Our culture’s obsession with perfection acts like a shadow on our hearts, minds and bodies keeping us from enjoying our lives. Always striving for elusive perfection, we’ve trapped ourselves into being chronically disappointed. What can be done to counter perfectionism? When we give ourselves to others, we counter perfectionism with self-compassion and empathy.
In this life, what is truly perfect?
I’d like to challenge you to count how many times the word ‘perfect’ comes up in a 24-hour period in your life. I raise this suggestion because I seem to see this word everywhere, from advertising, which promises ‘perfect hair day’ or ‘perfect results every time’: recipes extolling the ‘perfect cake’: and Pintrest pressure on young couples to guarantee their guests have the ‘perfect wedding day.’
We’ve all got a memory of a trip, an event – perhaps even a wedding day – which we’d describe as ‘perfect’. Or perhaps you’ve developed your skills in bread making, or playing an instrument, until you’ve achieved a ‘perfect’ rise, or a ‘perfect’ rendition of a Mozart sonata. But I’d say these moments are vanishingly rare, and that for the most part, we’re obliged to settle for ‘great’ or, less ambitiously, ‘good enough.’
The Shadow of Perfect
What happens when our desire to improve, to be our best totters over into something more intense? Perfectionism is rampant and has a dark side. APA cites “perfectionism correlates with depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other mental health problems.”
Researchers at York University studying the effects of perfectionism find that perfectionism limits people. “Anxiety over making mistakes may ultimately be holding some perfectionists back from ever achieving success in the first place.” Do you know what perfectionists are less than perfect at? Self-compassion. It’s one of our biggest weaknesses. We fail to give ourselves the essential space to learn, grow, break, and heal.
Framing Self-Compassion and Empathy
I wanted to tell you about a note which hangs on my wall, very deliberately placed somewhere I see it every day. It is a framed statement, printed in faded and blurred ink, given to me by one of the most remarkable people I know, and it’s a daily lesson to me. It reads:
Life doesn’t have to be perfect to be wonderful.
What a vital and seminal realization this is! I daily imagine if we could let go of our need for perfection – in food, work, travel, relationships, and the most trivial little things – and simply enjoy the wonder of being alive without insisting that we must experience the most perfect form of wonder. And, this realization was all the more moving and poignant because of who it is that gave this message to me for a holiday gift.
Her name is Brandy, my niece. I share with you that her life is far from perfect. Over a decade ago, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a debilitating and unpredictable disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information between the brain and the body. MS yields a range of challenging symptoms, from blurred vision and poor balance to slurred speech and paralysis. She has experienced all of these. She has the form known as primary progressive, suffers from muscle fatigue and painful spasms, and has been confined to a wheelchair for multiple years.
But it was through the lens of her illness, which has no known cure, that Brandy discovered that transformative secret: perfection is an illusion, and even when we fall far short of such expectations, the results can still be very worthwhile. Her own life is a case in point. She has refused to quit, and to let her symptoms overwhelm her. She maintains her sense of humor and has a remarkably active life for someone who is so ill, frequently going shopping, baking her favorite pies, and wrapping gifts for friends and family with numb, balky fingers. She has lovingly raised three beautiful daughters, who have developed persistence and grit.
I’m also impressed that she’s been able to maintain her beauty routine, and that she heads to the gym as often as she can to work on her upper body strength, the better to use her wheelchair independently. She reads widely and likes to keep her hands busy; she knits remarkably well, considering her hands are not always steady. At least once a year, she makes me a beautiful, hand-knitted scarf or a crocheted pillowcase. They are gifts that I treasure, for they are acts of defiance in the face of sometimes overwhelming challenges, and another reminder of that credo: it doesn’t have to be perfect to have immense value.
Beauty in Imperfection
Imperfections are the windows to the heart of a person. The Japanese concept of “wabi sabi” illustrates the wisdom of imperfection. We treasure a note from a child, knitted vest from grandma, broken seashell from a walk with a friend “Because despite their imperfections, these objects become beacons of our humanity: our ability to feel, to empathize, to connect, to love.
To bring more wabi sabi into our lives depends on our ability to focus, slowing down, shifting the balance from doing to being, to appreciating rather than perfecting. What is important is to attend to the present and appreciate the little details. Wabi-sabi reminds us that we are all in the process of changing from one state to the next along a continum. Our material world as well as our bodies will eventually return to dust.
Life at the Extremes
As I contemplate current events and read the news, I begin to see more and more emergences of this blinkered and dangerously binary thinking which seems to have the world in its grasp. For example, movies are either blockbusters or turkeys. Performances were either life-changing or simply ‘meh’. Consider how many product reviews, for example, are fixed squarely at one end of the spectrum or the other – five stars or only one – because we’re only really moved to comment on something when it resides at one of those poles of perfection.
“Let go of this fixation we have on perfection, life can be wonderful, even without it!”Click to tweet
If you’ve spent time within the system of thought and practice we espouse here at 6seconds.org, then you’ll already be aware of the dangers of these binary patterns. But in my relationship with my niece, and the message she gave me, I see a very timely and sincere reminder that perfection is both unachievable, and that its pursuit is like chasing a phantom. It remains elusive and out of reach, no matter what we do.
These are two great reasons to let go of this fixation we have on perfection, but the third reason is by far the most powerful: life can be wonderful, even without it! Is the cake still delicious, despite its imperfections? Was the ballet performance enjoyable, though you wouldn’t call it perfect? Our enjoyment of experiences, and our satisfaction with life itself, need not be anchored to such weighty expectations.
More Self-Compassion and Empathy
Its important to remember that the patterns of perfectionism were built slowly over time. So it is reasonable to think that undoing that process will also be deliberate. “Because of their intense fear of failure and rejection, perfectionists often have a hard time letting themselves be exposed or vulnerable, according to psychologist Shauna Springer. This makes trying something new, like learning new ways of thinking more challenging. She says when people focus on failure they are driven to avoid it at all costs “even the smallest infraction is evidence for a grand thesis of personal failure.”
Is there an antidote to perfectionism? Can we change our patterns to have more self-compassion and empathy? One of the most rewarding options for people with perfectionist tendencies, is to direct their energies outward through volunteering and making a difference in the lives of others. By practicing self-compassion and empathy and you will be helping your kids. Research suggests that perfectionism is a trait that parents frequently pass on to their children. Dr,Gordon Flett, a psychologist at York University suggests storytelling to teach self-compassion and empathy. “Kids love to hear a parent or teacher talk about mistakes they have made or failures that have had to overcome,” he said. Passing on wisdom is a gift we give to ourselves and others.
Everyday Gratitude for Imperfection
I’d say that our imperfections and limitations provide the challenges which give us a reason to get up in the morning and fight through another day. Just as Brandy fights with a courage and zeal which I find humbling, and I’d like to take this chance to salute her maturity and poise, her passion for life, and the sheer willpower she brings to a very, very imperfect situation.
“Our imperfections and limitations provide the challenges which give us a reason to get up in the morning and fight through another day.”Click to tweet
If Brandy can find joy, even within the continuous maelstrom of difficulties her illness presents, then surely we can do the same. Perhaps it’s time to shrug off our concerns that our lives aren’t sufficiently ‘perfect’ – whatever that means – and, instead, be grateful for each day, each moment, and each second. As we embrace our mistakes and life-lessons, we practice self-compassion and empathy to get out from behind the shadow of our perfectionism.