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How Our Obsession With Perfections Makes Us So Imperfect

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After about two years outside the workplace, I was expecting some craziness with my new job. But within the first, I was nearly drained. It wasn't so much the workload that tired me; compared to my previous jobs, the work responsibilities were quite elementary. It was instead the interactions with both employees and customers that left me numb at the end of the day.

Being in a call center, I was the receiving end of angry customers, who demanded info about their wellness program, and then answerable to even angrier supervisors, who gave dirty looks and mocking emails when their assistance was needed. Looking back, it was like a catch 22. In spite of my efforts, I couldn't seem to please anyone, just listened to bitching and moaning for eight hours a day. But I think the greater challenge was dealing with their standard of perfection -- the idea that work should never be flawed.

In many of these interactions, it was minimally important if I did something right. Rather, it seemed my level of competency relied mainly how much I faltered... even if it rarely happened. I could do everything right, but once I sent the email, asked for the wrong info, used the wrong tone, it was like I was all bad. Yelled at, chastised, even belittled at times if I couldn't uphold this standard of perfection. And I found that even when I did repent, it was like they wanted something more. Perhaps a more deeply satisfying expression of remorse or embarrassment? But in these times, all I could say was, "Yes I fucked up. I'm just not... perfect."

This idea of perfection -- no flaws, no issues, no problems -- seems to infiltrate all our lives at one time or another. And like the yearning for perfection in the workplace, we also yearn for perfection in other aspects of our lives, whether it is a perfect family, perfect spouse, perfect job, or some other kind of perfect life situation. And living in a society that embraces achievement, it's no surprise that many Americans feel compelled to meet such high standards in their lives. The constant bombardment of media images showcasing huge estates, plastic beauty, or celebrity extravagance plagues us with a rather rigid notion of a picture perfect existence.

However, living in reality usually poses quite a threat to this ideal, as even the most seemingly-perfect couple, family, job, etc. begins to show flaws over time. And unfortunately for us, once these flaws surface and the image of perfection shatters, our society does an excellent job of socially humiliating the victim. Once someone lies, cheats, steals, or does something so against the image they've upheld, in others, approval shifts to judgment and love turns to hate. It didn't take long for a once supportive media to shame Tiger Woods for engaging in sexual relations outside his marriage. Nor did it take long for the highly-esteemed president Bill Clinton to be ostracized once allegations of his sexual rendezvous surfaced.

Yet in spite of its elusiveness, we remain fixated on perfection. Often enough, even when we know the flaws, we still defend an image of flawlessness. And I think this derives from our identification with these images, the unconscious linkage of our jobs, spouses, or skills to the very essence of who we are. Which explains our unwillingness to observe the cracks in a mirror that's visibly broken. As a threat to these ideals can instigate a tremendous shift in our personal realities, to the people we think we are: "I can't be wrong, because I'm smart," "They can't be flawed, because they're my parents," "He can't cheat, because he my loving husband." Or how supervisors like to think, "You can't be smarter because I'm your boss."

But herein great dilemma arises, as our fear of relinquishing these identities may prevent us from looking at the troubles and complications that will inevitably plague our lives. Flaws that will cripple us in pain if left ignored. A fear so great that I too have engaged in this exact resistance. For when a flaw most profoundly threatens my personal reality, my concept of right and wrong, the woman I think I am, I too become tempted to just pretend everything is... perfect. And perhaps this resistance underlies society's judgment of others, the fear they too may have to confront those same realities in their own lives. As my supervisor's intense belittlement of a minuscule work defect can only derive in her own fear of making that same mistake.

Does this ever work though? Does ignoring the child's cry ever stop the heavy hand of her abuser? Does mocking the alcoholic's binges ever get him sober? I think not. Ignoring the problem or judging it in others can only mask underlying troubles, troubles that will only worsen as we continue fixating on what society deems as a "suitable life." In a bittersweet paradox, I think it's the acknowledgement of our flaws, not our obsession with perfection, that intrinsically makes us better, more understanding, more human. And even if this means relinquishing our identities, sometimes looking at the cracks gives us the chance of a better life. We may want to be perfect workers, but we can only be better if we admit our petty mistakes. We may want a perfect family, but we can only be better parents if we admit our own parents' shortcomings. And so, strange as it seems, I think just accepting imperfection is the necessary ingredient to live a more peace, closer to perfect life.

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