Retrospective Perfectionism
repentance through self-destruction

Most of us know about the usual, store-bought vanilla-flavoured perfectionism: impossibly high standards that often lead to present paralysis.

But I don't really hear about the other type of perfectionism—one which concerns itself with the past, and uses previous failures as ammunition to sabotage yourself in the present.

I don't really know what else to call it, but I simply regard it as "retrospective perfectionism", and it can be brutal, to put it lightly.

I'll be going over some examples of how this type of perfectionism manifests itself in my life. Whether or not other people have experienced it also, I don't know. This is just based off of my own experience.


The thing about retrospective perfectionism is that you may accept the fact that you're not "perfect" now (such that you're not hindered by perfectionism in its most well-known form), but in the future you may have the inclination to destroy everything that you've made in the past that may no longer hold up to your standards.

Sometimes, this is almost like a strategic choice to maintain a sense of perfection or competency in the present, and in other times it's simply a result of being overwhelmed by past failures and wanting to move on from them—a method for creating distance with your past self.

I don't typically eradicate old work if I'm the only one who can see them, but I've often torn things down that were posted to the public simply because I don't think it reaches my standards, or that it no longer represents who I am anymore.

At its best I remove a few things here or there that could be done better, or that could be revised. But at its worst I end up deleting all traces of me existing. I become so detached from the public persona that I've made for myself that I end up murdering him in cold blood and dumping the body in a place where no one will ever find it.

After all of this transpires, I often do come back, but as a "different" person—typically with a different alias, a different theme, a different niche. Though in reality, it's still me, maybe having grown a tiny bit in terms of character. However, the cycle usually continues: I develop as an individual, see everything that my past self has done and have great disdain for what I had created, and then tear everything down, only to pop back up months later.

With all of this in mind, this site definitely was not exempt from nearly being burnt to the ground. There were plenty of times when I really did want to delete the entire thing and start over. But I told myself in all of this that the last thing I want to do is doing something permanent that I can't take back—if I were to do something to my site, best to abandon it instead of outright deleting it.

And from my experience, this mindset helps a lot. Usually what I need isn't to delete everything, but simply to take a break, and to re-evaluate where I need to go from there. That's the healthier option in almost all cases. And if it turns out that my detachment is for the long-term? I can leave everything be without having to regret turning everything into dust. I've had enough with impulsively deleting my past selves from existence and regretting it later on.

Leaving No Trace

As an addendum to the last section, I have at times done this persona destruction not just to online accounts, but with people. In real life.

I covered it somewhat in The Social Ghost, but in this particular case it's not a case of introversion and needing to recharge—it's more like remembering all of the wrong I may have done to this person in the past, no matter how small, and deciding on my own that they'll be better off if I ceased to exist from their life from this moment forward.

It's not even as a result of present turmoil. I'd count all of my past failures regarding the relationship as if racking up debt, and then decide my fate from there. If I'm especially mentally unhealthy, it's not going to take much to burn down a lot of bridges.

And I have burnt down bridges—more bridges than I would like to admit. Some people likely won't remember me when it happens, but some people might. And for those people, it can be especially confusing since I left them completely in the dark.

The healthy thing to do in cases like these would be to address it to other person if it's something that needs to be addressed. But if it's something long past, there shouldn't be a need to bring it up again. And if it's something trivial, you should be able to move on without any problems.

But the unhealthy method? Just end the relationship altogether. Not in an explosive, theatrical manner, but rather a slow, neglectful death—a death which the other person may not know is happening, but I know. In the background, I'm setting everything up in such a way that my disappearance will be as clean as possible; making it seem like it happened by chance, but in reality it was all calculated.

All of this is almost like holding a grudge against yourself on behalf of another person, which in a way is presuming that the other person even really remembers (or cares) about all of the slight missteps in your relationship. It's projecting one's own perfectionism onto the other person: you feel like they're the ones burdening you with these impossible standards, when it was in fact you burdening yourself the entire time.

It doesn't particularly help that I'm self-aware and yet oftentimes still fall into this trap. That's like the ultimate form of feeling helpless.

Trapped in the Past

While past events have influence in the present, the one thing that I've learned is that there is no need to keep repeating past events in your head if all it does is make things worse.

Reliving horrible experiences in your life doesn't mean that you're learning anything from it. I've made the mistake of thinking that I would be a coward for not facing my past failures, but instead of taking a detached route, I went into the death spiral of repeatedly steeping myself in them until I lost all sense of worth as a person. Doing that is completely unnecessary. There's a clear difference between acknowledging past failures and looping them over and over in your head.

Sometimes, looping yourself in bad past experiences is placed under the guise of "introspection" and "self-improvement", but in reality you're making yourself miserable for no good reason.

Like a lot of things in life, there comes a point where there is diminishing returns. You can extract a lot of lessons from the past, but do it too much and you end up living in the past instead of taking things away from it.


The issue with constantly thinking about the past is using induction in an unhealthy way: if my past was so overridden with failure, what makes me think that the present or the future will be any different?

This line of thought disregards the possibility that people can change. It doesn't imply that it's easy, but it doesn't mean that it isn't possible either. If people were a complete byproduct from past events without any willful interference, then we'd all be miserable. We'd all be hopeless too, since past evils from our ancestors would propagate to us and ruin any chance of doing anything from our own volition.

A good example of this in my life is actually from my parents. From what I've gathered, my grandfathers from both sides were pretty bad: one was a raging alcoholic, and the other was extremely abusive. But despite that (and also being raised in poverty), my parents came out to be decent individuals; they didn't propagate all of their trauma onto me and my siblings. They have their own share of problems, of course, but considering what they went through I'd say that they managed to make the best out of their difficult circumstances.

While induction can be useful for predicting future external events, it can be dangerous to use it for events which your involvement can affect the outcomes to a substantial degree. Patterns of behaviour exist, sure, but the possibility that people can intentionally break the pattern after discovering them means that we have more control over the influence of past events/influences more than they have over us.

We're not completely immune to past experiences and how they've shaped how we are in the present, but it's healthy to believe that we're not completely ensnared by them.


It is never a good feeling to realize that you've been on the wrong path in life this entire time.

There are times though where instead of trying to go back on the right track, it feels like resigning to such a fate is better. The line of thought is almost like "what's the point in trying to go back to the better path when I already screwed it all up? There's no point in trying to fix it anymore."

It's obviously going to be more difficult to correct your mistakes when you've been making them for so long, but the thing with perfectionism is that it likes to exaggerate. It's difficult? No, it's insurmountable, it's impossible.

Retrospective perfectionism, if taken to the extreme, is like ending your life early—not in a literal sense, but it cuts off any semblance of a future. Resignation as a result of past failures can result in a life where you're doing everything that you hate, just because you failed doing what you should've done earlier. Like in the Induction section, it's letting past decisions negate current ones, despite the possibility that they could be completely separated, even though it may be difficult.

I've often fantasized about what I would do differently if I started life right over from the beginning. But the thing is that I can start doing things differently right now if I wanted to. I don't have to restart life in a biological sense to start doing what's better for myself.

It's hard, however, because there's always this lamentation for the time which you lost already. It especially hurts since we're often frivolous with our time as children, but when we become older we realize just how much time we could've spent on something much more beneficial and conducive to the interests of our future selves.

I've always regretted not committing to art earlier, or writing in a journal earlier. So many things which I didn't do as a kid, now coming back to drag me down as an adult who'd like to do those things, but having to start at a place where I cannot commit as much time to them as I would have liked. It never feels good to have that realization. Though, it's probably the case that I wouldn't have known what wasted time truly was until I actually wasted it, so maybe it's a necessarily evil? I don't know.

Concluding Thoughts

Retrospective perfectionism is the belief that any tarnish upon you as a person is permanent. If you failed in any way in the past, then it's all over—the forecasts state that you will forever continue doing the same mistakes and be completely unable to escape them until your demise.

But of course, there are better ways to think about this.

Me and my sibling talked about an adjacent topic a month or so ago, and we both came to the same conclusion, albeit at different times in our lives: balance.

It's always better to think in a balanced manner. Acknowledging the past and learning from it is a way to improve, but if taken to the extreme, can lead you to be stuck there indefinitely.

Perfectionism is essentially a form of extremism. Sometimes, we're afraid to let go of our perfectionism because we're led to believe that those who don't have perfectionist tendencies don't have standards, which is not true. You can have standards and not martyr yourself in the process.

Just because you failed a few times doesn't mean that you don't have standards. There's an easy way to see if you have standards or not: see if there's a way you can do it better. If you can do that, then you at least have opened up a path that goes upwards, instead of perpetually stagnating. Because in a way, having no standards is synonymous with stagnating (or even regressing) in what you create and do.

I think a perfectionistic mindset can also result from social pressure and anxiety. "If what I make isn't perfect, what will other people think about me? Will they think that I'm being lazy? That I have no standards? That I'm completely delusional?"

Like I covered in this article, failure is an inevitability. It's a matter of how you deal with it that actually matters. It's what separates people who actually make it to the end and those who fall apart.

Perfectionism doesn't prevent failures, it just makes them worse than it actually is. And in that case, why make failure more painful than it already is?

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