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Pursuit of Perfection — A path to UNhappiness

The definition of the word perfect is, having all the required or desirable elements, qualities, or characteristics, or being as good as it is possible to be—absolute and complete.

When I think of children or adults, therefore humans, absolute and complete are not the words that come to mind, quite the opposite. Even computers, algorithms, and software are not perfect. Nothing that lives, breathes, and functions on this planet is perfect, nor does it need to be except life-saving devices.

For those of you who’ve been raised by strict parents that educate with the intent of raising perfect children, you will inevitably bear the consequences of never feeling good enough. The central and defining characteristic of perfectionism is the fear of failure, and because of that, you play it safe and don’t try. However, because you have not been through the process of trying and failing, you critique those who tried but failed. You will always find a fault in other people and their way of doing things. Since you are used to being harsh on yourself, unconsciously, you are harsh on others.

Pursuit of Perfection
Pursuit of Perfection

For perfectionists, the glass is always half-empty; there is only good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. The perfectionist is brutal, unforgiving, rigid, controlling, defensive, and overall unhappy, and the reason for that is that perfection is unattainable. When you don’t reach your goal, you feel frustrated, bitter and not happy.

If you think you have some of these traits, you may be a perfectionist or striving for perfection. If your goal is to be perfect, be warned that you are inviting the devilish shadowy figure into your life, and it will keep tapping that cane every time you make a mistake…you will never have peace.

Here are some tips to try to overcome perfectionism.

  1. Meditation - focus on living in the present. If you take the outcome away and live in the present, being perfect gets shifted to the back burner, and the journey becomes the focal point in life.

  2. Self-awareness and education allow you to identify what perfectionism looks like, so you can avoid it like a plague.

  3. Don’t set unrealistic expectations, perfectionism is not only unrealistic but downright unwise and harmful.

  4. Take baby steps. How about going from perfectionist to optimalist? That is one level down which allows you to be an imperfect high achiever who focuses on the journey. Tal Ben-Shahar, author and lecturer at Harvard University, explains the trait of the optimalist in his books. He also has excellent courses about positive psychology. Check out his website and books.

  5. Don’t underestimate the lessons in mistakes. Failing teaches us essential skills in life. If you are perfect, you have no where else to go and grow and if you think you are perfect that is even worse.

  6. A perfectionist is not a good leader or parent. If you strive to be a great leader, you need to release the baggage of perfectionism. Baggage spells unnecessary weight, and you cannot carry other people’s weight and help them thrive if your weight locks you down. Remember the traits of a perfectionist? How do you think your subordinates will respond to an unreasonable, critical, hostile leader who judges them or their work as never being good enough?

  7. Reduce social media use which leads to comparing. Everything looks shinier, prettier, and perfect on a screen.

  8. Learn from my story. It’s not worth striving for perfectionism; once you are rid of perfectionism, creativity and positive outcomes are the result.

My story of perfectionism: My father’s goal in life was to teach us perfection. When I was a child, my father taught us how to be handy around the house and fix things instead of playing with us, which was great but very daunting when we were expected to do it not properly but perfectly!

Instead of happy days at home playing, he walked around with a cane checking that everything we did was up to his standards and reflected the perfect person he perceived himself to be. Of course, I always let him down; how is a two-year-old supposed to know how to properly hold a spoon, yet that’s what landed me from the highchair to the floor.

So, from the day I was born, I perceived perfection as something that would protect me and save me. If I did it perfectly, I would not get hit. If I washed the dishes perfectly, I would not get chastised. I wouldn't get called ignorant and useless if I was extra careful and drew the carrot in proportion with the rabbit. However, since my outcomes were not perfect or desirable as the term entails, my conclusion was that I was not desirable either; if I wasn’t desirable for my parents, I would not be desirable for anyone else either. And that is the narrative of a child who grows up with parents who demand perfection.

Although the pursuit of perfection was my father’s goal and not mine, it did seem to me at the time like the wisest choice for myself as well. If I was perfect, I would stay safe and maybe be loved. As I grew up, I emulated his perfectionist behaviour and I kept telling myself the narrative of not being good enough, intelligent enough, or academic enough; it was hard to be perfect—I never seemed to get it quite right. What I didn’t realize is that others didn’t get it right either.

Perfection is a tiresome goal that requires energy which is better spent on other things that can guarantee happiness. Step away from a perfectionist culture, whether in your home, work, or friendship. Perfectionism infringes on other people's rights and needs, and perfectionism's physical and emotional perils are just not worth it.

And remember, greatness does not require perfectionism.

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