Many of us strive for perfection in some way or another. It can be found in a neatly organized office desk, a lengthy and detailed to-do list, a 10-step nighttime routine… perfection looks different to everyone, just like the ways we use to achieve it. But what happens when our perfectionist tendencies outgrow our original intentions? When hard workers burn out, discipline becomes neurotic, and self-care turns into skin picked raw? Very easily, the ways we seek perfection end up making us pretty much the exact opposite of our ideal. Most of us know that our actions in trying to be perfect are inherently arbitrary and the road towards it futile. But how do we find our way back?
If I asked you to think of yourself, but in perfect – does something come to mind? This article doesn’t exactly go both ways, so I won’t know for sure, but I strongly assume that many people will be like me and have just about a million thoughts on how one could and should change to become ‘perfect’.
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That could be a great way to identify which parts of yourself you can improve on, but it’s also a way to upset yourself. Not only do I have a detailed idea of how I could be ‘perfect’, but also the many ways I am not (yet). Instead of identifying my possible achievements, it is my perceived present failings that come to mind – the areas where I am not performing well enough, and, looking at my track record, will never be.
I wonder, where do we draw the line between ambition and perfectionism?
When You Try Too Hard
Perfectionism still has far too good a track record as everyone’s favorite flaw in job interviews. Probably because it is actually never truly perceived as such.
If there’s even an ounce of perfectionism in you, chances are that you’re trying real hard. Arguably, too hard. Trying itself is admirable, courageous even. To put all your effort into something you want to accomplish sounds great – but the thing to remember here is you. Because the wish for perfectionism is unlikely to benefit you.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explains: “Healthy striving is self-focused: ‘How can I improve?’ Perfectionism is other-focused: ‘What will they think?’”
Perfectionism serves everyone else but you. Whether it’s your parents you’d like to make proud, the approval of your friends or the jealous eyes of rivals. It might not even be about outright praise but avoiding failure in any way – sidestepping any mistakes, any bad characteristics which could stain your perfect image.
The Perils of Pleasing Everyone
I’ve always liked the saying, ‘Try to be the best version of yourself’. Maybe I have subconsciously confused it with what I think would be ‘the perfect me’, even though perfectionism is anything but becoming the best at what you are.
In the words of Brené: “For people who are successful at striving for excellence, perfectionism is not the path, it’s the greatest barrier […] it’s our most dangerous defense mechanism.”
In 1991, Paul L. Hewitt and Gordon L. Flett laid out three kinds of perfectionism:
1. Self-oriented perfectionism – an irrational desire to be perfect drawn from one’s own insecurities
2. Socially-prescribed perfectionism – wanting to please everyone as the social environment is felt as excessively demanding
3. Other-oriented perfectionism – imposing unrealistic standards on other people yourself
And it turns out, all kinds of perfectionism compromise your mental health. While I always thought that sure, there must be a version of a somewhat healthy perfectionist out there, the scientific understanding is: No, it always backfires. Even in work, where perfectionists might be well-liked, studies have shown that the bad outweighs the good by a landslide.
Desiring the Impossible
Research has shown that all three kinds of perfectionism are rising – people are increasingly invested in having the perfect life. Being materially rich and spending more on status and possessions, so called ‘image goods’, has become more important than ever.
The beauty game has strict rules, rules no human can abide by, we all know that. No one in their right mind expects people to actually look and act as they do on social media – but that doesn’t change how desirable it still is to us.
Constantly confronted by perfect faces, perfect bodies, and perfect narrow ideas of people, feeds into our ever-growing aesthetic anxiety. Ana Andjelic explains that “being the most aesthetically advanced versions of ourselves is an aspiration and an ideology, with brands increasingly busying their strategies with active aestheticization of our everyday life”.
We have become a world that’s full of people who are in a constant and exhausting process of self-perfecting the mundane, all for a fictional world we accepted as our new reality. In this world, where appearances are valued over what’s underneath, it is becoming increasingly hard to care for the latter.
Underneath the Perfectionist
Baek Sehee, author of I Want To Die But I Want To Eat Ttekobokki in which she detailed her therapy sessions (literally), wrote:
“You need to accept that different people will have different responses to the same conversation.” This lays it out straight – no matter how perfectly you adhere to your perfectionist standards – you will never be perfect to everyone.
“You keep failing to meet that ideal in the real world, and then you punish yourself. If you have a strict superego, the act of being punished eventually becomes gratifying.”
We become stuck in a circle of trying to achieve the impossible. Even if you manage to appease your perfectionist a few times – after the initial pleasure of achieving this inhumane perfectionist goal, how often have you felt anything but empty?
Because we don’t aim to be perfect for the sake of it. We want to fulfill expectations from others, expecting a specific reward as a result, such as praise, admiration, love. And the way we have been taught to gain that is by being perfect. But this reward is or should not be conditional to these unattainable ideals.
Perfection, instead of a motivator, is a rope that binds and immobilizes you. If you keep insisting on it, you might not be able to move at all one day, stuck in one place. Once we start looking at perfectionism as not only a distant cousin of trying your best, but the outright antagonist power, it sets things in perspective.
The Enemy of the Good
Perfectionism paralyzes potential – something that happened to a lot of us when giving up our childhood hobbies and assumed talents. For me, it was drawing, forever my so-called wasted potential.
I do agree that thinking I would never become perfect in this ability has stopped me from ever pursuing it as much more than a hobby. However, I don’t mean that without the notion of perfectionism, I could have excelled and become a successful artist. The true pain perfectionism caused me was giving me only two possible outcomes for my talent: deciding either for or against it. Believing I can only do it perfectly or not at all made me not even want to approach it in any other way.
This is called categorical inflexibility, the tendency for socially learned representations of objects to constrain our ability to think about them in novel or creative ways. An expression of that is the nirvana fallacy; the belief in a perfect solution that makes us ignore useful ones.
For example, avoiding individual sustainable behavior as it will not save the world, denying any notion of it. However, recycling and buying local are still steps in the right direction. The nirvana fallacy gives room for faulty reasoning, making people forget that no solution is ever perfect, and that it progresses over time.
It imbues us with the conviction that life in effect ends when we give up hope of becoming the best version of ourselves. On the contrary… that is the moment at which life can finally begin.”
Trying to be perfect can hinder the good, especially if you are not equipped, physically and mentally, to achieve the perfect. In the words of Josh Cohen:
“Perfectionism may appear to spur us on to adult successes. But in truth it is a fundamentally childish attitude. It imbues us with the conviction that life in effect ends when we give up hope of becoming the best version of ourselves. On the contrary… that is the moment at which life can finally begin.”
The Hypocrisy of Perfectionists
So what do we childishly do if we want to be perfect at every price, but can never be? We pretend. It’s easy, and fast. And maybe you think you can pretend forever.
But pretending to be perfect is a no-win situation. You might seem perfect, whatever that looks like to you, but it is not just a compliment. Perfection turns you into an ideal. When people think you are perfect, they expect you to act accordingly: Without mistakes, without hiccups, without complaints. That makes it harder to be honest to others, makes it difficult to ask for help, or even for them to listen to your worries.
One can never uphold the image of perfection forever, therefore, to avoid the cracking of the mask, being perfect just means distancing yourself from others. But the more you act in a way that you hope the people around you will accept and admire you for – the more they will never see the real you, never understand your true passions and fears, but buy into a person that is, plainly, fictional.
We might not even do it consciously, pretending to be perfect. Perfectionism is flexible and can adapt itself to each persons’ individual vulnerabilities, but no matter what kind of perfectionist you are, it’s all about repressing our true self.
If we were a bit more honest about what we truly think, what we truly want, how our bodies actually look – we could offer some relief to ourselves and those around us.
Remembering Who You Are
Now, that might be harder than it sounds. Quite possibly, many of us forgot being our natural selves in the years of effort pretending to be someone else. So much, that to an extent, acting like oneself has become a foreign concept, too elusive to reach.
When was the last time you seriously thought about your actions, your thoughts, your dreams? It is not very productive to grieve your past self, wondering where you lost parts of you on the way, because it is still in your hands. If you have become or act like someone you never intended to be – you can always change that.
Your natural self is not some far away, untainted version of you, no matter how disconnected you feel to it. To think like that means putting it on a pedestal yet again – romanticizing our younger imperfect self is the last thing we ought to do.
The fault lies in the belief that we need to fool others for acceptance. Growing the confidence that you and only you without any additional top ups could be enough, is difficult. But it is more difficult to keep pretending, and in the long run, it really is the only way to keep going.
Nothing to Hide
If you choose to follow the ways of your natural self, without pretense, you might need some trust-building in yourself. Many of us believe that without pretending and trying so hard, we would be sucked into selfish desires and behaviors that others would not approve of. We think that without our inner perfectionist restraining us, we will become someone much worse.
However, that selfish person inside you is just as fictional as the perfectionist hypocrite. They are manifested beliefs from societal teachings marking your thoughts and actions. Perfection mostly makes us act out of fear – the fear of being anything but everyone’s expectations of you. But what we fear is nothing to be afraid of, the things we seek are not malicious, not even selfish, but simply basic human needs, for which no pretense is necessary. If we take for example the need for attention, whether through social media, dramatic storytelling or else, is it a way to make everyone put you first? No, if we look deeper, the need is to seek affirmation and acceptance, for belonging, as everyone longs for as well, all the same. Understanding that helps in being more compassionate towards others and yourself, reminding us that we are just as human as they are.
Be Kind, Especially Towards Yourself
Studies prove that people who score high on perfectionism have higher rates of depression than those who score lower. Something that moderates this relationship is the degree of self-compassion.
It is theorized that there are two ways you react to a perfectionist thought, e.g.: “This article has to be perfect before I even show it to my editor.”:
1. Literality: Taking these thoughts literally, accepting them as true. Therefore, I avoid my editor, work harder but of course, way past the deadline, and make up excuses until I find the article worthy (true story!).
2. Self-Compassion: Such a thought would be treated as insignificant, just a thought that can be trivialized, or at least seen as kinder. I sent a draft finished within the deadline, opening myself up for criticism and accepting that it does not need to be perfect for it to be shared.
Scoring higher on the second measure leads to lower depressive symptoms than the first. Self-compassion and perfectionism have a negative relationship, meaning, being kind to yourself weakens the link between maladaptive perfectionism and depression.
Kristin D. Neff defines compassion inwards as “being open to and moved by one’s own suffering, experiencing feelings of caring and kindness towards oneself, taking an understanding, non-judgmental attitude toward one’s inadequacies and failures, and recognizing that one’s own experience is part of the common human experience.”
Naturally Perfect: The Art of Wu Wei
We are all human, finding it impossible to reach perfection – right? My last concern is … what about people who really are perfect? The ones that do everything flawlessly, easily? How can perfect be an imagination, if there are people, not only on my screens but in my life who are so perfect, so sprezzatura?
Edward Slingerland traced this notion by trying to understand early Chinese philosophers. In Trying Not To Try: The Art of Effortlessness and the Power of Spontaneity, he explains how in ancient China, scholars were obsessed with the idea of Wu Wei, the desirable yet paradoxical state of succeeding without ambition. It is comparable to the state of flow that is more common in Western textbooks but goes beyond finding your productive zone.
Wu Wei is a way of living in which you act and feel completely in sync with nature. It is known as the philosophy of doing nothing, but it is not about staying back and hoping things will come to you. Wu Wei makes you remove any form of forced actions, while still being mindful, replacing it with effortlessness. In a way, you live fiercely, without force. You try, without trying. A lifestyle that is both difficult as well as extremely easy to attain.
If that sounds impossible to follow, you’re not alone. Edward explains how one school of thought even refrained from giving any guidance on Wu Wei, as that would disturb the desired naturalness. This inherent paradox s best exemplified with the willow tree metaphor:
“Human nature is like a willow tree, and moral behaviors are like cups and bowls out of the willow tree.” Gaozi, a follower of Confucius, once observed. However, that met with resistance from Mencius, another follower.
“Can you follow along with the nature of the willow when you have to mutilate the willow before you can carve it up into such shapes? If you have to mutilate the willow to make it into cups and bowls, must you also mutilate people to make them moral?”
Perfection is heavily correlated to effortlessness, whether it just appears to be so ir truly is. However, this metaphor illustrates; how can perfection require naturalness, if the process of achieving it is entirely artificial? This debate has resulted in various interpretations of the true journey towards Wu Wei.
Polished, Uncarved, Cultivated or Just Floating?
In the past, a popular method to achieve Wu Wei was intoxication. A nice buzz does loosen things up a bit, but beyond alcoholism, Edward summarized four different approaches propagated by four different Chinese philosophers to achieve Wu Wei:
1. Confucius: Carving and polishing, a.k.a. trying really hard for a long time through routine and discipline
2. Laozi: Uncarved block, a.k.a. stop trying immediately and go back to your roots, living the most simple life
3. Mencius: Cultivate the sprouts, a.k.a. try without forcing it, by working towards goals with ambition that comes from within
4. Zhuangzi: Let go, a.k.a. forget about trying or not trying, just go with the flow
Now, for a better understanding, look at each strategy and try to pair it up with someone in your life who you find represents this way of being effortlessly perfect.
It was pretty easy for me: A hard-working friend that is fixated on his goal, someone who found peace when going off the grid, a successful yet so relatable colleague, and a friend who always plays it by ear, with amazing results in her everyday life.
Do you think those four people know that they represent this way of living and being? Do you think they specifically tried to become this way?
Highly unlikely. I do not suspect they read Zhuangzi, the Analects or even any ancient Chinese scripts beyond the ubiquitous yin and yang, just like you and me. Yet they still embody these teachings. If it showed that people trained really hard for their endeavor, they wouldn‘t be perfect, but just people that tried really hard. Perfection, as mentioned before, only works if it is perceived as a genuine and instinctive way to act. This effortless fit, becoming something admirable without intention, the only way to reach it is probably by simply being yourself.
Because those people are not perfect, they are just at peace with themselves. Becoming someone you admire, means not becoming perfect but becoming yourself, with the intention for peace within.
From those four strategies, you do not need to choose which one to emulate. You can use them to guide you in how to approach life in various scenarios, but in ancient China and now, the paradox persists: There is no one true way to reach effortlessness effortlessly, to try without trying – it remains different for everyone.
Use your energy to figure out how to find peace with yourself, instead of striving to be perfect in it. Because you can’t and don’t have to be perfect to be you – just you.
Edited by: Pritha Ray
Cover: Cindy Zheng (Monet’s Garden in Giverny)