Learn how to embrace your imperfections with the help of mindfulness and its practices. We’ll also discuss the mindset of a perfectionist and how perfectionism can impact the way we live.
The effects of perfectionism are everywhere. We observe perfectionism in the way we readily heap blame and criticism on ourselves, even for the most minor mistakes. Also, we see it in the ways we treat our bodies, condemning them for being too thin or too fat or too old.
We notice it in the way we make excessive demands of ourselves, expecting to be wildly successful in our careers or to be model friends or ideal parents. And, we must come to accept our imperfections—and our inner critic—to better understand the world and others.
(Also Read: Meditation Is Not an Escape from Reality)
Table of Contents
I. Checklist for Perfectionism
Most human beings are afflicted with at least a touch of perfectionism—or perhaps with more than just a touch. If any or all of the following descriptions apply to you, you may be a perfectionist.
- When you make a mistake, you find it hard to forget. You think about it over and over again—until you make another mistake to take its place or until you get praised for something.
- Any error—or perceived error—that you make is completely your fault. You think that if you had only been more attentive or thought things out more thoroughly, the misstep wouldn’t have occurred.
- You’re constantly comparing yourself with others, and you feel painfully vulnerable and defeated when you think you’ve come up short against someone else.
- You’re always telling yourself you must try harder. You believe that it can’t do something flawlessly, you shouldn’t do it at all.
- If you make a mistake in front of others, you think you’ll die of embarrassment.
- You’re extremely reluctant to ask for help, believing that to do so is to reveal your weakness as a person.
- You do everything you can to keep others from seeing this weaker side, and what’s worse is that you try to hide this side from yourself, making it extremely difficult to admit your mistakes.
II. Perfectionist Mindset
Perfectionism is the practice of trying to live up to impossible ideals and then feeling worthless when we don’t. It’s a textbook recipe for dukkha. Perfectionism is not the same as the mere desire to do well by striving to meet high standards.
Unlike the simple aspiration to excel at what one does, perfectionism involves an insidious attachment to an unrealistic view of the self. Perfectionists believe they can be perfect and must be perfect, and if they can’t, they consider themselves utter failures.
In response to that judgment, perfectionists may become extremely self-critical and attempt virtually anything to rid themselves of the negative feelings those thoughts precipitate.
One response might be self-punishment, which could be anything from constantly berating oneself to inflicting physical harm. Another might be to turn to intoxicating substances or overeating to silence those voices of derision. Still, another is to submit to a grueling regimen to make oneself the ideal person one thinks one must be.
This affliction is one of the major reasons we find it difficult to extend compassion to ourselves. Because we often hold ourselves to unrealistic standards, we sometimes find it hard to believe that we deserve compassion.
What lies beneath resistance to self-compassion is a completely egocentric belief that, even though perfection is out of reach for most mortals, you are different—you are not like the ordinary person. Some religious traditions attribute this overweening attitude to a desire to be like God.
III. Perfectionism and Spirituality
Over 1,600 years ago, Saint Augustine observed that the self-longed to experience the pleasure of having godlike powers and assuming God’s place at the center of the universe. Augustine suggested that this endeavor to be God was precisely what alienated us from the divine, other people, and ourselves; in other words, it was the very thing that caused us to suffer.
Aspiring to live up to the image of a wholly self-sufficient and perfect being that is beyond reproach can drive us to great misery. Like other forms of suffering, perfectionism stems from an unrealistic view of the self, and it is perhaps the principal obstruction to our practice of self-compassion.
Developing one’s spirituality can hold out the promise of relief for the perfectionist, but at the same time, it can add fuel to the flames when the path becomes another form of achievement.
Spiritual discipline can provide a means for sinners to receive punishment and a way for the saints to attain sanctity. Neither of these is the goal of the mindfulness path, but that doesn’t mean that people won’t seek mindfulness as a way to purge themselves of guilt or to reach sainthood.
To put it in more secular terms, some may seek mindfulness as a method of self-improvement. Mindfulness is for awareness—not expiation, sainthood, or self-improvement.
On a spiritual pathway, perfectionism can manifest as an obsession with doing everything right. When you learn that perfectionism may hinder your capacity to show compassion to yourself, then you’ll most likely eliminate perfectionism.
Trying to be perfect takes a massive amount of energy, and in the end, it’s a futile effort. Therefore, why not just accept the fact that perfection is completely unrealistic and yet you still want to be perfect? Be mindful of both your imperfection and your perfectionism. After all, perfectionism is part of your imperfection.
You probably see the flaws in human nature everywhere—in other people—and you probably already believe that imperfection is a human quality. The difficulty is in accepting that you are human-like to everyone else. For some reason, you think you’re exceptional.
In a scriptural story, Siddhartha Gautama—the man who became the Buddha—is depicted as a king’s son who is naïve about the fact that sickness, old age, and death apply to him, too. Eventually, he accepts his participation in the human experience.
We, perfectionists, need to come to the same awareness. There are no exemptions from human nature: We’ll get sick, we’ll get old, we’ll die, and we’ll make thousands of mistakes along the way.
If we need help with this insight, the practice of “just like me” can be very effective. When introduced, that exercise was to show how extending empathy to others could arouse compassion for them, but we can also practice the exercise with the reverse goal in mind—to awaken compassion for ourselves.
Seeing others act in less-than-perfect ways allows us to recall to ourselves that we, too, do not always act in an ideal manner. When something about another person annoys you, let that be a signal to be extremely mindful and look within.
We usually judge others for the very things we hate about ourselves. Try to turn those judgments of others around and make them an opportunity for extending compassion to yourself.
Revising our views on perfection may also help. If we understand perfection as the state of being flawless or immaculate, then our striving for these qualities is sure to cause us anguish, but perhaps we can think of perfection in a way that is different from our conditioned way.
IV. Buddhism and Perfectionism
The Buddhist-influenced aesthetic ideal known in Japan as Wabi-Sabi seeks to highlight the beautiful aspects of impermanence, incompleteness, and defectiveness. Wabi-sabi values things that are rustic, asymmetrical, irregular, simple, and understated.
Objects that are worn or in the process of decay are appreciated both for their beauty as well as the spiritual truth they express about the transience and unfinished nature of life. Many of the classical art forms of Japan reflect this aesthetic sensibility—practices such as raku pottery, ikebana flower arranging, and haiku poetry.
Wabi-sabi invites us to look at life through a lens different from the one offered by perfectionism. The Wabi-Sabi view of life encourages you to feel more at home in the world, a world where all things, including yourself, could be regarded as aesthetically pleasing just for being what they are—subject to change, incomplete, and less than ideal.
To help ease your perfectionism, consider surrounding yourself with a few items that embody the Wabi-Sabi aesthetic to remind yourself that so-called flaws and defects can enhance the beauty of an object. These need not be pieces of art specifically designed as expressions of Wabi-Sabi.
Rather, just take the time to look deliberately for objects that are conventionally flawed and yet bespeak the beauty of the flawed world in which we live.
In addition, try to embody the Wabi-Sabi ideal in what you do. Perhaps there is some activity you’ve wanted to pursue, but you’ve been hesitant for fear of not being able to do it right. Do it anyway.
Give up your attachment to success and failure and, instead, focus on the pure joy of what you are doing. If you’re a perfectionist, you should find at least one thing in your life about which you can relax your need to succeed.
We can accept our common lot with humanity, and we can try to rethink our understanding of perfection, but the greatest challenge may be embracing our perfectionism. Trying to eliminate perfectionism is likely to prove counterproductive. There is a massive paradox: Wanting to get rid of perfectionism, if you think about it, is just another form of perfectionism.
Rather than responding with belligerence to the voice that’s constantly criticizing and blaming you, why not try getting to know it better? Let it speak. It will probably do so whether you want to hear it or not.
Your inner critic is just a voice. You don’t have to believe it. You don’t have to do what it says. The critical voice of our perfectionism only causes us to suffer when we give it more authority than it deserves.
Our practice of mindfulness teaches us to allow thoughts to rise and fall on their own—like all impermanent reality. The thought that tells us we must be perfect is just thought like any other.
Because trying to silence the critical voice hasn’t worked, try to welcome perfectionism as a friend. Treat it with courtesy. Show it some compassion. Appreciate what it’s trying to do for you.
V. Things to Consider:
- Reflect on your reasons for participating in this course. Are you striving for something? What are you expecting? In what ways may strive for self-improvement thwart the objectives of mindfulness?
- Consider something that you feel is a flaw in yourself. What will it take for you to come to regard that quality as an asset rather than as a liability?