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Jennifer Howard, Ph.D.

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Are We Addicted to the Idea of Perfection?

Posted: 09/16/11 09:44 AM ET

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything,
That's how the light gets in.
-- Leonard Cohen

Watch any of the "reality" television shows starring beautiful people, and you'll see something we cultivate in our culture: the pursuit of perfection. It's often difficult to resist, and it's reinforced everywhere in the media, in TV ads, magazines and newspapers. Everyone is at risk, especially women but men, too. Athletes and other performers succumb to it. These cultural messages feed the deepest insecurity in ourselves and encourage us to believe we must be something different from who we really are. We hold ourselves to an impossible standard: perfection.

It's easy to get swept up by the fear that we just aren't enough. We think we aren't pretty enough, smart enough, tall enough or thin enough. For example, when we feel we aren't enough physically, we're compelled to diet, exercise, wax, pluck and tuck in an attempt to achieve the "perfect" look. Somewhere along the line we've equated the perfect butt with the perfect life.

Of course, there's nothing wrong with grooming and taking pleasure in our appearance and presentation. Those in the public eye especially are expected to attend to their appearance. In this culture it is necessary to pay attention to what we look like if we are to successfully market ourselves or keep our jobs.

How do we balance those external expectations with the reality of our humanity? It's important to open to our unique version of outer beauty and own who we are as individuals, embracing our unique style flaws and all. I'm sure you can think of someone who isn't classically beautiful, but they seem so comfortable in their own skin, it makes them very appealing.

A study done at the University of Texas by Daniel Hamermesh suggested that "good-looking" people are happier than plain-looking or unattractive people. The study, titled, "Beauty is the Promise of Happiness?", collected measurements from economists in four countries, the U.S., Canada, Germany and the U.K. and suggested that attractive people are happier because they make more money and have more successful spouses. The study also suggested that attractive people have higher-earning spouses.

Overall, researchers believe the top 15 percent of "beautiful people" are more than 10 percent happier than the people ranked in the bottom 10 percent of looks. "Personal beauty raises happiness," said the study's author. He goes on to say, "The majority of beauty's effect on happiness works through its impact on economic outcomes."

This study could drive someone to strive for perfection! What about growing in our knowledge or deepening our wisdom? What about intellectual intelligence? What about our emotional intelligence? And especially important, what about the value of psychological maturity?

We don't often hear about psychological maturity. It includes awareness, self-regulation, responsibility, interdependence, honesty and integrity. Psychological maturity requires the ability to willingly shift our perspective and to have an adaptive healthy self-esteem. These qualities can only be cultivated through our inner quest for self-knowledge.

We can perceive we aren't enough in other ways as well. We don't make enough money. Perhaps we must behave in some idealized manner or live in the "right" house, wear the "right" clothes and go to the "right" places. This study seems to suggest that money and good looks are the keys to happiness. Hmmm.

Even in this global recession, the cosmetic surgery industry is booming. According to the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, 9.5 million cosmetic surgical and nonsurgical procedures were performed in the U.S. in 2010, and about 94 percent were performed on women. More alarming, a quarter of a million American teens have had cosmetic surgery in 2010 alone. People of all ages are swept up by the desire to be perfect or the belief that changing something on the outside will create a lasting improvement on the inside.

So we're not only obsessed with what we perceive as negative effects of aging, but we're possessed with the continuous pursuit of flawlessness.

For some people, it's never enough. They continue to surgically alter themselves until they appear strange and unnatural. They become addicted to "fixing" themselves on the outside in a fruitless attempt to heal something on the inside, whether they admit it or not. Sometimes having a procedure done can make a huge difference in someone's life, but often people think that from the outside they can magically alleviate emotional discomfort stemming from the inside. Despite efforts to diminish, lift, smooth and enhance their bodies, their external focus will never provide the deep emotional and psychological satisfaction and peace they ultimately crave. That's an inside job.

We can become as addicted to the pursuit of perfection as we can be addicted to a drug or any other destructive behavior. As Marion Woodman, Jungian analyst and author of "Addiction to Perfection," wrote,

"Perfection is defeat ... Perfection belongs to the gods; completeness or wholeness is the most a human being can hope for ... It is in seeking perfection by isolating and exaggerating parts of ourselves that we become neurotic. The chief sign of the pursuit of perfection is obsession. Obsession occurs when all the psychic energy, which ought to be distributed among the various parts of the personality in an attempt to harmonize them, is focused on one area of the personality to the exclusion of everything else. Obsession is always a fixation -- a freezing-over of the personality so that it becomes not a living being but something fixed, like a piece of sculpture, locked into a complex. Addiction to perfection is at root a suicidal addiction. The addict is simulating not life, but death.

... To move toward perfection is to move out of life, or what is worse, never to enter it. A problem arises when our external focus inhibits our ability to focus within, to develop our spiritual, mental and psychological selves."

Imagine if everyone spent just half the money and time we spend on developing our insides as we do "fixing" our outsides. Envision spending even a little more time, energy and money learning new skills, gaining insights and strengthening our inner landscape. Imagine how we'd deepen and broaden our experience of life! Imagine if we cultivated a profound sense of understanding and acceptance for ourselves and others just the way we are. Would we worry quite as much about the effects of aging, or would we see our lives as an opportunity to develop wisdom? If our efforts were focused more upon our inner connection, we might be able to celebrate aging as Elizabeth Cady Stanton put it, " ... the inner, the higher life. Who would be forever young, to dwell always in externals?"

What if we could embrace the passage of time and hold dearly our mature wisdom?

There isn't a reality show I know of that celebrates wisdom and maturity. Sadly, I don't think there would be sufficient dysfunctional drama to garner a big enough audience to keep the show going. Mature wisdom doesn't necessarily make us richer, thinner or land us a fabulous looking mate. However, it's exactly what we need to weather life's inevitable changes.

Even with all the self-help books and personal development workshops, many people don't know how to focus inward. It feels confusing, perhaps scary and, from the quick-fix perspective, not so much fun. But by focusing inwardly, we develop the strength and compassion that makes life easier, more peaceful and yes, happier with more sustainable fun.

In the Bible's New Revised Standard Version, Matthew 5:48 says, "Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." The Greek origin of the word "perfect" means "to be whole." How might this shift our approach to life if we were to read this passage as, "Be whole, therefore, as your heavenly father is whole?"

What if we realized we were whole and complete just as we are right now? Imagine the possibilities.

Have you found yourself pursuing perfection? What are your experiences? Your comments make a difference for all of us.

 

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