The Myth of Perfection
|March 29, 2012||Posted by Jenny Ann Fraser under Feast...|
About a dozen years ago, in the early days of my therapy to overcome anxiety, depression, ADHD and a total absence of self-worth, my therapist labeled me as a perfectionist.
The look on my face was one of complete shock which probably registered to her as denial.
“You don’t see yourself as a perfectionist,” she asked?
“No!” I responded emphatically thinking about how I lived a chaotic messy life and to my mind never did much that was marginally right let alone perfect. “If I were a perfectionist, then I would try harder to be perfect!”
At that moment, the reality of my situation hit and we both ended up laughing together.
Here I was, such a perfectionist that I didn’t believe that I even deserved the diagnosis!
Perfectionism is a disorder, make no mistake. It is not a quality that leads one to strive for excellence, but a pathology that says that nothing is or ever will be good enough. The quest for perfection can only lead in one direction which is to focus on what is wrong instead of what is right.
My beloved flute teacher, when I was a teenager, after 30 years playing with our city’s symphony and teaching some very talented flutists, used to tell me; “there is no perfect in music.”
It is true, that there is always another perspective, another angle to approach a piece, another interpretation. One might sound better to one person, another better to another. There is no definitive best way, and there never will be. There is no perfect.
I would argue, that despite an education system that trains us to believe differently by rewarding us with check-marks and A+ s for right answers, and red X-marks and Ds for wrong answers that in reality, this is true of everything. Perfection is in the eye, or ear or mind of the beholder. Yet another oft bought into mental construct that is a lie.
For years, my need to be perfect paralyzed me, and stole the joy of doing many things that I ache to do. Getting back to music as an adult lead to frequent panic attacks, (even though I had brilliant teaching as both a young student and as an adult). I love to draw and paint and create, but I am not loaded with natural talent for visual art. My quest for perfection prevented me from learning so that I could improve.
Mistakes, which I make often as a result of my ADHD, were seen as evidence of my failure as a human being. This did nothing to help me to grow and move forward in life of course, as fear of failure is as paralyzing as any fear. Being paralyzed is no fun at all and it won’t get you anywhere.
What changed things for me was when I learned to say: “It’s good enough as long as I tried, and learned something even if I’m not perfect and make that same error again in the future. Perfection is an unattainable myth and I will do better to strive towards the goal of simply trying.”
These days, I celebrate the success of having tried something new and celebrate the results even when they fall short of my own ideals.
Time and age has opened my eyes a little wider and I now clearly see that though I have been surrounded in my life by people I revere and admire, none of them are any more perfect than I.
Perfection in human life is a myth and I am darned grateful for that because if one could do anything they set their mind to and do it perfectly the first time, life would be horribly dull. True perfection would mean that there is nothing left to learn. I for one am very grateful that I will never reach that point.
I think that the worst most soul-sucking damage that the ideal of perfection brings us is the belief that what we do is not perfect and therefore lowers our value as human beings. Having lived this lie and knowing how destructive it is, I would love to obliterate it forever so that we could all know the joy of being our authentic selves.
Accepting the reality of perfection as an unattainable myth has freed me to try things and to fail incredibly if that is the step I must take to grow. It has allowed me to stop looking for perfection in others, and fooling myself into believing that others are better than me. It saves me from a mountain of disappointment when reality comes to light.
Reality tends not to bite me in the butt so much these days because I am far more capable of seeing it for what it really is.
Letting go of perfectionism means that I do not have to lie, or hide or be ashamed that there are just some things I suck at. This is because I know that if you are a living, breathing human being, there are some things you suck at too. This opens the clouds so that the true, honest greatness that I believe exists within all of us, (despite our so-called failures) can be given the opportunity to shine.
A few weeks ago, I decided to answer the calling to pick up a sketchbook for the first time in over a decade and attempt to learn to draw faces. The old frightened young me did this often but used the less than stellar results to feel even worse about myself for not being better. Eventually, I just gave up instead of pushing myself to get better by trying because I was too afraid that even much effort would end in failure. I believed that putting in my best effort and failing anyway would prove that my worst fears were true: That I was an inferior being, less deserving of happiness and love than the rest of the humans out there. The result of this was a sad loss of a couple of decades of artistic growth that would have served as beautiful fuel for what was once a very damaged soul.
Today however, I approach things very differently.
This time, my goal was to draw a face. A bad face, an ugly face, a misshapen face. It didn’t matter.
Each attempt was met with acceptance despite its lack of correctness, never mind perfection. And lo-and-behold, each attempt got a little better. Attempt #4 though still falling short of my dreams, made it all the way to becoming my first digital painting and then an art journal page which served as the image for my last post.
The young me could never have shown a soul even this attempt, let alone put it out for the world to see. I would have been too busy focusing on everything that was less than perfect and convincing myself that this was evidence of my own lack of worth.
The key to reaching the place where I am now is changing the way that I think about perfection. I accept what is, and focus on the good. No, this drawing might not be as good as I would like, but I did it and that is what is important. Then, I pat myself on the back and celebrate success.
I have learned over time to do this with most things.
A screw up at work which was once met with panic is now met with A. How do I fix this? B. What went wrong and can I do something different next time? And C. “Ok. In this moment you might have sucked, but overall, your pretty awesome… so move on.”
It takes time, and practice to change one’s thinking. Old thought patterns die hard and just like learning to draw, trying, trying and trying again until new, healthier thoughts and ideas become habit is the key to successful growth and it is truly the only key there is.
Sadly, we are so programmed by an education system that essentially punishes mistakes, (not to mention a culture that shames flaws for entertainment,) that I think most of us have to go through this process of letting go of ideas that suggest that we need to do everything right. Some of my past mistakes have been extremely painful, but there is no doubt that they have been my best teachers.
Is there something that you want to learn but are afraid to fail at? I would suggest that you go for it and plan to fail. Plan to fail, and plan to love yourself for trying and keep trying. Enjoy the process, because if you are doing something you really want to do; at the end of the day, it is the effort that you will find rewarding as much, if not more, than the result.
I may never be an accomplished fine artist and I am totally fine with that. It doesn’t mean that I can’t experience all of the joy that a fine artist does just by allowing myself to stretch and grow.
In truth, it is experience that we really crave. The feeling that we expect to get when we accomplish a goal. We bypass the opportunity to feel those positive emotions when we choose to believe that our efforts are not enough, unconsciously substituting pain where there should be joy.
It is all about what we tell ourselves. The internal dialogue that form our beliefs about ourselves and the world we live in.
Striving for perfection leaves us bound with little room to grow. No room to make necessary mistakes so that we can learn and discover. No room to find out who we are and what we were meant to be.
Embrace the reality that perfection as a myth, and you will find more freedom than you have known before. Allow yourself to believe that you are enough as you are without striving towards man-made ideals designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. Do not allow ideas that say your efforts are not good enough, thus defining your worth, and you will be well on your way to loving yourself.
Part Two of my “Feast On Your Life” Series. Finding Our Strength.