U.S.A. There is a popular, seductive myth that used to flourish deep within my subconscious to my own detriment. I believed it because it promised me that I could be greater than my own humanity; that I could eradicate the flaws that are inherent to being human. It promised that I would be special, not just one among billions, but someone who mattered. The belief, the false promise, was that I could be perfect. I could be perfect if only I worked hard enough. That I had the power to achieve perfection. Perfection seemed like an appropriate goal. I found it reinforced in school, at jobs, and through religion. That saying, “practice makes perfect”—it’s a lie. Perfection is a like an asymptote; no matter how close you get or how hard you try to reach it, you will never make it. You can spend your whole life striving for this elusive, unattainable goal, but you will always come up short and, in the mean time, you will miss out on life.
Perfectionism left me empty, disappointed, and feeling inadequate. By believing the myth that I had the power to perfect myself, I set myself up for failure every time. Nothing I did could ever be good enough. I could never be good enough. I could never be enough. I thought in absolutes. I was trying to live in black and white, but this world we have is gray. The root of perfectionism is the belief that we are totally in control of our lives and have the power to achieve any goal. At first, this sounds empowering, but it simply isn’t true. Our world and our nature are at odds with perfectionism, and trying to live according to a false core belief is futile. I believe that the lure of perfectionism lies in its denial of our flawed human nature, of our mortality even. There is beauty in our inherently flawed nature, though. I believe that our flaws allow us to connect with other humans, and I believe that humans are meant to live in connection with others, not in isolation. When I use the word isolation, I am not talking about a physical separation from other people but rather a spiritual void. This is why it is possible, common even, to feel more alone in a crowd than when physically apart from other humans. One of the most painful places for me to be is alone in my own head, to feel that someone does not really see or understand me—that is, the core of my spiritual being.
To feel separate, isolated, alienated terrifies me. I used to believe that if I were perfect I would connect with others better because I would allow them to see me; however, I cannot connect to people if I show them an idealized, censored version of myself because that is not who I am. I now have the grace to embrace the imperfect parts of me because the truth is that they are neither good nor bad and they are important parts of who I am. I can fail without being a failure. My mistakes do not define me as a person. I simply am, regardless of what I do. My worth and my identity are intrinsic. I can grow as a person, but nothing can increase or decrease my innate value. This revolution in my thinking is incredibly freeing. I no longer wait to live until I am perfect. I recognize what is out of my control and I let go. I am surrendering my delusions of total capability. Perfectionism distracted me from truly living. I tried to define myself based on impossible, self-defeating standards. Rewiring my brain and changing how I define myself continues to be a struggle. Still, it’s worth it, so I keep fighting for it. I used to think recovering from perfectionism was impossible, but I tried anyway, and now I am beginning to see changes. Letting go of my illusions makes me more effective, more present, and more connected. Recognizing my short-comings without judging allows me to learn from my failures while maintaining my self-worth and identity. I have decided to make peace with myself as I am rather than as I wish I were.
It’s like walking down a long path. As much as you wish you were farther along, you can only get there by walking from where you are in the moment. You can look ahead, but if you focus too much on the end or on making the journey perfect, you cannot fully experience where you are now. Wishing the present were different won’t make it so. Where you are is exactly where you need to be. Acceptance—of who and where you are—is key. Stop fighting and disparaging yourself. Stop punishing yourself for not being farther along. Stop comparing yourself to others. They are not the standard by which to measure yourself. Observe and accept where you are without trying to change it. It is natural and healthy to be still sometimes.
Even when where you are is uncomfortable, sit in it. It’s the running away that hurts so much. Imagine reaching an obstruction on your path. If you try to avoid it, you will not get where you want to go. The more you try to backtrack and find an alternate route, the farther you stray from your path and the more lost and tired you become. Eventually, the effort you exert trying to evade the obstacle is greater than the effort it takes to confront the obstacle. Ultimately, you end up back in front of the obstruction every time. To move forward, you must confront the obstruction with honesty and knowledge of your true abilities and inabilities. Otherwise, you will experience the frustration of a carpenter trying to complete a project without the necessary tools. He has set himself up for failure by refusing to acknowledge and accept his limitations. That does not mean he will never have those tools, but he does not have them in this moment. By wishing for the tools he lacks, he misses out on using the tools he does have to do what he can realistically achieve.
My message is this—fight the myth of perfectionism. It’s a slow, confusing process, but fight anyway. Perfect has no place in this world. Perfect means never enough. Measuring yourself against perfection will inevitably disappoint and drag you down. It will cause feelings of self-doubt, failure, shame, and inadequacy. It will not actually lead to the ever-elusive perfection. Chasing perfection is like Ahab chasing his whale. The whale will control you and you will miss your life by chasing an ideal. Illusions of having the power to achieve perfection and control your life will prevent you from experiencing the wonderfully imperfect reality of now. Perfectionism leads to dissatisfaction. Don’t wait to live until you are a perfect version of yourself because you will spend your whole life waiting. Honor your limitations. They are beautiful and necessary. They are not weaknesses but rather nuances. Look at yourself honestly and free of judgment. Learn to honor your limits by setting realistic, achievable goals. Do not compare yourself to anyone else because you do not start from the same point.
Success is not linear or definable by a universal standard. I know that I do not see others’ flaws as I see my own. I see the glossy, magazine version of others’ lives. The myth of perfectionism shows the successes of others more than their failures, thus reinforcing the idea that I am not enough. I do not see the parts of them that they hide out of shame, which prevents me from really connecting to them and seeing them. I have found that hiding my flaws makes them seem worse in my head than they are in reality. Hiding parts of my identity is a form of dishonesty about who I really am. If I do not show others who I really am, how can I hope to connect with them? We are made to be as we are, not to achieve or to live up to expectations.
Our flaws do not define us. Our mistakes do not ruin us. We are who we are and not what we do. You are enough. You are imperfect. You cannot control life. And yet you are still enough. Overcoming the pressure to be perfect will be difficult. You will have to retrain your brain to reject unrealistic expectations. The pressure from outside becomes internalized and must be fought on two battlefields, one internal and the other external. Trust that it is worth the struggle to live by your own rules and not someone else’s standards. Your standards are just as valid. The truth is that we can’t have it all. Not every dream is achievable. Perfection is not attainable. And that is okay.