The Enemy of Perfection
There is a famous perceptual illusion in which the brain switches between seeing a young girl and an old woman. An anonymous German postcard from 1888 depicts the image in its earliest known form (io9.gizmodo.com/the-worlds-most-famous-and-ambiguous-illusion-1646895274). A single drawing can contain more than one ‘image’ within it, depending on how you look at it. The same is true of the title of this post. How do you see perfection?
According to Webster’s, the definition of perfection is:
1 : the quality or state of being perfect: such as : freedom from fault or defect : flawlessness : maturity : the quality or state of being saintly
2 : an exemplification of supreme excellence : an unsurpassable degree of accuracy or excellence
3 : the act or process of perfecting
Perfection by definition is a great thing. But people can spend a lot of time and effort trying to attain it without ever being satisfied with the daily progress they make in their lives. As Dr. Phil often says, “How’s that working for you?” Probably not too well. I prefer Francesca Battistelli’s perspective on perfection in her song “Free To Be Me”:
‘Cause I got a couple dents in my fender
Got a couple rips in my jeans
Try to fit the pieces together
But perfection is my enemy
And on my own I’m so clumsy
But on Your shoulders I can see
I’m free to be me
So how do you see perfection, as a friend or a foe? Trying to attain perfection can wear you down. It’s like by running on a spinning wheel that has no satisfying end. I came across an excellent article related to perfectionism and the positive shame cycle: (www.nextstagerecovery.com/2015/11/17/perfectionism-and-shame-two-sides-of-one-coin/). The article contrasts misplaced perfectionism with healthy striving to make improvements.
- Setting standards beyond reach and reason
- Never being satisfied by anything less than perfection
- Becoming depressed when faced with failure or disappointment
- Being preoccupied with fears of failure and disapproval
- Seeing mistakes as evidence of unworthiness
- Becoming overly defensive when criticized
- Setting standards that are high but within reach
- Enjoying process as well as outcome
- Bouncing back quickly from failure or disappointment
- Keeping normal anxiety and fear of failure within bounds
- Seeing mistakes as opportunities for growth and learning
- Reacting positively to helpful criticism
These are three areas in my life where I have learned to curb perfectionism:
I need to be comfortable with the fact that I am going to offend some people. The only way to avoid offending people is to withdraw from people altogether. I don’t purposely try to offend people; it just comes naturally to me. I know that before the day is through I am probably going to offend someone. I hope that it is not you. The closer you come to me, you are going to see my dents, and the closer I come to you, I am probably going to knock a dent in you. This is particularly true of close family members. A good practice is to be quick to apologize when you recognize that you are wrong. Hopefully, you will learn something through this process.
Another area I deal with is being comfortable with limited knowledge. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team for the topics of 1960’s Rock Music, and the Bible. In other matters, my knowledge level is not as comprehensive. Even in my areas of expertise, I still have a lot to learn. I recently completed a kinesiology class. Entering the class, my goal was to ace every quiz and project. A lot of this information was new to me, so by week two, I had already fallen from grace. I am getting more comfortable recognizing that I don’t know everything about everything. Learning is a lifelong task, so enjoy the process. Guys, this includes being willing to ask for driving directions.
I have observed another perfectionist tendency in me that I am calling “savior syndrome.” This is when I try too hard to heal the hurts or fix the broken situations in others. It is good to be caring, but pushing it too far is both harmful and unfruitful for me and for the person I am trying to help. We are complex human beings, and we don’t always understand what motivates us. However, we can only bring healing to others if we are operating out of a place of health within ourselves.
To sum it up: Not everyone is going to like me; I don’t know everything, and I can’t fix every problem – and that’s OK.
A good rule to follow then is to strive for excellence, not perfection. The Greek word for “perfect” is “teleios.” It has the same prefix as telescope or telephone, meaning: “far off, at a distance”. It refers to an end goal, result, consummation, or completing a cycle. Perhaps the richness of the Greek language gives us a better long-term perspective of what the process of perfection is.