The Dangerous Pursuit of Perfection

by Kevin Hales, LPC

Perfection is a Bad Word

Perfection has recently become a “bad word” in my vocabulary. Let me share why.

To one degree or another, we’re all guilty of pursuing perfection. For some, it is a part of their religious creed: “Be ye therefore perfect” declared Jesus to his followers. Some have actually been told by a parent: “I just want you to be perfect.” Others might simply feel the pressure to be perfect because of family expectations or the image society paints in our minds of what is and isn’t acceptable. We live in a very performance obsessed society where it is not uncommon to feel “less than” if one doesn’t get straight As in school or if they don’t measure up to some invisible level of acceptance. The media doesn’t help with this either. We’re often bombarded by pictures and videos of the “hottest” movie stars and models. Look at issues of young girls’ magazines and you’ll see hundreds of “tips and tricks” to make a boy like you. Workout magazines show chiseled bodies that appear flawless.

Whether we realize it or not, we are often constantly trying to cover up our imperfections and put our best foot forward, and for a good reason! First impressions making lasting impressions. So it’s important to put our best food forward. However, that can be a detriment in the long run because it can become a game of covering up our imperfections and looking like we “have it all together”, that we’re “competent” and “strong.” Make up is often worn to cover scarring or other (perceived?) imperfections in one’s skin. We often look for clothing to cover unsightly marks, scars or excess skin. One might lament endlessly for not having the “perfect” body.

The traditional definition of perfect is the following: Being entirely without fault or defect. When applied to human beings, that is a dangerous definition. Everyone will probably acknowledge that no one person is perfect, and yet, many of us struggle with the pursuit of perfection. We recognize that no one is or ever can be perfect, and yet we often unknowingly expect ourselves and others to be so. There are countless issues and problems that come from this pursuit: eating disorders, emotional problems, marital/relationship struggles, suicides, etc.

A Journey Toward Wholeness

Another definition of perfect, and a healthier one when applied to ourselves, is this one: Complete, whole. So perhaps we would begin living healthier lives if we see ourselves as not striving for perfection but rather “wholeness”. Brené Brown talks about the importance of living a “wholehearted” life. She compares it to a journey rather than a destination. “It’s like walking towards a star in the sky. We never really arrive, but we certainly know we’re heading in the right direction.”

And that is perhaps part of why pursuing perfection is dangerous. It implies a finality, a destination, that will never happen for any of us. We are all participants in this production called life and we all make mistakes along the way. We all age, our skins begins to wrinkle and our bodies slow down. The trick is, are we enjoying the journey we’re on?

You Are Here

So instead of pursuing perfection, we should be pursuing wholeheartedness. This means recognizing first and foremost that, right here, right now…I am enough. I am good enough, I am worthy of love and belonging. Carl Rogers states: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I change.” Another way of looking at this is similar to when one finds him or herself at the mall or an amusement park. In order to find a particular store or amusement ride, you need to determine where you are in relation to that thing. We often find the words “You are here” on those maps, identifying where you are. Once you know where you are, and that it’s ok that you are there, you can proceed towards your goal. So in order to change and grow and progress, we need to accept ourselves as we are, right now, as lovable and worthy of belonging. That allows us to pursue a wholehearted life.

I personally define whole heartedness as being true to our heart, or in other words, to worry more about what we’re feeling and less about what others will think of us. Wholeheartedness is about embracing our mistakes and shortcomings, our weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Most of us can look back on “bad” parts of our lives: things we regret, things we wish we could change. Simultaneously, we can also recognize a lot of good that we’ve experienced in our lives and wish we could relive again and again. What we don’t often realize is that we can’t have one without the other. They are inextricably intertwined with one another. We wouldn’t even know what happiness was without sadness in our lives. We wouldn’t understand the richness of love without heartache. I have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people who can reflect on their lives and say, having a full awareness of their mistakes and shortcomings: “I wouldn’t change a thing.” If we altered history and tried to blot out one of our mistakes, it would have forever altered the trajectory of your life! You wouldn’t have learned a valuable lesson or met the person who would become the mother/father of your children. You wouldn’t have come into contact with that critical person who guided you on your professional path. By embracing the fact that we are all broken to one extent or another allows us to become more whole and complete.

Embracing Our Beautiful Brokenness

I recently learned of a popular form of art in Japan called Kintsugi. It is said to have originated in the 15th century when a Japanese shogun broke a favorite tea bowl and sent it back to China to be fixed. The repair job was done using metal staples, common for the time period. But one can imagine how unfavorable that must of looked. The shogun is said to have enlisted the skills of a Japanese craftsman to come up with a more aesthetically pleasing solution, which gave birth to Kintsugi. Many of us would want a broken piece of pottery to be repaired so that one could never tell it was ever broken, to hide the defect if you will.

Image Credit: www.kintsugiplanet.com

Kintsugi instead embraces the brokeness and infuses the cracks with gold, silver or platinum, making the object more beautiful and valuable than before. And that is what happens with us as individuals when we embrace our perceived shortcomings and weaknesses. Embracing them makes them a part of our lives, lessons that taught us something, instructive moments that made us more empathetic and understanding towards others. They make us more beautiful and whole than we were before. And the good news is: That’s something within reach of everyone, unlike perfection.

 

About Kevin Hales

Kevin Hales, MA, LPC offers marriage counseling as well as individual counseling for adults and teens at Colorado Counseling Center. Kevin’s clients find that he wholeheartedly devotes himself to helping them heal and move forward in life. To learn more about Kevin’s counseling specialties, please visit coloradocounselingcenter.com/kevin-hales/

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