By Tal Ben Shahar,
Author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life
"The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men"
We are constantly bombarded with perfection. Adonis on the cover of Men's Health and Helen on the cover of Vogue; women and men getting together on the larger-than-life screen, resolving conflicts in two hours or less, delivering perfect lines, making perfect love. Parents and teachers exalt the flawless 'A'; college admission officers expect resumes without end. We've all heard our self-help Gurus tell us that there is no limit to our potential, that what we can believe we can achieve, that where there's a will there's a way. We've been told that we can find bliss if only we follow the road not taken, or the road taken by our serene spiritual leader -- the one with the best smile on the cover of the New York Times best seller.
The yearning for perfection has its roots in the Garden of Eden, having descended there from Heaven; it blossomed throughout Western Philosophy, first in the shape of Plato's forms, and then in the form of Weber's ideal types. "When Plato wrote that everything on earth has its ideal version in heaven," says Diane Ackerman, "many took what he said literally. But for me the importance of Plato's ideal forms lies not in their truth but in our desire for the flawless." The desire for the flawless condemns us to perpetual displeasure with who we are: "Even the most comely of us feel like eternally ugly ducklings who yearn to be transformed into swans."
Who among us has not, at times, allowed an awareness of our shortcomings to overshadow our triumphs and achievements? Is the flesh and blood behind the Adonic picture wholly satisfied with his relationships, or his investments, and does he not feel threatened by next month's cover boy? Is the non-digitally-enhanced Helen totally happy with her skin or SAT scores, and is she indifferent to the ticking of the clock and the omnipresent force of gravity?
The antidote to perfectionism is acceptance. When we do not accept our flaws, we focus on them constantly -- we magnify them and deny ourselves the silent satisfaction of serenity. Imagine spending a year in school -- reading and writing and learning -- without concern for the report card at the end of the ride. Or being in a relationship without the need to mask imperfections. Or getting up in the morning and embracing the man, or woman, in the mirror.
Acceptance, however, is not the panacea for perfectionism, and expecting it to work miracles will only lead to further unhappiness. In our search for serenity through acceptance, we inevitably experience much turmoil. Swayed by promises of heaven on earth, lured by sirens in the odyssey toward self acceptance, we look for perfect tranquility -- and when we do not find it, we feel frustrated, disillusioned. And it is, indeed, an illusion that we can be perfectly accepting and hence perfectly serene. For can anyone living sustain the eternal tranquility of a Mona Lisa?
There is no end point in the journey toward tranquility, no final destination where we have completely accepted ourselves. The place of eternal bliss and serenity, as far as I can tell, exists only in dreams and magazines -- not in the valley of green pastures nor on a mountain top above the clouds. So rather than following Sisyphus' footsteps, why not just drop the burden, let go of the myth of perfection? Why not be a little bit easier on ourselves and accept that to experience fear, jealousy, anger, and, at times, to be unaccepting of ourselves, is simply, and perfectly, human.
©2009 Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D, author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life
Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph.D., author of The Pursuit of Perfect: How to Stop Chasing Perfection and Start Living a Richer, Happier Life, is the New York Times bestselling author of Happier. He taught one of the most popular courses in Harvard's history, and he currently consults and lectures around the world to multinational organizations, the general public, and at-risk populations. He obtained his Ph.D. in organizations behavior and his B.A. in philosophy and psychology from Harvard.
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