Perfectionism: a modern malady born in the Middle Ages

The quest for perfection has become a modern malady, correlating to increased rates of depression and anxiety. But according to scholar Irina Dumitrescu, medieval literature may hold lessons for us today on how to understand our relationship to perfectionism.

'The true heart of perfectionism is fear,' says medievalist Irina Dumitrescu

Medieval scholar Irina Dumitrescu delivered the second annual JHI Humanities at Large lecture at the University of Toronto, on May 4, entitled The Perfect Wound (Submitted by Jackman Humanities Institute )

Perfectionism has been described as a "hidden epidemic" of modern times. 

Lean in. Achieve more. Have more. Be more. Be perfect. All this pressure correlates to spiking rates in anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.

It turns out that the roots of this modern malady go back to social and spiritual practices that began in the middle ages.
It's history that is to blame for how industrialized western societies have suffered from an increase in perfectionist attitudes across the board, according to Irina Dumitrescu, professor and Chair of English, American and Celtic Studies at Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. 

"I'm sure that more of us have to live with impossible standards, more of the time, than would have been the case for someone living a thousand or even five hundred years ago. Still, I'd argue that the psychological reality of perfectionism for the individual has not necessarily changed all that much. Nor have its destructive effects on the self and the community," Dumitrescu said when she delivered the second annual JHI Humanities at Large Lecture earlier this May.

Dumitrescu is the Visiting Public Humanities Faculty Fellow at the Jackman Humanities Institute at the University of Toronto. She's a scholar of medieval English literature, focusing on education, celebrity, and women's power in the Middle Ages. 

Her current work addresses the pleasure of imperfection which as she illustrates in her lecture could also be viewed as the problem of perfectionism.

Medieval Roots

"Medieval literature is obsessed with perfection, but it loves to show how the ideal falls short," said Dumitrescu. 

She points out that scholars of medieval history and literature have been fascinated by the autobiography written by Margery Kempe, who lived 600 years ago in Norfolk, England. Researchers are enthralled by her character, her relationship to her community, the theological nature of her visions, and the way she modelled her life after that of famous mystics and saints.

"Reading the book Margery wrote about her life, it becomes clear that she was obsessed with becoming spiritually perfect," said Dumitrescu.

Excerpt from Margery Kempe's autobiography. In it, she writes about her life and travels in England and features her accounts of experiencing divine revelation. (Wikimedia)

Kempe was a mother from Bishop's Lynn, a market town in Norfolk county, U.K. who strived for a kind of spiritual perfection. She was an unlikely candidate for a grand religious life — and her personality was an even bigger obstacle. As a daughter of a successful businessman and local politician, she was proud of her social status, but envious of her neighbours if they ever happened to dress as resplendently as she did.

"Margery had a tough time accepting the fact that she could never be perfect in all respects. Margery suffered from what often feels like a modern scourge: not just a desire to be perfect in the eyes of God, but a nagging, frustrating perfectionism she couldn't shake," said Dumitrescu.

"Reading her story prompts me to wonder: can figures from medieval literature help us understand our relationship to perfection?"

Creating individual perfection

Literature from the Middle Ages is replete with different, even disparate, approaches to attaining spiritual perfect — and may hold lessons for us today, according to the scholar. 

"Medieval authors understood the perfectionistic mindset, and found ways to depict it artistically, even if they did not yet have a specific word for it," she said.

Dumitrescu points to two characters from 14th-century Middle English poems, both of whom are obsessed with the idea of perfection: Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And Geoffrey Chaucer's Wife of Bath as depicted in his Canterbury Tales

"Gawain, the knight of the Round Table and exemplar of courtly love, begins as a paragon of perfection but winds up incapable of accepting his own human fallibility. He's so attached to his brittle image of perfection that he winds up wounding himself," Dumitrescu explained.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight from a 14th-century manuscript, artist unknown. (Wikimedia)

"Alisoun of Bath, a wealthy businesswoman and serial bride, argues fiercely against her culture's idea that only virgins can be perfect. She embodies a different kind of perfection, a fulfillment of potential that comes from living with one's own wounds and flaws."

Dumitrescu notes Chaucer's Wife of Bath, who was married five times, is the diametric opposite of Gawain when it comes to understanding perfection. Gawain begins flawless but over time becomes sinful. According to Dumitrescu, "Gawain was so invested in an unforgiving, inflexible idea of personal perfection, that one small failure was enough to make him despair in himself and in God."

But she adds that the Wife of Bath sees strengths in her flaws.

"She opens the door for individual perfection: the idea that you can become very good at what you are, without necessarily measuring yourself according to a single, unforgiving standard that is unsuitable for most normal people."

'Heart of perfectionism is fear'

According to two psychologists, Dr. Thomas Curran and Professor Andrew Hill, perfectionism has serious consequences.

Dumitrescu points to their research, which finds that it's associated with disorders such as "depression, anorexia nervosa, suicide ideation and early death." 

"I would argue that someone who does not crumble when they make mistakes is not a real perfectionist. The true heart of perfectionism is fear. There happens to be a strong link between perfectionism and anxiety disorders, though researchers are still working to understand precisely how it works," said Dumitrescu.

As people turn to perfectionism to manage anxiety, Dumitrescu explains that what happens is the standards are set too high to meet — resulting in anxiety. 

"So perfectionism has much more to do with wanting to control fear than it does with the desire to make things very good. Unfortunately, this attempt to have power over something that is basically unmanageable is oppressive both for the perfectionist and for everyone around."

But take heart, and consider the example, not by Gawain, but by Chaucer's character: 

"Alisoun of Bath shows that the only good answer to unrealistic standards is to choose another kind of perfection altogether, one rooted in vulnerability and experience."

* This episode was produced by Greg Kelly

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