Average people make mistakes, don't always meet goals, are sometimes inconsistent, and often fail. Perfectionists find these qualities intolerable, both in themselves and others. Despite this, perfectionism isn't all bad. It's been written that perfectionists "derive a very real sense of pleasure from the labours of a painstaking effort". Yet even this has a downside. Perfectionists may "be unable to feel satisfaction because in their own eyes they never seem to do things well enough to warrant that feeling."(1)
This quest for perfection may seem conducive to performance. Not so. The perfectionist's attention to detail works against them, slowing down productivity through a fixation on trivial details. As you can imagine, this is anything but relaxing. In fact, American clinical psychologist Monica A Frank says that, "The vast majority of my clients with anxiety disorders are perfectionists." (2)
Perfectionism also sets you up for physical illness through the stress of self imposed expectations. These unrealistic demands extend to others. When they fail to meet them, the perfectionist becomes resentful. This resentment is stubborn, fuelled by a vision of absolutes: black and white and right and wrong. The antidote to this tortured existence is a realistic notion of us, others and the world. To achieve this, we need to practise forgiveness.
Seeking the creative average
Where did our notions of right and wrong begin? One popular theory is that they were birthed with childhood acceptance of authoritarian rules. Unfortunately, perfectionists never grow out of this unquestioning acceptance of rules and moral concepts. While this good or bad, right or wrong thinking can simplify life, it's also limiting. And maintaining a rigid, resisting barrier to new views, ideas and information is exhausting. To contradict this we can be creative. The creative spirit works in direct opposition to perfectionism. Creative evolution encourages forgiving our mistakes, and ultimately the hands that made them. Learning any creative form teaches us that there is no perfection in art.
It is always a process ripe with messes, complexity and disorder - just like life. Yet this is forgivable. Learning to accept and work with these qualities helps creativity flourish. Creativity also awakens us to previously unseen possibilities. Tolerating disorder and mentally reframing it as possibility is one of the gifts of this attitude, an attitude that can only come when we drop perfectionism.
The process of growth necessitates mistakes. As Dr Frank observes, "Making mistakes gives us the opportunity to learn and to grow. As you overcome your fear of making mistakes, you will be able to take risks. The ability to take risks is what allows a person to be successful in a career and in personal relationships." Unfortunately, when a perfectionist is willing to make mistakes, and this leads to temporary failure, they sink into perfectionism-quicksand. We know it as guilt.
Shame on guilt
Guilt can be wonderful - the behaviour that triggers guilt is often a signal of something awry in our life. Recognising that inappropriate anger at someone is caused by feeling overwhelmed can motivate us to practise stress reduction, or otherwise take measures to lessen stress. Here, the guilt is a conduit to a more balanced life.
But it isn't always this benign. Toxic guilt occurs when feelings of guilt aren't appropriate or rational, such as dwelling for days over forgetting someone's birthday, someone's name, or someone's favourite colour. This fanatical guilt proves a lapse in reason rather than past behaviour.
The key to growing through guilt is forgiving others for their expectations of us, and forgiving ourselves for our own. We also have to be willing to tolerate discomfort. Whenever we break an unnecessary rule, we will encounter these familiar pangs. Feel them, let them wash over you. Then let it stop. Don't float down the toxic river where they want to take you. Distance yourself emotionally by reminding yourself that these guilty feelings are a familiar reaction to past conditioning, nothing more.
Forgiving and loving everyone
Another very ugly way perfectionism manifests is in eating disorders and body image problems. Although the best antidote for this is to fully accept our body and eating habits, at the least, we can forgive ourselves when we fail our idealistic goals. Sugar abstinence is admirable, but when we're overcome by a scrumptious piece of cake, it's good to remind ourselves that we're only human. Likewise, if we can't manage to find satisfaction in being a large person, we can look on our bodies kindly as we strive to whittle down to our dream size, remembering that dreams don't always come true. And that's okay. We don't have to find fault with what we have. This is what forgiveness is - a release from fault and blame. And even though we may see our bodies as imperfect, we can choose to see the perfection in this imperfection - in the process of ageing, the expansion of our belly and the softening of our physical form. This is average. This is good.
As we release blame at our body, we may be tempted to blame others for their expectations of how we should look. This is where the patience aspect of forgiveness needs nurturing. We must recognise that others, like us, have been conditioned by advertising. This starts in childhood. A variety of sources support this, such as South Australia's Finders University. (3) Two of their studies revealed that television advertising featuring idealised thinness had adverse affects on the mood and body image of teenage girls, particularly those aged 13 to 15. This isn't surprising. Female fashion models are, on average, 23 per cent less than the average weight for their height. Medically, this is defined as anorexic. Obviously, this is unattainable for most and, for all, undesirable. After all, these unhealthy ideals do not meet our standard of the healthy average.
Thankfully, this deluded image of woman is changing. Recently, the Federal Government launched the Victorian Voluntary Media Code of Conduct on Body Image. This code endorses representing diverse body shapes, and takes a stance against the glamorisation of underweight models. Still, once our body esteem has been eroded, it can take a lot of self esteem strength training to build up. Obviously, the presentation of false images is, and has been, wrong. Forgiving the media involved can be a lengthy process, but it is eased by recognising that everyone has their own agenda, and harm is rarely intentional.
From self hate to self love
Body acceptance is a crucial step towards self love. It enables us to see that we are average, and that our average is loveable and worthy. Developing this awareness and integrating it into our lives is vital before we can fully forgive others for their flaws. This starts with stopping self criticism. A self critical attitude is hostility turned inward, and this is no healthier or acceptable than hostility turned outward.
Transforming self hate into self love requires a reversal of the traits connected with self hatred. Where self hate requires criticism, self love involves compliments. Where self hate terrorises us, self loving thoughts reassure us. Where self hate is cruel towards self, self love is compassionate. Through this, we become grateful.
Gratitude is often overlooked as an aspect of self love, and isn't encouraged by Western society. Since advertisements for high fashion and high living are, by their own definition, above average, it means it's unreasonable to expect ourselves to possess them. Yet the people who splatter these ads on our television aren't concerned about that. Their agenda is to make us feel we're lacking if we don't have what they're selling.
In contrast, to feel gratitude we need to look at what we already have and bless it for its existence, praising ourselves for having the wherewithal to acquire it and keep it in its condition. Probably, our possessions are average by someone else's measure. This doesn't matter. We define their value by the attention and care we give them. Today, celebrate the glorious "averageness" of your possessions and appreciate them for all that they have given you.
Then extend this attitude inward. Though our talents and qualities may be basically average, we have much to appreciate about ourselves. Objectively, we are all as valuable and have much to offer ourselves and others. The secret to increasing self love is appreciating every aspect of "average us", and forgiving ourselves for not being the self defined "better" individual we dream about. The side effect of this self love is that we will more fully and freely love others, and eventually life itself.
A Buddhist view
To everyone, but to perfectionists especially, the impossibility of having the world and ourselves as we want causes distress. This periodic distress is inevitable in even the happiest and most desirable of lives. Accepting this suffering with a neutral mind and heart is crucial. The practice of Buddhism is very helpful in this regard. In fact, one of Buddhism's Four Noble Truths is that all human experience is suffering. The Buddha believed that accepting this suffering was necessary, "because it is beneficial, it belongs to the fundamentals of the holy life, it leads to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation of suffering, to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nirvana". (4)
Accepting suffering doesn't mean we stop trying to ease or eradicate it: I accept my phone bill, that doesn't mean I don't make efforts to pay it. It just means that I am neutral about its reality. Yes, bills can be aggravating. Even without them, aggravation and suffering loom over each new day. Thankfully, so does joy. This is the reality of existence. Being at peace with this, we are at peace with life.
Forgiving and loving life itself
In accepting the inevitability of pain, we can forgive ourselves and others when we or they contribute to it. When we take this into consideration, it helps develop a complete and healthy relationship. We expect that along with the joy any relationship creates, at times we may endure suffering. We don't see it as perfect, but it is. It's perfect because suffering is ordinary, and many enduring relationships bear quite a lot of suffering - broken promises, forgotten birthdays, insensitive remarks. People aren't perfect. Yet to be happy, we must love them. When we love their whole being, their warts become freckles, and ours do, too. Then finally, when we see that we can love ourselves and others for the truth of what we and they are, rather than an illusion, we can fully love life. We can develop our relationships without anger at others' flaws, or fear of exposing our own.
Celebrating our collective imperfections helps us realise an illuminated state. As songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen sings: "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in." (5) Loving all manifestations of the flawed creates this new spiritual awareness.
The flow of life itself is average, the average being what we can expect in broad terms. We expect to age, to have laughs and sorrow, to have variances in our financial state, and to have romance and rejection. And then there are taxes. In short, life isn't all good, no matter how much effort we put into avoiding the flipside of every coin toss that lands in our favour. This is where we need to be patient and forgiving, not just with others and ourselves, but with the nature of life itself. Accepting that every up we ride on the wheel of fortune will be followed by a down is as simple as acknowledging gravity. Yet, too often, we curse the wheel for doing what it can't help but do. This steers us into self pity and a hatred of life's realities. This "poor me", "curse it all" attitude makes every situation we don't want worse. A better alternative is to accept and patiently ride it out, making positive change when we can.
Life, and other people, is beyond our control. Striving to control life so it fits with our idealised version of how it should be is a formula for disappointment, frustration and anxiety. In contrast, accepting life as it is opens us to new possibilities. Embracing life in all its average perfection involves loving ourselves, which in turn allows us to love others. Ultimately, we will cherish and appreciate the flaws that make life interesting. Flaws are ordinary. But in the acceptance of these flaws we make life extraordinary.
Galina Pembroke is an internationally published writer specialising in health and spirituality. She lives in the ordinary, but extraordinary, Canadian province of British Columbia.
1. Parker, W. D. & Adkins, K. K. (1994), "Perfectionism and the gifted", Roeper Review 17(3): 173-176 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Perfectionism_(psychology)
2. Frank, Monica A. Ph.D. Making mistakes to enhance self-esteem and improve performance. Behavioral Consultants.com. 2008.
3. Hargreaves, D (2002) Adolescent body image suffers from media images of the impossibly thin'. Flinders University Journal, vol. 13(9) June 10-23.
4. Nanamoli (1995), pp. 533-36. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Noble_Truths
5. Cohen, Leonard. Anthem. The Future.