Fixation on having perfect looks, eating perfectly right, performing exactly as expected, or devoting oneself completely and always to others, is a recipe for ongoing suffering. Because people do make mistakes, guilt and other negative emotions like disappointment and embarrassment are to be fully expected. Still, the guilt of not meeting the expectations of our parents, our teachers, or ourselves can feel unbearable, so we wish to be perfect and sometimes get caught up in the trap of trying to be perfect.
Perfection is an unrealistic standard impossible to meet 100% of the time. Even Olympic Gold Medal Winners aren’t perfect. They have only reached beyond the highest standard at the time, which is how the records of the past are broken. As it is a false hope for every Olympic contender to earn a gold medal, false hope points directly to the failure of the wisher to realize the athlete can only perform as well as possible with resources available.
Even the most attractive models are only exceeding some culturally imposed standard of beauty. “Fat” in North America is seen to be the most attractive and fertile in some African tribes; who see skinny as ugly and less likely to bear children. There is a biological basis for this. The thinner women of child-bearing age get, the less likely their menstrual cycle will result in the release of fertile eggs.
Indeed, people with anorexia eat so little that they have unhealthy weight loss. The mind is a powerful thing and can be convinced of utter fantasies. People with anorexia may think they are overweight or fat even when they are severely underweight. If a woman with anorexia manages to get pregnant, there is an increased risk of miscarriage, premature birth, and depression after the baby is born.
I’ve always wanted to be perfect, but the best I could ever do is be perfectly imperfect. I have been imperfect from the beginning, because I am the direct product of two cells from two people who are imperfect. When a healthy baby is born, it twists and cries out with need for food and affection. Even though we were all unable to look after ourselves at birth, utterly vulnerable to the whims of others, if we are lucky, we are praised with coos and awe. We are swaddled when we have toileted in our clothes, we are fed when we are hungry. We are demanding with our cries.
Eventually, as our devoted caregivers grow tired and withdraw to look after themselves, our vulnerability escalates. Our cries became frustrating noises for caregivers who simply can’t give enough. Is it perfect for a baby to cry? Is it perfect to feed or change the baby or to simply cuddle and sooth the baby? Is it perfect to imagine that the baby will stop crying if we can meet all the baby’s needs? Inevitably, the wish to remain forever fed, eternally nurtured, and endlessly satisfied is falsified.
In a way, we never stop being babies, for whenever we need something, we find a way of crying out for it. We might make a phone-call, send a text or email, or set up a website or a facebook page – all efforts to let others know we have unfulfilled needs. Why can’t all our needs be fulfilled? At least as long as we are alive, so long as we expect more of ourselves, or so long as we buy into perfectionist messages, unfulfilled needs are present. In each moment, we are in some way frustrated, disappointed in ourselves – flunking an exam; letting our friends down by not showing up, not saying the “right” things, or not dressing the “right” way; letting the team down by not pitching enough strikes in a baseball game; letting our parents down by choosing a different career than the one they had taught us to become. Expecting to always make our parents, coach, friends, teammates, or teachers proud, we embarrass ourselves.
By burdening ourselves with the stress, pressure, and tension of expectations, we risk missing out on being fully alive in the moment: here and now. By fixating ourselves on images promoted in commercial media such as a famous person who looks and sounds credible, believing what they say as if they were real, we get hooked by the false hope of becoming – in some way – exactly like someone we don’t even know. This is the delusion that we can become something other than what we are.
The question is whether we make ourselves healthier when we idolize others. When we hyper-value an image promoted by others and buy that as a standard for our own lives, how healthy is it for ourselves? Are we devaluing ourselves, downgrading our own ideals and standards to abide by someone else’s? Do we really believe we won’t be fed enough, liked enough, or nurtured enough if we live by our own standards? Are we good enough to know for ourselves what’s best for us? Can we nurture ourselves enough?
Some people believe imagining they can be perfect keeps them motivated. Instead, I think it keeps them disappointed. Because perfection represents the highest possible ideal, it can never be reached. It’s likening oneself to a god. Consequently, those who continually aim for perfection will feel perpetually frustrated, disappointed, and saddened to the point of depression. They will also feel anxious, worried that they’ll never be able to get what they want out of life. In this embodied life, we must aim a little lower towards something called “satisficing” – a motivating, good enough standard that still keeps us motivated, growing, and moving forward, without holding ourselves to an ultimately exhausting, unachievable standard of performance.
If perfection isn’t the standard, who sets the criteria for what’s healthy, good, or best for ourselves? Others would likely be pleased we chose to follow their way, because it gives them credit, at least for a good idea. Not only that, it gives them power over us – power to control us.
Now, I’m not saying we should only listen to ourselves. Nor am I proposing we should never ask for advice or never follow what others say. But if we always or almost always follow others, hardly ever following our sense of what our own needs are, we disempower and punish ourselves, disabling ourselves from surpassing our babyhoods. By doing so, we ultimately remain dependent on others, never really learning to nurture ourselves, never learning the capacity to discern whether what we’re being fed is nourishing or just plain BS. The interesting thing is that this disempowerment can be invisible. When we take for granted that standards imposed by others are the “correct” way to go, we might not notice that we aren’t reflecting on our options, on our capacity to decide on a path most nurturing for ourselves.
It is almost like our brains get wiped and rebooted with new downgraded programming which forgets the innocence, sheer vulnerability, and dependence of our babyhoods – which, whether we know it or not, we continue to carry within us throughout our lives. Yet, there is one thing we have the opportunity to learn as we slowly grow into adulthood. As babies, we have no choice but to trust what is being fed to us is good for us. As adults, we might learn that others may wish to manipulate us into believing certain behaviours are best for us. We might notice that they would call us down, telling us we’re “not okay”.
What is being fed to us by others isn’t necessarily good for us. Knowing this, we might decide to reject some ideas or products that others try to impose on us but just don’t serve our needs at the time. Deciding for ourselves how we need to be, we can see that simply being good enough can be perfect for us in each moment.
Some implications of following perfection most of the time:
- It’s exhausting. You run out of energy!
- Notice how often the standards you have bought into started with someone else or an unrealistic commercialized image.
- Question how healthy each standard you are trying to live up to is for you.
- Notice you are breathing.
Some implications of following others most of the time:
- Notice when you sacrifice your own point of view to the will of others (i.e., the proverbial “doormat”).
- Notice the power you give them to control you.
- Watch for feelings like defensiveness, fear, anger, guilt, resentment, sadness, contentment, understanding, acceptance, kindness, or compassion.
- Notice you are breathing.
Some implications of following your own path:
- You are utterly unique. You and only you have your body, mind, and spirit.
- You are the only one who looks at the world through your eyes, ears, and consciousness.
- Only you have the experiences you do.
- Don’t get so busy that you miss out on noticing the gifts you have right now.
- Explore and be thankful for your gifts. If you don’t know what they are, reach out to someone who can help you find them.
- Watch how your feelings settle or fluctuate. Notice you are breathing.
- Others have valid perspectives on life, but they are not the bosses of you.
- Take some time to gather and consider other points of view.
- Empower yourself by deciding your direction for yourself.
Some concrete things you can do are:
- Practice independent choice-making: Gather the courage to do some things YOU decide.
- Learn mindfulness – Notice you are breathing.
- Practice self-reflection. There are several self-assessments and other tools you can use at www.dawsonpsychologicalservices.com/resources. When you make an appointment to see Dr. Dawson, you will receive a password to access these tools.
- Design the New YOU, more perfect than ever!