Perfectionism is Killing Us

Can we please stop all our striving?

As children often do, when my daughters were little they would ask me all sorts of questions. If you’re a parent, you know the kind of questions I’m talking about. “Why is the sky blue?” “What makes a car go?” “How big would our wings have to be so we could fly?” They’re the kind of questions that, these days I suppose, you’d tell your 6 year-old to look up on the internet. But in the BG era (that’s “Before Google”), your kids would actually expect you to know this kind of thing. And I guess I had a feeling that parents were supposed to be wise and full of knowledge, ready to impart it on a moment’s notice. So when they’d ask me “Daddy, why is the ocean salty?” I would tell them. I would tell them something…anything…anything that sounded remotely plausible. I’d spin out a tale about minerals in the mountains and erosion and evaporation until they seemed satisfied or their eyes glazed over. I think I got this trait from my parents, who once delivered a treatise to me on ignition, combustion and radiation when, as a young boy, I asked the question, “How does heat start?” Ten minutes later, when they had finished their dissertation, I clarified my question: “No,” I asked them, “what letter does ‘heat’ start with?”

Regardless of where it came from, I felt the need to have all the answers where my kids were concerned. I didn’t want them to believe that there was anything I hadn’t figured out or didn’t have a handle on. In a word, I wanted them to see me as perfect. As my girls got older, the questions got more complex and my explanations grew increasingly outlandish. Like the graph of increasing demand and diminishing supply, at some point their questions outstripped my creative abilities, until one day I uttered those three dreaded words, never spoken by Dad before: “I don’t know.” “But Daddy, you know everything!” came their response, only partly in jest. That first admission of not knowing, and the look in my daughters’ eyes, felt just like I’d let all the air out of the balloons at their birthday party. They were deflated and disappointed.

Whether it’s with our kids, or our partners, or our teachers, or our bosses, we all want to be, or at least be seen to be, perfect. We strive for perfection, even though we know that it’s ultimately unattainable. From an early age we encouraged to try harder, study longer, focus more. To “live up to our potential.” And each step of the way we’re graded. Whether it’s with a letter grade, or through acceptance to college, or by getting the job we seek or the raise we need, by being able to afford the house we want or that shiny new convertible, our performance in life is constantly being evaluated. Do we measure up? And if you’re like me, your harshest critic is the one you never escape, the one that’s inside of you.

This desire for perfection is, of course, perpetuated by our popular culture. We are led to believe that we can be perfect. Remember the old commercial with the beautiful, thin woman in a business suit and an apron? “She can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan, and never let you forget you’re a man.” We are bombarded with images of perfect homes surrounded by weedless lawns, across which cavort beautiful children with perfect teeth and purebred dogs. In their pursuit of the perfect body, Americans spend more than $12 billion a year on cosmetic procedures. The amount Americans spend on procedures like having their noses fixed and unwanted hair removed each year is more than the gross domestic product of many sub-Saharan African countries. Our pursuit of perfection takes other forms as well. We work insane hours and strive to stay productive and connected through our technology, even when we’re supposedly on vacation.

It’s hard to say where this striving for perfection comes from. Even if we blame our parents (as we often do), they likely got it from somewhere themselves. I’m inclined to say that, for many of us, it goes back to our foundations in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This tradition tells us that we’re created “in the image of God.” If that is so, and God is all-knowing and perfect, aren’t we thus called to be perfect ourselves? Between these religious values and our cultural norms, our perfectionism is, in some very real sense, hard-wired into our very beings.

This pursuit of perfection is a disease that infects every part of our lives. And it can lead to our ruination. Perfectionism puts a tremendous strain on our systems. It puts us in a constant state of fear. Fear of not measuring up to our own ideals or those we suppose others place on us. Like a juggler straining to keep 4, 5, 6 balls in the air lest they all come crashing down, we strive to do more, to do better, to do faster. And in our doing, we deny our being. We conceal ourselves behind our tasks and we identify ourselves by our outcomes. If we’re not careful, in our pursuit of perfection our authentic selves become overshadowed by the work we do and the roles we play.

Another dark side to perfectionism is that it also leads us to play it safe in circumstances when risk-taking is called for. When we pursue perfection, we fear failure. So we try to maintain control at any cost. We minimize the chance that something won’t turn out the way we want, and in doing so we miss out on opportunities. Opportunities for learning. Opportunities for growth. It is a fact of life that some of our best learning comes from our failures, so when we play it safe we may be stifling ourselves while we kid ourselves into believing that we’re getting closer to perfection.

Perfectionism has another insidious effect: When we expect perfection from ourselves, we can easily fall into the trap of expecting it from those around us. And when others don’t measure up to our standards of perfection, we devalue, degrade and perhaps even dispose of them. Our children don’t behave as we think they should, so we punish them. Our partner doesn’t live up to the ideal we had when first we met, so we ditch them. Our boss doesn’t have the good sense to recognize how great we are, so we quit.

But here’s the reality: No matter how well-intentioned we may be, no matter how we may have convinced ourselves that we can approach some ideation of perfection if only we work a little harder, exercise a little more, drive our kids to one more activity, or keep our homes and ourselves camera-ready just in case we get that knock on the door from Publisher’s Clearinghouse, we never will reach that particular promised land.

So, I’d like to release us all from the tyranny of perfectionism. I’m here to proclaim that “good” is good enough to get us through. There is an Eastern outlook on perfectionism that I find enlightening: “Wabi Sabi.” Although the phrase is difficult to translate into English, “Wabi Sabi” invites us to find beauty in the imperfect. Our challenge is to permit ourselves to rest in Wabi Sabi. To trust in Wabi Sabi. To live in Wabi Sabi. We must begin to recognize when we are good enough, when we have done enough, when we have achieved enough, no matter how far it is from the ideal we or others set for ourselves. And to find contentment, satisfaction and beauty in that place.

Some twenty years ago, my wife and I were walking on the beach in Florida. These were dark days, as we both struggled to hold on through my decade-long depression. My condition had clouded my view of my life, and I was dissatisfied with everything and everyone around me. We were walking separately on the beach, each lost in our own thoughts. Irene was some distance ahead of me, and I was intently focused on the sand at my feet. Every once in a while I would stop and reach down to pick up a shell that caught my eye. Time and again I would toss each shell back into the ocean. Irene stopped up ahead, and must have been watching me, because I caught up to her and she asked what I was doing. I told her, “I’m looking for the perfect shell.” In a moment of stunning clarity, she said to me simply, “You know, all the time you’re searching for the perfect shell you’re missing out on the beauty that’s all around you.”

Let us remember to see the beauty of the imperfect, the impermanent and the incomplete. And that “good” is “good enough.”

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