The Joy of Imperfection

It's summertime – is the living easy yet? Stress all gone? Not yet? Not surprising. As the Buddhists say (pardon my paraphrase): if you're born a human, then you've got stress – no exceptions. Luckily, many folks manage life's normal level of stressful ups and downs with some measure of acceptance.

There is a particular kind of stress, though, which many people experience, that can be subtle and which often goes unidentified: the stress of having to be Perfect. That's Perfect with a capital P.We can all be a bit perfectionistic at times, but "capital P" Perfectionists are more extreme. It's not just that they are unduly frustrated by flaws, weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and - heaven forbid - mistakes. It's that good isn't good enough, great isn't good enough, and even excellent isn't good enough. Nothing is good enough, and someone always has to be blamed for that.

Perfectionists have a rigid expectation of their own Perfection, and a tendency to devalue their own achievements, no matter how considerable. They alternate between being judgmental of others, and of themselves. For the Perfectionist, being "good enough" is a cop-out, a lazy person's excuse for not trying hard enough. The result of this attitude is not greater productivity: it's exhaustion. Like Sisyphus, they feel like they're always pushing a boulder up a hill – or they make the people around them feel that way.

Perfectionists can't stop judging, and it is always the same verdict: "Guilty of not being good enough." In my view, unless you're being paid to be a judge, or unless you're a criminal, then you should not be living in a courtroom, where someone is always being accused, put on trial, condemned, sentenced and punished. Contrary to the Perfectionist's beliefs, conscious or unconscious, imperfection is not a crime, and neither is it a sin.

For some who drink or drug too much, their substance abuse can be a way of shutting up the accusatory voice of their inner slave driver - the inner task master that never stops judging. Their drug of choice provides some relief, but only temporarily, of course, and at much too great a cost.

I once worked with a gifted and intelligent man, whose life seemed charmed to those who knew him socially, but who was grinding himself down with his relentless self-criticism. I asked him, even though I knew what his answer would be, "What if you won the Nobel Prize? Then would you be good enough?" We both agreed that, Nobel in hand, he'd still find a way to trash himself. I am pretty convinced that, in spite of our imperfections, we all have the right to feel that we are basically good enough – to live, to love and be loved. I hope he came to feel that way, too.

So it's summer. Time to bask in the joy of imperfection. If you're having a summer vacation this year, see if you can make it a break from the constant stress of Perfectionism. Appreciating and enjoying what is good enough, in one's self and in others, while knowing that nothing is ever Perfect, is actually a vacation from stress that you can take any time, any place.

© Daniel Shaw 2007


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