Perfectionism is the belief in the ability to achieve perfection or strive to appear perfect. Most people are burdened by the desire to be perfect, which ironically leads to unhappiness. In her essay, writer and researcher Brené Brown contrasts perfectionism with healthy behaviour. She says Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief that we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement, and shame. According to her, many people hide behind perfectionism to protect themselves from stigma, judgment, and blame.
Is striving for perfection a virtue or a vice?
Any work done by a perfectionist can achieve perfection, however, is being a perfectionist a good thing or a bad thing? Many argue that it is a good thing. What can be wrong with holding yourself and others to the highest standards? But many oppose this belief and say that sometimes a perfectionist sets their standards so high that it becomes impossible to meet them. This leads us to some questions - what amount of perfectionism is good? And how much perfectionism can lead to disaster?
The good and the bad perfectionism
Research says there are two types of perfectionism - good and bad. It depends on the person. If someone creates a standard so high that no one can match it, which leads to failure, it is bad perfectionism. Research also says that this type of perfectionism can cause serious health issues like depression, anxiety, etc.
Good perfectionism is not as scary and entails creating high personal standards and energetically pursuing those goals. This way of working can bring in a sense of achievement, and when appropriately used, perfectionist tendencies can be beneficial.
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In this edition of Conversations with Rakesh, Rakesh Godhwani discusses the challenges of perfectionism - how even small, innocuous mistakes can be heartbreaking, and we have to encourage both the imperfections and perfections that may result from our efforts. It is important to accept and celebrate your mistakes and their scars. A person who gives their best and still revels in their mistakes is likely to enjoy their success more.
Following is the edited transcript:
I’m a PhD scholar and want everything to be perfect. If I make even a tiny mistake that is not even noticeable to anyone else, I feel bad. I sulk and torment myself for a few days. Is being a perfectionist wrong?
I must tell you a nice story I heard about how God created humans. We have devatas in Hindu mythology, and each of them is responsible for something, like managing the earth, food, air, so on. On the other hand, the asuras and the monsters are the opposite. They are imperfect and do bizarre and dreadful things. So, God, apparently decided to make a balanced version of the two, and thus, humans were created.
I love this story because it tells us that we are not perfect; we are a combination of perfection and imperfection. This concept of perfectionism and imperfections is present in almost every culture.
Perfectionism in different cultures
Look at the Japanese, for example. One part of Japanese art and culture is perfectionism. Their gardens, art, food, everything is so beautiful and perfect. But at the same time, they celebrate imperfections as well. For instance, there is an art of pottery called kintsukuroi in Japan.
When pottery made of clay and ceramic breaks, it is stuck together with liquefied gold and silver. It is believed that the broken object has withstood the test of time and has healed itself.
In Irish culture, there is a fantastic story of a royal person dying and going to heaven, and at the gates of heaven, Saint Peter says if you want to enter, show me your scars. This person who has lived a life of luxury and has never done anything has nothing to show. So, Saint Peter says, “No scars? There was no battle worth fighting? You didn’t do anything?”.
Both these stories exemplify the need to embrace our imperfections, our struggles, our scars. When you are on earth, there are so many problems to solve, and that will take time and effort. You will get hurt. Your hands will get calloused, your body will have scars, you will fight battles.
We become who we are because of our experiences. Unfortunately, those experiences are not always good. We have various bad experiences in relationships, academia, career, life, and money. It is imperative to acknowledge and celebrate those as well.
Embrace the imperfection
A few weeks ago, I made a presentation in front of my clients, and it was a disaster! I can’t tell you what a terrible presentation it was; I even blogged on it. That is how I deal with my torment, I write. That’s my coping mechanism. When I write, I feel liberated and once it is out, I feel calmer.
Similarly, I failed my PhD in my first attempt and wrote an extensive blog. I encourage you to realise that you are a PhD student, you will go through many days where things will not be perfect. You will go through a tormenting process. It’s okay. Let those emotions be there. Make sure that you are aware of those emotions, understand what triggered them, and then work on bettering the situation.
See if you can then start coming out of it and find your coping mechanism. The coping mechanism is about doing certain things that help you deal with the distress you are going through. It may be working out in the gym, going for long walks, or watching a movie. And, then, for some, it is punishing ourselves, but please remember that you will become mentally stressed when you torment yourself a lot more. This will impact your self-confidence and self-esteem as well.
The choice is yours. Be a perfectionist because your work will need that kind of perfection. For example, you are a PhD scholar researching the pharma industry, and you want to find the solution to COVID 19. You can’t make too many mistakes, but remember, it’s not just you who is working on it; there’s an army of other scientists. There are processes. Take help of all of them. Don’t take up everything on your own.
So here are my suggestions for you.
What you can do
Firstly, please don’t hold yourself accountable to solve all the world’s problems. Give your best and leave it at that. Secondly, it is normal to fail and torment yourself, but the question is, for how long? And, is it worth doing?
You are spoiling your mental health, and you end up feeling guilty. All those emotions will eat into your self-confidence and self-esteem, which can push you further down into a vicious cycle of depression and anxiety.
And last but not least, once you’re aware of your triggers and emotions, learn to have a coping mechanism. A coping mechanism is nothing but finite activities that give you hope and let you come out of the challenging situation you find yourself in. If it gets too much, seek help from a friend, counsellor, or family member.
You will have a great career if you liberate yourself from being a perfectionist. Instead, be a person who tries their best and still revels in their mistakes.
Written by Sarah Monis
Edited by Shadiya Zubair
-Interns and resident wordsmiths