Aditi Raman Shridhar
Who controls your digestion, breathing and heart beat? You or the life force within you? Have you ever had to worry that your brain won’t work in time of emergency or that your organs will selectively function? I guess not. We are up and alive and buoyant with happiness every day because our bodies are functioning on auto-pilot. If we were given charge of the internal functions of our bodies, I am certain that we wouldn’t remain alive for long.
Life or life force is simply perfect, intelligent and accurate. The whole universe with all its stars and planets, the Sun and the Moon, the human beings and all life forms on Earth are thriving at the most accurate pace. So, doesn’t it seem odd that in the vastness of the cosmos where everything is perfect, one nasty thought in our mind can make it a bad day? Does a bad grade in school or a broken relationship even seem worthy enough of shattering us? But most people are walking wounded, full of discontentment. And the root of this suffering is “perfection”.
Six months ago, my friend Donna announced her idea of writing a book. She was jubilant and was full of plots for the book. To give herself the necessary motivation to stay inspired throughout the process, she appointed me and another friend of ours to keep a tab on her progress. Last week, she invited me and another friend to her home to celebrate the completion of her first chapter. We were in the middle of a discussion on writing styles and the latest books coming out this year, when Donna got up and tore up all the pages of her writing.
Stunned at this action, we got up and asked her what was wrong. She said, “My chapter isn’t good enough. It is not as good as any of the books coming out this year. I need perfection.”
Another friend of mine, whose child is a school student, told me recently that her kid had become sad because he couldn’t score enough marks to get the first rank in his school. He had never come second in his many years of schooling but there was someone better this year who outwitted him. Sad and depressed, he said he couldn’t bear to look at himself in the mirror and felt shattered. The second rank that he acquired made him feel ‘not good enough’ and that it had shattered his image of ‘being perfect’.
The third example I want to cite here is of another acquaintance of mine who got married last year. And she still rues the day of her wedding because according to her, it was ‘not perfect enough’. The flowers were not of her choice, the wedding dress could have been better, the food was average, the guests were not looking happy enough, are her usual rants. She often says that if she were to reorganize it again, what all changes she would make. I casually remark, “What if something else goes wrong?”
There are many people of different age-groups who either waste their life wanting to ‘be perfect’ and never actually starting any work and ending it like Donna. And there are others who because of their plans not materializing in the way they intended to and lose their so-called image of ‘being perfect’. And the third is the type which wants to go back in time and change things to perfect. All three types are delusional. Are you any of these?
Author of Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert, says, “Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat, pretending to be elegant when actually it’s just terrified. Because underneath that shiny veneer, perfectionism is nothing more than a deep existential angst that says ‘I am not good enough and I will never be good enough.”
The reason ‘perfection’ is so deeply ingrained in our society is because we have all imbibed that if we are without any flaws and are perfect in every way, others will not criticize us but embrace us fully. But since perfection is impossible, since we are all human and are united because of our imperfections, the delusion of trying to uphold a false image plays out in many ways.
To being with, perfectionism stops people from completing their work, and often from evenbeginning their work. Perfectionists often decide in advance that the end product is never going to be satisfactory, so they don’t even bother trying to be creative in the first place.
The cause of this false pressure on people is that every year, millions of students across the glove feel pressured to ace examinations and have a perfect score. Similar issues happen related to body image. The idea that we should have perfect bodies, which has been reinforced by the media and forces many girls to look a certain way, causes them to damage their bodies. They develop disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. In the quest for the perfect bodies, they make their previously healthy bodies appear worse, not better.
The most evil trick about perfectionism, though, is that it disguises itself as a virtue. In job interviews, for instance, people will sometimes advertise their perfectionism as if it’s their greatest selling point–taking pride in the very thing that is holding them back from enjoying their fullest possible engagement with creative living. They wear their perfectionism like a badge of honor, as if it signals high tastes and exquisite standards.
Psychologists says that perfectionism is a particularly evil lure for women, who hold themselves to an even higher standard of performance than men do. Holding back their ideas, holding back their contributions, holding back their leadership and their talents. Too many women still seem to believe that they are not allowed to put themselves forward at all, until both they and their work are perfect and beyond criticism.
To decode what something really looks like to a perfectionist, let me give you the example of say a circle drawn on paper. Maybe it looks perfect to your eye. How about checking it with a compass? How about under a microscope? What about under an electron microscope? What if you could look at the atoms that form the arc? Aren’t they limited in form? Doesn’t each atom itself form a sphere? Isn’t the edge formed by a bunch of spheres a scalloped-edge? Is a scalloped-edge perfect? No, it’s not. However, it’s as good as reality allows.
Therefore, for all of you out there who want to be ‘perfect’, I would caution you from falling into the trap. Perfection is not attainable. Perfection is an idea – a concept only. It is an illusion created by the human mind, therefore anything will be only as ‘perfect’ as the human mind decides it to be.
Traps of perfection
- It is an illusion – Besides nature’s own intelligence and functioning, nothing man-made can be perfect. There can only be improvisations. Instead of trying to be perfect, go for excellence. The concept of perfection is that of the human mind. So, everything can be only as ‘perfect’ as the mind decides it to be.
- It delays things for a long time – If you are someone who needs to meet deadlines then trying to get things done perfectly will get you fired or lead to losses in your business. Or if you are a surgeon who needs to treat a patient immediately, you need to do the job immediately. Even as artists who can amaze the world at any time with their creativity, cannot take forever to showcase their product. The world needs you and your creativity now.
- It will never get you started – The quest for the most perfect result possible often leads to you not doing anything at all. Procrastination is not always because of laziness, it is also often because you are so overwhelmed with the job. When you only aim for perfection, you will overwhelm yourself and you will be scared because now you have set an almost impossible set of expectations for yourself.
- It will damage your health – The biggest way in which being a perfectionist harms your health is through the stress. If you are always worrying about how you are going to get the most perfect result possible, you are going to pile on loads and loads of stress.
- It will make you unhappy and unsatisfied – When you get a job done, as a perfectionist, you are unlikely sit back, relax and enjoy the fact that the work is done. Instead you are more likely to keep eating your brains about how what you did was just not good enough. What’s the point of doing something when you are likely to feel anxious rather than happy?
- It annoys people around you – If you are a perfectionist you are likely to be so serious about life that you forget to have fun. And nobody wants to be around someone who is serious all the time. If you are a perfectionist you are unlikely to see the light side of life. You may attain professional success but are not likely to have much of personal success. Perfectionists set such impossible standards of work that you are not going to be able to work easily with others.
Ditch perfectionism. The world needs more people who can get things done well and happily rather than something never completed.
Aditi Raman Shridhar is an Indian journalist, therapist and health instructor.