The Perfectionism Bug: There is still hope

If all of us had been perfect in every way and in everything we did, we would be like mass-manufactured factory goods, minus the barcode. But that does not stop us from taking pride in being called perfectionists. We look at all our little curves and rough edges as something that needs to be covered up or camouflaged or cured even. It is like answering the weakness question in an interview; we either live in utter denial of our flaws or quote diverse justifications on behalf of them. Would we apologize for who we are? Why then do we find it difficult to embrace and stop apologizing for our imperfections?

“Imperfections are somewhat essential to all that we know in life” – John Ruskin.

But it needn’t be like gulping a tonic. Embracing flaws is actually hard-wired into our systems. This is why the deepest connections are formed when you lay bare your vulnerabilities or why you find a dimple adorable.  The question is never about accepting flaws, it’s about harnessing them. If engineers could re-purpose fighter planes for domestic air travel, you can sure as hell make your flaws work for you. Your constant need for attention, your fiery temper or any of your other failings can be transformed into your strongest motivators. Easier said than done, I know, but I found it helps if you could identify which weakness affects which strength of yours and how.

For example, as a child with barely any social skills, I struggled with loneliness and the embarrassment of ‘being seen alone’. People intimidated me; going up to people and making friends was scary. So I started opening my mind and pouring my heart into my poems. Poetry became the embodiment of my pain, fears and dreams and I became the verses I scribbled. Now every time I sit down to write, I am marveled by the truth that we are much more the imperfections we hide in our closets than the best bits we proudly display to the world.

Unfortunately, most of the other times, I am busy running after perfection. Yes, guilty. Can I help it when the whole world is selling perfection at every walk and corner? Gym memberships, fairness creams, laser treatments, tuition classes, personality classes, how-to books for dummies – everyone has a bar of perfection constantly reminding us that we are not good enough. And we’re afraid to stop jumping because we don’t want to look like the fox who called the grapes sour. The core of marketing tactics is that it substitutes beauty with an alpha figure, career with the amount of money one earns and success with perfection. It’s easy to be misguided, especially when perfection has a star-list of advocates including Serena Williams, Steve Jobs and Gordon Ramsay.

But for all that, the road to success and perfection is the same only for a short time. Perfectionism can drive you towards your goals initially, but after a certain point, success and perfection becomes paradoxical. That point is called compromise. You either keep pursuing perfection or you take the compromise to success. Success is an optimization problem. Success is relative. It is never an all-or-nothing scenario like perfection. A successful writer is one who decided to stop editing his draft and finally published it. A successful actor is one who stopped waiting for the perfect debut role and made good the role he was offered.

David D. Burns, psychiatry professor and author of the book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy says, “Perfection is man’s ultimate illusion. It simply doesn’t exist in the universe.” Some of you might counter this with Plato’s Theory of Forms as I found in some articles online. For the uninitiated, the Theory of Forms asserts that there IS a perfect idea or form for every object and property; that these forms are permanent, intuitive and independent of minds. The sky is blue, your jeans are blue, they correspond to the form of a perfect blue which exists in an illusory realm. One must understand that perfection, in this context, was used to argue in favor of the existence of this illusory realm Plato named ‘World of Forms’. Plato himself says that Forms are abstract ideas and the objects and properties in the practical world are imperfect copies of these Forms.

So we can still agree that, in the material world, perfection is unrealistic. And when we reject everything else as sub-par because they do not match our unrealistic standards of perfection, it is called the Nirvana Fallacy. The Nirvana Fallacy kills many more dreams in a year than failure does. Those are just my statistics. Unfinished blogs, unused club memberships, abandoned plans – you must be familiar with some of these examples. So you did not become a William Shakespeare or Virginia Woolf. So what? That does not make you less of a writer.

The problem with the all-or-nothing approach of perfectionism is that we tend to see things in black and white. We are either perfect or we’re total failures. We stop allowing ourselves the chance to fail and hence, the chance to learn. The benefits of perfection are meager compared to its long-term complications which include living with the constant fear of failure, lack of satisfaction, panic attacks, depression and suicide in extreme cases.

As Voltaire stated, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

The Japanese concept of Wabi-sabi finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence. It celebrates the flaws in design, the lack of refinement and the inevitable traces of time in objects. Someday, perhaps, we would be able to look at our own flaws too, not as marring us, but rather, as adding value to our lives. As making us whole.



2 Replies to “The Perfectionism Bug: There is still hope”

  1. Great read! “The problem with the all-or-nothing approach of perfectionism is that we tend to see things in black and white. We are either perfect or we’re total failures. We stop allowing ourselves the chance to fail and hence, the chance to learn.”


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