If the World Were Perfect, it Wouldn’t Be: The Destructive Force of Perfectionism

Perfectionism is perhaps one of the most destructive “goals” someone can have. It’s perhaps #1 on many a list of many a client, and it’s their #1 frustration. The #1 source of disappointment, anger, resentment, despair and just about any other mental block-creating emotion and thought pattern someone can have.

But how can this be?

Isn’t perfection exactly what you should seek? Isn’t that the highest state of living we can achieve? Where we’ll find peace, harmony and happiness? Where we’ll be free from all our mistakes and flaws and everything that’s wrong in our lives and our surroundings?

That’s the idea. But that’s also how we destroy much of what we have in our life that’s already pretty terrific.

The first half of the title of my post is a Yogi Berra quote. At first look, it seems like one of his nonsensical philosophies.

It’s like deja-vu all over again.

It ain’t over ’till it’s over.

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

And so on.

But really sit with what he’s saying here: If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.

What does he mean by this?

We humans are natural-born fault-finders.

And we can take that natural part of ourselves into overdrive and yank the throttle open so wide we essentially turn on the afterburners of the engine of change before we’re even out of the hangar, blowing everything to bits. And if you know anything about afterburners, they’re meant for short bursts of speed, either during takeoff (once a certain level of speed is met) or during flight. They’re not meant for use right off the bat or in a sustained manner.

Perfection, the seeking of it, is the afterburner of change.

Otherwise you burn out (fast) and/or create destruction. (Using my metaphor above: Just picture an F-15 sitting in its hangar. What would happen if the pilot not only turned on the afterburner while still sitting inside the enclosed space? Would he or she have control of the plane? Would all the people and other planes inside the hangar be safe?)

I’ve talked about perfection and its continual generation of frustration before. How it actually blocks us from reaching our goals.

If you’re familiar with The Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation and Voyager, you know that their reason for assimilating practically every world and species they come across is to seek perfection. But instead of finding it, all The Borg do is become the most destructive force in the entire galaxy. And even after centuries upon centuries, they remain unsatisfied. Perfection remains outside of their grasp.

Seeking of perfection can do the very same thing in your own life.

Perfection is a mirage; its shimmering may look like cool, clear, satisfying water. But it’s just a trick of light and heat fooling you into chasing it down. Instead of coming to a pool of thirst-quenching water, you end up dehydrated and sick.

When The Borg assimilate a culture or group of people, they do so believing that the “technological and biological distinctiveness will be added” to their own. Yes…it will be. But what The Borg never realize is that, when they do, they’re also assimilating those people’s faults and flaws. All the mistakes and failures that the individuals of the culture (and the culture as a whole) have made.

Supposedly there’s a self-correcting mechanism within The Borg collective that causes the elimination all of the “flaws”. Even to the point of destroying a “malfunctioning” drone. But that’s in extreme cases. The “flaws” and “crud”, the  individual personalities are still active within the Borg Collective’s unconscious mind(s). This is evident when some drones become separated from the collective and all of their original programming begins to reassert itself.

Now, I realize that someone who is seeking perfection isn’t going around and cannibalizing other people. But consider for a moment that you may be doing exactly this metaphorically.

Isn’t this what we do when we try to “assimilate” traits of others we admire? Information that presents itself from “experts” who claim that if you follow their “advice” you, too, shall be perfect? When we look at pictures in magazines and decide that’s what a “perfect” body is or isn’t? When we listen to someone else’s definition of “perfection”?

I would gather that more than half of my clients I’ve coached are addicted to the idea they must achieve/find/be perfect. They were also incredibly frustrated and unhappy because they were trying to create a permanent state of something that’s not only transitory, but subjective. As we change and grow, so do our ideas and values. Our beliefs. Our opinions.

Truthfully, it doesn’t matter how someone becomes/became over-zealous in their pursuit of perfection.

Maybe it started with your parents. With teachers in school. Who knows. I’d say a good percentage of my clients who were attached to the idea of creating (permanent) perfection realized they had, as children, misinterpreted parental encouragement of striving for perfection and excellence as what they (the client) had to create in order to attain approval.

Was this the actual message of some parents? Yes. At times. Which is unfortunate. Although I’d also say that in most cases, most parents didn’t intentionally intend for that to happen. Some may have, yes…but most I’d say created that message inadvertently. Somewhere, along the line, parents (perhaps because of how they were raised) confused encouraging their children to do the best they can and to seek improvement with attaining perfection.

But again: That doesn’t matter. All that matters now is that you realize that seeking a (permanent) state of perfection is perhaps why you’re so frustrated and unhappy.

So what’s the answer?

Well, when was the last time you actually felt satisfied with what you have, rather than focusing on what you don’t have? On generating happiness with what you have now, in the present moment? Even just a few small things?

Being happy with what you have doesn’t mean quitting. It doesn’t mean no longer attaining. It doesn’t mean settling into (your definition of) mediocrity and remaining in an unhappy situation. There’s always room for improvement.

What I’m saying is be cautious, be mindful of the fine line between seeking improvement and seeking perfection. Maybe instead of seeking “perfection”, try aiming for excellence. You cannot and will not achieve perfection in a permanent way. You can have a perfect day, a perfect moment, a perfect week.

But then life reinserts itself and imperfection rears its ugly head.

You get a flat tire on a rainy, cold, muddy afternoon. You have an argument with your partner. Your dog gets sick and vomits all over your living room. Your car is broken into. Something, anything, doesn’t go your way or how you wanted. You step on the scale and discover that, during that perfect week of vacation and the enjoyment of food, you’ve put on three or four pounds.

I’m also saying that mindfulness is needed to remember this doesn’t mean you’re flawed. Broken. Imperfect. You’re human, so welcome to the human race: You have bad habits, you’ll annoy people, you’ll burp and fart, have cellulite, leave and create messes at times, make mistakes (big and small). That’s how you keep improving.

But improving doesn’t mean reaching or attaining perfection. it means seeking betterment. The act of expanding of what you enjoy and what you’ve already achieved.

Always seeking perfection can actually become a form of self-sabotage.

Besides, wouldn’t perfection be boring? perfectionism

Here again I’ll use a Star Trek reference: The Q Continuum.

In an episode of Voyager, Q, John de Lancie’s character, takes Captain Janeway to the continuum to show her what it’s like. What she sees is a flat, dusty road surrounded by flat, dusty land. People (other Q) lean against a building listlessly, paging through the books and magazines they’ve been reading for millions of years.

The Q, because they’re omnipotent know everything. They’ve seen everything, achieved everything, can attain anything they want, go anywhere (and to any time) they want.

They have, at their fingertips, a permanent state of perfection. 

And they’re bored.

They have nothing to improve, nothing to seek, nothing more to experience. And that created the greatest irony of all, thereby proving Yogi’s statement: Their life was perfect, and so it wasn’t.

(Even circles and spheres aren’t perfect. They just give the illusion that they are.)

Perfectionism, and the constant seeking of it as what you must have also blinds you to what you’ve already achieved. Instead of realizing you’ve accomplished a lot, even achieved many very wonderful, amazing goals and dreams, you see only what you haven’t achieved. What you haven’t attained. The “mistakes” and “failures”. That you haven’t heard from X or Y persons how well you’ve done. (Waiting for external validation is the worst kind of way to acknowledge success.)

Using the goal of seeking perfection/excellence is fine, as long as you realize it’s not permanently attainable. As you grow and change, your idea of what’s perfect/excellent will change.

So be mindful of hanging on to old ideals of what defines perfection for you, and let go of what no longer fits. Be mindful of whose ideals you’re using to define perfection, too.  If we’re using ill-fitting ideals to define what perfection is, that’s another way we wind up miserable—in college majors and careers that don’t fit, for example.

The seeking of perfection and excellence can absolutely be something you hold. But hold it as an ideal. Something to strive for, with the understanding that, if you do reach it, remember it’s transitory.

What I encourage people to do, when it comes to goals such as perfectionism and excellence, is to think of them as umbrella goals. Goals that you hold above you to keep you always moving forward. Goals that move with you (you can’t walk towards, and therefore reach,  an umbrella you’re holding above you.)

You can always achieve improvement. And because it is, always seeking that means you won’t burn out.

Questions or comments?  Email me at heather (at) smallchangelife (dot) org, or drop by my Facebook page.  Twitter is @SmChangeLife.  Contact me with any questions or comments, and always feel free to leave a message below, too. perfectionism perfectionism perfectionism perfectionism perfectionism perfectionism perfectionism


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