The Myths of Perfection
Did you know, one of the core traits of humanity is that we are not perfect. It’s true, human beings cannot be perfect, it is not possible. Yet this seems to be a little known fact as so many of us strive for perfectionism in so many areas of our lives. We try to reach unattainable levels of beauty. We try to reach the pinnacle of success. We work so hard to never make a mistake. We compare ourselves to where others are and criticize ourselves if we fall short. At times, no matter how well we do, we view it as a failure if we do not do it perfectly. Have you or someone that you have known ever been upset at getting a 98 on a test? That is what I am talking about, feeling like a failure for not getting those last 2 points rather than celebrating the 98 points that you did get.
We, as a society, are torturing ourselves to try to reach an imaginary, unattainable, changeable place. There is no perfect weight, no one version of beautiful, no one way to live life. These things change in what is perceived as the right way, but there are a lot of different ways to live life. There are a lot of different versions of success. There are a lot of different ways to be beautiful. There may be as many different ways as there are people in this world.
So, what happens as we struggle and strive to reach versions of perfection? We become anxious, stressed, and feel worthless. Then when we fall short of the perfection that we are striving for, as we inevitably will, we feel depressed, like we are not good enough, and like we have failed. Imagine reaching for something again and again but no matter what you do it moves out of your reach, and no matter how creative, determined, or skilled you become it still gets pulled away from you. Then imagine that instead of celebrating and appreciating all your hard work and efforts, you feel defeated every time you fail. That is what we are doing to ourselves by believing that we can reach perfection.
Don’t get me wrong, it is wonderful to have goals and work towards improvement. This drive for perfection is sometimes viewed to motivate us to do better and move forward as individuals and as a species. However, it is demotivating in the long run and can be damaging to us on a physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual level. People destroy their bodies trying to reach a perceived level of perfect beauty. We berate ourselves and criticize ourselves if we have failed to reach whatever we view as perfection, damaging our self-esteem. Sometimes we even punish ourselves when we fall short, which we are inevitably going to do. Thinking errors and distortions are developed to try to convince us to keep working towards this impossible goal. We become disconnected from others, competing with them to come out on top or feeling inferior to those we believe are closer to attaining the unattainable. Sometimes, we stop even trying at anything in life to avoid the feeling of failure.
Aside from the fact that we cannot reach perfection because life is always evolving and changing, moving the level of what “perfect” is, everyone’s idea or assessment of perfection is different and as a society that idea changes sometimes daily or hourly. It is like how we used to motivate horses to keep walking by dangling a carrot in front of them. We are dangling a carrot in front of ourselves of what perfection is that keeps moving and changing, it is not reachable, not attainable, and we are going crazy trying to reach it. We are missing out in joy in life, missing experiences, missing out on the process and journey with our eyes fixed only on the destination.
There are better ways to motivate ourselves to reach our goals and improve ourselves. First, accept that you will never be perfect and that no one else will either. It is ok to work towards your view of perfection so long as you accept that it is an idea not a destination and that it is going to grow and change as you grow and change. Second, realize that there are a lot of different versions of perfect and a lot of different ways to live life. Throughout human history the idea of what life is about or the “right” way to live life has changed many times. It will continue to change, but it may be better to figure out your own version of success, perfection, and the “right” way to live life for you. We are all different, so different things are “right” for different people.
Once you have accepted these new ideas and are no longer trying to force yourself into someone else’s version of perfect, then you can work on changing how you motivate yourself to work towards your goals. Positive reinforcement is a more effective form of motivation then putting yourself down and berating yourself for not meeting standards, especially when the standards are unrealistic. Positive reinforcement is a way of reinforcing behavior by giving something desirable. Some examples of positive reinforcement are praise, celebrating, rewards, and acknowledgement.
It is a lot more likely that you will keep working towards your goals if you take notice of your efforts and give yourself praise and recognition for them. Imagine for a moment what it would feel like to tell yourself that you did a good job, or to sit in appreciation of your efforts. That would feel good, wouldn’t it? Don’t worry about praise and recognition leading to complacency, you will want to feel that good again and you will keep doing more and working towards your goals in order to feel that fantastic feeling of being proud of yourself, feeling accomplished, and successful. Never underestimate how fantastic it can feel to tell yourself that you did a good job or to acknowledge that you worked hard at something.
You can even get others involved by giving them praise and recognition too. This is something that can spread and grow. Praising others takes nothing away from your own efforts or goals. Sometimes people worry that if they acknowledge their success and efforts, if they are proud of themselves that this will make them conceited and egotistical, that others will see them as stuck up and better than others. The way around this is to be generous with praise and to share it with others. Everyone does something well, sometimes just trying is praiseworthy even if it does not turn out to well. Even the person who finished last finished, and they can be praised for their effort.
So, you might ask, what do we do when we really fall short of where we want to be? In this case it is more motivating to develop a plan for improvement and temporarily adjust our goal so that it is more attainable. Then, as we improve, we can adjust the goal accordingly. When someone is first learning math, we don’t give them calculus problems, we start with basic arithmetic. If they struggle, we find ways to break it down. This is the way to approach other goals in life too. Break them down into more manageable steps and develop a plan for reaching each step. That way you can celebrate each step along the way and stay motivated to keep working towards your goal.