By Dr. Ben Epstein
"Learning to give up on perfection may be just about the most romantic move any of us could make." - Alain de Botton
One of my favorite books from childhood is a book titled The Missing Piece. In it, the author, Shel Silverstein, brilliantly describes an almost whole circle that seeks a “missing piece” to complete it. The author brilliantly depicts a Pacman-esque figure searching for love and purpose. Known primarily as a children’s book, it is filled with many profound morals and lessons for life. The story can be described as a commentary on how, more often than not, we don’t know what is best for us, and on the futility of searching for the ideal anything. But I think the simplest (and probably most important) message of this childhood classic is that the search for completion is often flawed. The demand to be always searching, looking, seeking for something “other” to complete us is fundamentally flawed. That is because things, even when they are “incomplete,” are also perfect in their own way. But while perfection is not something that can ever be completely reached, there is a possibility of achieving wholeness for all of our missing pieces.
Very often, even without realizing, our lives are spent searching for the perfect — fill in the blank. The perfect partner, job and home are all objects through which we seek to find perfection. In our youth, if we fail to find the perfect job or soul mate we were quick to turn elsewhere to fulfill our need. However, as we mature many of us begin to recognize and espouse the notion that nothing in this world is perfect. Perfection, for this reason, is impossible.
And, while this concept is easy to digest in life’s “grand scheme,” we tend to have more difficulty it to our lives. It would be quite simple to demonstrate that the search for perfection is often futile and rarely yields positive results. And yet I’ve found with my own life and in my clinical practice the area where we cling to this insidious notion most strongly, is in our expectations of ourselves. I don’t need to go into detail about how damaging this mindset can be. I have seen firsthand how the relentless drive to perfection can only lead to frustration and disappointment. I imagine this futile endeavor resonates with a few of you as well.
In contrast to some religious ideologies that preach an upward progressive spiritual path seeking perfection, Carl Jung suggests a paradigm shift to one of wholeness. Rather than disavow the parts of ourselves that we find unworthy and shameful, we instead turn around and embrace our lives as they are. Messy, chaotic, far from perfect, yet still filled with wonder and awe. This subtle shift from perfection to wholeness enables one who may have been paralyzed by fear of failure and perfectionistic tendencies to fully embrace the full range of emotions and situations which abounds in the “full catastrophe” of life is. Tara Brach one of the leading western teachers of Buddhist meditation and psychology (and one of my HERE-O’s) writes that “By cultivating an unconditional and accepting presence, we are no longer battling against ourselves, keeping our wild and imperfect self in a cage of judgment and mistrust. Instead, we are discovering the freedom of becoming authentic and fully alive.”
This synergy of accepting things as they are, and more importantly accepting ourselves (warts and all) is critical to the development of healthy self-esteem. By denying parts of ourselves that are “less than perfect” we are also undercutting our basic human worth. If we feel we have to constantly be on guard from failure or disappointing others, we will never be able to have the psychological freedom to exist. (And we all have the right to exist!) Life and its concurrent challenges become cumbersome and laborious. By learning to accept and embrace all parts of ourselves unconditionally, then ipso facto your inherent worthiness shines forth.
This simple yet radical shift from perfection to wholeness enables life to be taken one moment at a time with you as an active participant in the unfolding nature of all things. No longer are you solely focused on attaining the goal as the means of getting there are equally as important. I am looking forward to the journey together.