A child comes home with an assignment for which the teacher has given a mark of 90 per cent and shows it proudly to the parents. They respond by asking “What happened to the other 10 per cent”?
The parents think they are being funny but if this is their usual approach they are in danger of inflicting on their child the curse of perfectionism.
Perfectionism blights so many lives that I wish we could counterattack by having an annual Festival of Imperfection.
Perfectionism robs people of pleasure in their own successes. They’ll always find that extra mile they could have gone so that’s what they focus on.
Many of us put off ever starting on projects because we can’t guarantee that they will be a success. Or we put off finishing them for the same reason.
I was thinking recently of people it has given me pleasure to know and it struck me that it’s often their imperfections and departures from the norm that make them memorable. A person might have a talent for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time and yet be remembered with more affection than someone who always says the right thing at the right time.
People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have and looking for it where they will never find it
Psychologists such as Aaron Beck, Albert Ellis, and Carl Rogers, have all warned of the dangers of perfectionism. Aaron Beck saw "all or nothing" thinking as an unhelpful habit – this is the attitude that if one thing is wrong, everything is wrong.
Albert Ellis would have said that having a preference for perfection is okay but insisting on it is simply crazy.
And Carl Rogers believed the gap between how we are and how we think we ought to be was a source of unhappiness.
Demanding that other people be perfect can make you a pain in the neck. Demanding that you yourself be perfect can make you miserable.
You’re never going to be the perfect father, son, partner, mother, daughter. Who could live with you if you were?
Since Marie Kondo has millions adopting a Japanese mindset and throwing things out that don't spark joy, allow me to add some Eastern authority to my views by invoking the Japanese philosophy of Wabi Sabi.
Greatness of man
Wabi Sabi refers to valuing what is not perfect and seeing a sort of beauty in imperfection. Often the imperfection comes about through the passage of time and the wear and tear that affects things and, indeed, people.
It includes an appreciation of incompleteness and Japanese paintings sometimes have an incomplete look to them. Or a wooden artefact might be left unvarnished.
It doesn’t place a high value on the pursuit of perfection.
In her book Wabi Sabi, the art of everyday life – a collection of quotes – Diane Durston has this quote from Edith Schaeffer: "People throw away what they could have by insisting on perfection, which they cannot have, and looking for it where they will never find it".
What she describes is a formula for dissatisfaction given that we live in a world of imperfection. Durston also quotes Ernst Fischer who wrote: "As machines become more and more efficient and perfect, so it will become clear that imperfection is the greatness of man."
Neither of these quotes is from a Japanese writer which is an excellent example of imperfection in action. Edith Schaeffer was a Swiss Christian writer and Ernst Fischer was an Austrian writer and politician.
People who are perfectionists could try a little exposure therapy. In other words, deliberately do something imperfectly every day and learn to tolerate the feelings that come with it. It might be best not to do this if you are engaged in landing a plane or in brain surgery at that moment.
But learning to tolerate imperfection could open up all sorts of new possibilities in one’s life including reducing tensions in relationships because all relationships are with imperfect people.
The first imperfect person you need to learn to tolerate is yourself. Take a look in the mirror and try to like the imperfect human being who’s looking out at you.
- Padraig O'Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).