The inability to leave things alone until they are completely as we would want them is a mixed blessing. Perhaps even more so than you might have thought. As many as one-in-five of us are today perfectionists, according to a continuing 16-year long study by clinical psychologists at York University's stress research unit. And far from making us satisfied, it is making us frustrated and prone to depression. For our pursuit of perfection is based on chasing a level of wealth and achieving flawless faces, beautiful bodies and stylish houses that are, almost by definition, unattainable.
Part of this thesis we can agree with. Thanks to technology, there are more material goodies to strive for today than ever before. And the world of image-manipulation - from advertising to TV glam-soaps - dangles before us a world of luxury of which our parents' generation never had knowledge. Thanks to Mrs Thatcher, we are all middle-class now, in our aspirations at any rate. Expectations are driven ever upwards. Last month, The Daily Telegraph told its readers that it was impossible for an ordinary family to live in London on less than pounds 110,000 a year (what with school fees per child at pounds 8,000 pa, and all). There is satisfying this desire, as the concept of the upgrade (whether in software or hi-fi, house or car) testifies. And in an image-conscious world, you can justify all expenditure as necessary to keep your job. As with capitalism, the motto has to be: grow or die.
Freud had a word about perfectionism. A compulsive hand-washer kids him or herself that their hands are dirty when really it's some deep desire that the neurotic hates, and of which they want to rid themselves. Freud spoke of this as isolating a fantasy from its corresponding emotion, and then attaching it to some other trivial process. Perfectionists, he suggested, are engaged in this kind of displacement.
But perfectionism can be good or bad, according to circumstance, says Carol Seheult, a clinical psychologist at Durham University who specialises in psychology in sport. (She is a consultant to the British Olympic Association and several other sporting bodies.) It is what makes for success among target archers who perform indoors under very static conditions. But it would be no good in field archery where weather, wind, terrain, and targets that vary in size and distance, inject too many variables. "Perfectionists need control over the external environment - that is why they do better at stroke play than at match play. They choose games where they play against themselves rather than against others. They can't stand any form of criticism. They become very rigid and are not open to discuss other options. They are more likely to choose golf than to choose tennis."
But when it comes to unpicking the phenomenon, it is important not to confuse perfectionism with over-work, says Carol Seheult. Working flat out because your employer has sacked half the staff and is expecting everyone to do twice the work is not the same thing. "There the stress is external. Perfectionists generate their own pressure," she says. "What pressure you allow yourself to feel depends on your system of values. It depends from where you get your idea of the ideal You."
There can be little doubt that this has changed in recent years. An old lady I know was delighted when her son became director of social services in their medium-sized home town. This was the acme of his chosen field, she felt. Now he would be able to play more golf, join the Rotary Club and chair the Civic Society as his father had done, she thought. Oh no, said her daughter-in-law; he would lick the department into shape and in a few years move on to do the same in a big city. The gap between the two women's world-views illustrates the extent of the changes in aspirations in a single generation.
"The phenomenon of not feeling OK about yourself has been exacerbated by the blandishments of career and current images of the perfect life - but they haven't created what is wrong; they merely lean into it," according to psychotherapist Susie Orbach. People are increasingly modelling themselves on some external image instead of searching inside themselves. "How you feel about yourself is to do with social expectations that are transmitted through school and the family. If consumerism and that kind of achievement become the values you adopt, then you're going to fail and feel bad."
It is not a shift in values that most of us are comfortable with, according to Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST). He is just about to publish the results of his 1999 Quality Of Work/Life Survey. In it, of the 5,000 managers who were questioned, from chairmen down to junior execs, 60 per cent complain that they have to work at home every night and a third say they often work all weekend. "They are buying into the modern dream," Cooper says. "Some are happy with the result. But most either don't achieve what they want - or say when they do that it's all empty. They are killing themselves and their relationships through work."
What has brought about this shift in where we focus our values? Like many other commentators, Cooper is convinced that it is a by-product of community and family breakdown. "We are much more mobile and much less connected to communities. And the extended family is gone," he says. "Community and family are what help you to understand that there are values other than the self. They sort out what is realistic from what is fantasy. And they also help you pick up the pieces when the dream is shattered."
There is clearly something in this. We all share a general intuition of a society that is fragmenting under economic pressures and the anti- social philosophies of the market. True, our television sets open the world to us, our telephones link us with almost a billion people across the globe, and the Internet gives us the ability to shift vast amounts of information across thousands of miles in just seconds. But if our interconnectedness is greater, it is also more flimsy. For these new technologies simultaneously seem to dilute our sense of obligation to those we encounter. They offer the illusion of contact with far off worlds while keeping them psychologically at a distance.
All this has impacted on the nature and quality of our social relationships. A survey by the Royal Mail last month showed that a quarter of people aged under 35 rarely or never speak to their neighbours. This in contrast with almost treble the number of those over 55 who say that they often chat with those who are living nearby, and more than half who said that they are close friends. It is no coincidence that our most popular TV programmes are soap operas; they create vicarious relationships between ourselves and other people (even if they are fictional), generating a common pool of knowledge, a shared set of values, and an ersatz sense of community.
"If people don't get their core sense of values other than through the material from the family and the community, then they look elsewhere. And the media and advertising industries step in to fill the vacuum," says Cary Cooper, "and you end up with a vacuous world in which Posh Spice and David Beckham constitute the ideal to be strived after."
People have no way of making judgements between competing claims. It is a world of health scares and conflicting information - a life of Information Overload in which data replaces knowledge and knowledge has superseded wisdom.
Then we use the acquisition of material things to justify our own workaholism. Consumer goods become the outward signs of inner inadequacy in our self- generated freneticism. It is a process, and a consequent problem, that technology, which is supposed to help, exacerbates. The fax, the mobile and the e-mail create more pressure. The treadmill goes ever faster. The current fad for TV make-over programmes reveal how we now want instant perfection. Who wants to spend 10 years working on a garden when you can get a firm in who can achieve the whole thing over one single weekend?
Susie Orbach's analysis contains a warning. "All this consuming, and the things you're supposed to be good at, are things you can't be playful around. They just create anxiety at a deeper level." And it's more than acknowledging that there is the need to play, according to Cary Cooper. "We have to learn that sometimes it's healthy to say that 90 per cent will do," he says.
So how do we know when to stop? You don't, says Carol Seheult. "You don't have insight into your own perfectionism. You need to listen to others. The trouble is that perfectionists never want to."