By Lori Lines
Most of us are probably afflicted with a touch of perfectionism. If you're like me, though, it's more than a touch.
Perfectionism is trying to live up to impossible ideals and feeling worthless when we don't. It's a text book recipe for suffering. Perfectionism is not the same as the mere desire to do well by striving to meet high standards. Unlike the simple desire to excel at what one does, perfectionism involves an insidious attachment to an unrealistic view of the self. The perfectionist believes she can be perfect, and must be perfect, and if she can't, she considers herself a failure. In response to that judgement, the perfectionist may become extremely self-critical and do virtually anything to rid herself of the negative feelings those thoughts precipitate.
One response might be self-punishment which could be anything from constantly berating oneself to inflicting physical harm. Another might be to turn to intoxicating substances or over-eating to silence those voices of derision. Still another is to submit to a grueling regime in order to make oneself the ideal person one thinks one must be.
You can see the effects of perfectionism everywhere. We observe it when we readily heap blame or criticism on ourselves and others, even for the most minor mistakes. We see it in the way we treat our bodies, condemning them from being too thin or too fat or too old or too pale. We notice it in the way we make excessive demands of ourselves, expecting to be wildly successful in our careers, to our friends, or ideal parents. This affliction is one of the major reasons we find it difficult to extend compassion to ourselves.
Like other forms of suffering, perfectionism stems from an unrealistic view of the self. Perfectionism is perhaps the principle obstruction to our practice of self-compassion. A spiritual path is sometimes attractive to perfectionists and therein lies a great danger. Developing one's spirituality can hold out the promise of relief for the pathology of the perfectionist. But, at the same time it can add fuel to the flames when the path becomes another form of ego achievement. Spiritual discipline can provide a means for the 'sinner' to receive his punishment and a way for the saint to attain her sanctity. Neither of these are goals of the mindfulness path.
On a spiritual pathway, perfectionism can manifest as an obsession to do everything right. You have to follow the instructions to the letter. You must muster all your energy to follow the discipline correctly. It is essential to make tangible progress. When you learn that perfectionism may hinder your capacity to show compassion to yourself then, by God, you'll eliminate perfectionism.
Seeing others act in less than perfect ways gives us the opportunity to call for ourselves that we, too, do not always act in an ideal manner. In fact, when something about another person really, REALLY annoys you, let that be a signal to be extremely mindful and look within. We usually judge others for the very things we hate about ourselves. Try to turn those judgments of others around and make them an opportunity for extending compassion for yourself.
Revising our views on perfection may also help. If we understand perfection as a state of being flawless or immaculate then our striving for these qualities are sure to cause us anguish. Perhaps we can think of perfection as something other than our conditioned way.
There is an aesthetic ideal in Japan known as Wabi-Sabi. Wabi-Sabi seeks to highlight the beautiful aspects of impermanence, incompleteness, and defectiveness. Wabi-Sabi values things that are rustic, asymmetrical, irregular, simple, understated…objects that are worn or in the process of decay are appreciated both for their beauty as well as the spiritual truth they express about the transience and unfinished nature of life. It invites us to look at life through a different lens than the one offered by perfectionism. The Wabi-Sabi view of life encourages me to feel at home with the world. A world where all things, including myself, could be regarded as aesthetically pleasing just for being what they are, subject to change, incomplete, and less than ideal.
I compare it to putting on my old threadbare blue jeans that make me feel at home.
If you are a perfectionist, I invite you to find at least one thing in your life about which you can relax your need to succeed. We can accept our common lot with humanity, we can try to rethink our idea of perfection. But the greatest challenge may be embracing our own perfectionism. Trying to eliminate perfectionism is likely to prove counter-productive. There is a massive paradox here. Wanting to get rid of perfectionism, if you think about it, is just another form of perfectionism. Rather than responding with belligerence to the voice that is constantly blaming and criticizing you, why not try getting to know it better? Let it speak. It will probably do so whether you want to hear it or not. Our inner critic is just a voice. We don't have to believe it. We don't have to do what it says. The critical voice of our perfectionism only causes us to suffer when we give it more authority than it deserves.
Practicing mindfulness teaches us to allow thoughts to arise and fall on their own like all impermanent reality. The thought that tells us we must be perfect is just a thought like any other. Since trying to silence the critical voice hasn't worked, try to welcome perfectionism as a friend. Treat it with courtesy. Show it some compassion. Appreciate what it's trying to do for you. Sometimes it says valuable things. It has probably helped you achieve some good things in your life. Sometimes, of course, what the voice of perfectionism tells us is rubbish. But don't a lot of our friends talk about nonsense from time to time? And, we still love them.
© Lori Lines. All Rights Reserved 2014
Author Lori Lines
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