, there is no right or wrong. There simply just is.
Some people get that while others are like, “Huh? I don’t get it.” Mindfulness is asking you to challenge some conventions about how things should be. Some people are ok with that, while others seek stability and security in knowing what is right and wrong. Mindfulness believes that those are simply labels and are arbitrary.
Unfortunately, Somov’s explanations are based more on wordplay and strict definitions (see the following example). This approach makes it hard for someone new to mindfulness to understand.
Second, Somov’s extensive wordplay throughout the book is very irritating. His explanations are similar to a lawyer finding loopholes in a law to win a case. He has specific definitions of what perfectionism is rather than looking at the actual self-destructive behaviors. To illustrate, he states the following:
If perfection is a state beyond improvement, then isn’t every moment, by definition, perfect?
Any moment – by virtue of its already being present- is beyond betterment and is therefore perfect.
While his approach is similar to cognitive behavioral theory, which focuses on identifying cognitive distortions, his arguments pick from a small set of arguably “personal” views. In the quote above, he’s arguing semantically that there is perfection everywhere and that we just need to be aware of it, acknowledge it, and reframe our world view. But what if you have a different definition of perfectionism? The one he chooses isn’t any of the standard ones defined by psychologists.
Third, Somov has strong notions of what perfectionism is, and in contrast to the openness of mindfulness, he states the following:
When you’re done reading through this chapter, you will have a choice of how to view perfection. The fate of your perfectionism depends on which view you choose. If you decide to keep your original view of perfectionism, your perfectionism will live another day. If you accept the new view of perfection offered in this chapter, you will take one hell of a wrecking ball to the prison of perfectionism.
Ironically, this all-or-nothing thinking is a characteristic of a perfectionism. Either you accept my version of reality or else. Not only is that inappropriate, but it also violates the nonjudgmental nature of mindfulness.
Finally, the book does not go into depth on criticism. Self-criticism or criticizing others is one of the most negative aspects of perfectionism. It’s a significant source of shame and stress, yet is not covered in much depth. Some text is devoted to self-acceptance, but little for self-compassion. This omission is a major failing, considering that self-compassion plays a vital role in the healing process for perfectionists in other approaches.
For those already familiar with mindfulness, this book provides some thought-provoking insights. But it does require a degree of patience to go through. As stated earlier, his writing style and his all-or-nothing views on perfectionism are major detractions. At best, I recommend this as a Maybe.
The few new things I did find worthwhile are listed below:
- Viewing perfection as hungry ghosts – a form of striving in a feedback loop
- Taming the ghosts via acknowledging that you’re doing the best you can at any given moment and that reality is imperfect
- Being aware that habits can make you go on autopilot and engage in behaviors that are no longer meaningful
- Learning to appreciate the journey and not just focusing on the destination
- Recognizing mistakes are due to chance, not intention
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