We are endowed by certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of perfection. Wait. What? Perfection? Before you get your star-spangled knickers all in a bunch, just think about it. How often have we traded our happiness for the pursuit of self-perfection? And how often have we made ourselves nuts in the process?
In a perpetually chaotic world, perfectionism seems to allow us some semblance of order and control. Cutting-edge research shows that there is, in fact, a fine line between striving for improvement and striving relentlessly for perfection. How do you know if you've crossed it? Is your perfectionism doing more harm than good?
Are You A Perfectionist?
Do you feel irritated and dissatisfied with a project because you know there's room for improvement? Do you compare yourself to others and feel anxious or jealous at their success? Do you work to the point of exhaustion? Do you find it difficult to disengage from work when you're on a vacation? In the social media age where people document everything from their dinner to their view from an airplane window, do you feel that your life needs to appear effortlessly happy and fulfilling to others?
While high-achievers set high goals and work assiduously towards them, perfectionists focus on unmet goals. Perfectionists tend to look at themselves and others through critical eyes. Ironically, perfectionists are also likely to take other's criticisms personally, whereas high-achievers welcome constructive criticism. While perfectionism is borne out of a desire to succeed, extreme perfectionism can lead to failure, as perfectionists are more likely to procrastinate, be risk adverse, or feel negative emotions such as guilt, defensiveness, inadequacy or depression.
Perfectionism often starts in childhood as we get rewards by parents and teachers for stellar work. Unfortunately, chasing praise - in school, work, or social endeavors - leads to frustration and self-doubt.
Perfectionists pride themselves on their integrity and commitment to hard work; they make sure everything is the best it can be down to the last detail. As a society, we admire people who push themselves and others to produce masterful achievements such as Steve Jobs whose meticulousness extended to design functions only his engineers would see.
Beyoncé, whose flawlessness has achieved iconic status, was criticized not so long ago for the very perfectionism her fans love. When she lip-synced the national anthem at President Barack Obama's inauguration in 2013, Beyoncé set off a hailstorm of media scrutiny.
"I practice until my feet bleed and I did not have time to rehearse with the orchestra," she admitted later in a press conference. "Due to no proper sound check, I did not feel comfortable taking a risk. It was about the president and the inauguration, and I wanted to make him and my country proud, so I decided to sing along with my pre-recorded track, which is very common in the music industry. And I'm very proud of my performance."
While there's beauty in perfection, there's also beauty in imperfection. When the impeccable Queen Bey sneezed at a concert, her revelation of her humanness endeared her to fans even more.
"Perfection Is A Disease Of A Nation"
Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever's worst.
Perfection is a disease of a nation.
We try to fix something but you can't fix what you can't see.
It's the soul that need the surgery. ---Beyoncé's "Pretty Hurts"
We chuckle when perfectionism is shown as humorous quirk on television. But real perfectionism goes beyond arranging your towels in eleven different sections (Friends' Monica Geller) or fainting from embarrassment because the paper you gave Stephen Hawking contains a "booboo" (The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper).
According to a study published in a journal of the American Psychological Association, perfectionism can be devastatingly crippling, leading to anxiety, depression and an increased risk for suicide.
Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt have been researching perfectionism since 1990. "Perfectionists tend to be under chronic stress, in part due to the pressure that is on them," he observed with me in an interview. Perfectionism is pervasive problem. According to Flett "about 3 in 10 adolescents have some form of maladaptive perfectionism."
Flett identifies two main types of perfectionism:
1) Self-Oriented Perfectionism where expectations to be perfect come from another person such as a parent, spouse or teacher.
2) Socially-Prescribed Perfectionism where people respond to external societal pressure by trying to appear perfect. These people tend to promote their strength and accomplishments, while hiding mistakes and flaws so others have a favorable impression of them. Meanwhile, inside they feel inadequate "like an imposter."
Sure, perfectionism allows us to stretch and create beyond imagined capabilities, but it also handicaps our happiness. Furthermore, perfectionism hampers our ability to lead and empower others, as we're unable to let go of control. We become experts at faultfinding--a sure fire way to lose friends and diminish influence. Moreover, we get so caught up in producing the end result that we forget to enjoy life along the way.
How to Accept Imperfection
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, spiritual leader and creator of the Happiness Program, reminds us to "Leave some room for imperfection. It is love for perfection that makes one angry at imperfection. Just like a clean house has a small space for garbage in the bin, keep some space in your mind to accept imperfections."
We get so agitated thinking about other's imperfections. You do realize that their imperfections are their problem to handle, right? We already have a full-time job managing our own mind and it's obsessive nuttiness.
Can you imagine how unbearable it would actually be to live with someone who was totally perfect? It's our mistakes that make us humble. If we never made mistakes, we'd probably be more judgmental, less empathetic and compassionate. It's our screw ups that make us charming, approachable and lovable.
Practices such as yoga, meditation and breathing exercises help us keep our center and develop some perspective into our perfectionism. These practices bring the mind back to the present and help us let go of the past. Meditation gives us mental clarity so we're more skillful and intuitive in our actions. A meditative mind tempers our tendency to go perfection crazy.
No one wakes up each morning and starts plotting out how they're going to screw up their day. Mistakes happen. Getting angry at imperfection spoils your sense of peace. Besides it's easier to correct a mistake when you come from a compassionate space, than when you're blaming and alienating people. When we get upset at others' mistakes, we're no better than the person who made the mistake.
When we have acceptance and compassion for others, we simultaneously develop acceptance and love for ourselves as well. So the next time you're getting anxious because your house isn't up to snuff for guests or a difficult assignment you've just completed contains a typo, ask yourself if it's worth losing your smile over.
Perfection exists as construct in the mind. True perfection is a tranquil, equanimous mind in the face of challenges. Inner perfection comes naturally when we leave room for imperfection.