1. Any of various doctrines holding that religious, moral, social, or political perfection is attainable.
2. A personal standard, attitude, or philosophy that demands perfection and rejects anything less.
Noun, plural fu·til·i·ties for 2, 3.
1. The quality of being futile; ineffectiveness; uselessness.
2. A trifle or frivolity: the large collection of futilities that clutter our minds.
3. A futile act or event.
1. Incapable of producing any result; ineffective; useless; not successful: Attempting to force-feed the sick horse was futile.
2. Trifling; frivolous; unimportant.
I’m starting with these definitions for a very specific reason, because there things I see clients running into all the time (myself included…maybe more often than I’d like to admit!)
Please, for a moment, sit with those definitions. How do they make you feel? Do you feel inspired and raring to go? Or do you feel like a lead vest just got draped over you, as if you were having X-rays done at the dentist’s
I’m guessing it was the latter.
Last night, as I listened to an excellent podcast of Abel James (website: Fatburningman.com) interviewing Stefani Ruper, who has an excellent blog called Paleo for Women (www.paleoforwomen.com). The whole podcast is wonderful, but I wanted to touch on something they brought up that I felt is very key for people to recognize. Maybe even with great difficulty, as is with me at times. And that’s perfectionism.
(Note: Intermittent fasting, or “IF” as its known in the Paleo/Primal world is done in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons and may sound extreme and strange, but the meat of the entire conversation is well worth the hour-long listen.)
When it comes to goal obstacles, perfectionism is a big one, and is something I hear clients saying they have to have and be with as much certainty as they do oxygen. In reality, the answer is no, you don’t. Because you will never, ever be perfect. You are flawed — because you’re human. You have faults and bad habits and you make mistakes…sometimes big ones.
I’m not saying you’re broken. I’m saying you’re human. Did you know there’s actually no such thing as a perfect circle? Circles are actually all ovoids, if only by little shavings of fractions. They don’t even exist in nature, and nature is the best balancing act out there. So if Mother Nature can’t even achieve perfectionism, how can you?
Rug makers in what is romantically known as the Far East purposely create flaws in the design because having perfection is considered bad luck. Think about that for a moment…perfectionism is bad luck. If you’re someone who has a habit of striving for perfectionism, have you ever felt like you’ve achieved it and like you’re filled with luck? If you’re anything like me, or any of my clients, the answer is no. Some people — like Abel James and Stefani Ruper — can laugh at themselves for having that. I can too (well…usually. Ahem.) And they also know it’s one of their Achilles Heels.
Many of my clients struggle with this idea of having and needing perfectionism (I think we all do to some extent, given we’re all inundated with insanely stupid ideas of “perfect”) to the point where it’s a physical ache in them, leaving them feeling run down and ill most of the time…and a common theme I hear, in one form or another, is that they’re unlucky in life. Nothing ever goes their way. Nothing ever works out — or ever will.
The reasons for wanting perfectionism vary, and much of the time it’s something that’s always been with them, sometimes even so far back the client remembers having to arrange their building blocks with like colors and shapes when they were just a toddler. (That makes my brain and heart hurt, as I’ll be speaking to an adult). It can even spread into a more extreme version in OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).
I may have a love affair with my label maker when it comes to organizing, but I’m by no means a neatnick. I’m tidy (usually), but I also know my signs when I’m getting overly so. And that’s when I stop and relax. Because then I’m creating a ripe breeding ground for anxiety and its bookend mate depression.
The strive for perfectionism is deeply-rooted in many people (and me too, and it can be just as siren-loud as it can be for others), and it’s one of the biggest self-created obstacles to achieving goals out there. For one thing, it never lets you enjoy what you have created, how far you’ve come and what you’ve achieved. I remember speaking to a woman who had pulled herself up by the bootstraps, basically raising herself deep in the projects in New York. She worked hard in school, got a scholarship to an Ivy League college, and ended up working in Phoenix and Los Angeles in an amazing job.
But she still thought of herself as unlovable, unsuccessful and she even admitted to still feeling like she had never gotten out of the projects. She confessed that many mornings she woke up feeling like, “I’m still there.” When I asked her why, she related a litany of things she felt she needed to achieve to feel like she had accomplished something and had gotten out of that life. Not once did she even acknowledge the huge feat of success she had. The things she blurted out were so high up they were swirling in the stratosphere.
The bitterness, the desperateness in her voice was so deep and far-flung into her very being, she was blind to the fact she sat in a gorgeous home (her description). I asked her if it was really true that she was still the little girl living in the projects. She called herself weak and said she had no confidence and had no esteem or power. She said all she had was fear.
“If that were really true,” I said. “Then you would still be back in the projects, right? Not sitting in this home you just bought because of your kick-ass job and all your fabulous work at college and in your career, right? You’d still be back in those blocks with the women who are still there and never got out like they said they wanted.”
She paused — for a very long time — and said, “Yes…that’s true. I never thought about it that way.” She realized she had been, for a very long time, living the life she had dreamed of as a little girl in gang territory, witness to shootings and all that goes along with the neighborhood she was in. She was so startled in that moment to realize she wasn’t that little girl anymore and was, indeed, a strong, powerful, successful, amazing woman she burst into tears. And then, after a long moment, she took a breath.
“How do you feel?” I asked.
“Oh,” she said, “shaky — but glorious.”
Glorious. I love that.
And with that, she started to laugh.
The strive for perfectionism is an act of futility. In Star Trek: The Next Generation, there are The Borg. A race of aliens that’s a conglomeration of dozens and dozens of other races throughout the galaxy, living as half-people, half-cyborgs. At some point, they were their own living, breathing race. One that was flawed. But in their strive for perfection, they began to not only devour their version of humanity, but other races as well, wreaking terrifying havoc on the other races.
In a way, that’s what our own personal strive for perfectionism can do. We can end up devouring our own selves, even relationships and the life we want to lead. Yes, there are varying levels of perfectionism and extremes…but if we’re miserable or at least just unhappy, we’re creating our own case of bad luck and futility.
There’s a difference between perfection and an ideal.
1. A conception of something in its perfection.
2. A standard of perfection or excellence.
3. A person or thing conceived as embodying such a conception or conforming to such a standard, and taken as a model for imitation: Thomas Jefferson was his ideal.
4. An ultimate object or aim of endeavor, especially one of high or noble character: He refuses to compromise any of his ideals.
5. Something that exists only in the imagination: To achieve the ideal is almost hopeless.
Notice the very first definition. A conception of something in its perfection. An idea, one letter off from ideal.
Now notice definition numbers 2, 3 and 4, and notice how they make you feel in comparison to the first definitions I had you sit with. Do you feel a lightness? Room to breathe, exist, and be? Which one would you rather carry in your pocket?
Now look at definition number 5. Something that exists only in the imagination: To achieve the ideal is almost hopeless.
Look up “hopeless” in a thesaurus. The first word in its definition is futile. Perfectionism, what you view as “perfect” exists only in your imagination. As in fairy tales and unicorns. Metaphors. Yes, there are things we can create that first start in our imagination. We imagine what we want for dinner and we take the steps to create it. The woman above imagined her ideal life and created it. But she got stuck in a rut of trying to create the perfect life, she missed the fact she had an awesome one.
I always encourage my clients to let go of striving for perfectionism and strive for an ideal. Ideals leave room for wiggling and enjoyment and refining and improvement. Perfection ends up causing us to tap into our inner Borg. It creates suffering. Reaching for an ideal keeps you grounded and able to add some spit and polish, and perhaps upgrade to something better. It leaves you feeling lucky. And glorious.
If you look at the Zen circle in the image above, it’s imperfect. It’s incomplete. And that’s what’s so beautiful about it, because it represents an ideal for which we can strive — but room for us to step out and find beauty in our imperfection.
The podcast (Abel’s other podcasts are available in iTunes) made me realize a lot of things about myself — that I’m not as comfortable with my body as I thought I was, for one (I’ve come a long, long way from the person I was on my 30th birthday — nearly 200lbs, out of work, watching Miami Vice reruns and feeling lost…then suddenly thinking, THIS…HAS GOT…TO CHANGE).