Perfection Paralysis

I am sitting in a café with a dauntingly blank Word page ahead of me when I notice the man at my left photoshopping an image of a female. The photo is zoomed in at the right corner; she is topless, but her breast is covered by her arm. With precise strokes from an electronic pen, he begins smoothing and brightening the skin around her knuckles. I glance up at his face, causing him to move his head towards me and take his headphones off. After we chat for a minute, I ask him how much work he put into retouching the image. He laughs, zooms out so that I can see the entire photograph, and shows me how he corrected her bare stomach, the noticeable eyeshadow line around her eyelid crease, and her darkened knuckles, making her skin line-and-blemish free. I am amazed, but my amazement is filled with a grim awareness. Even a child before puberty wouldn’t have such flawless skin, yet this level of perfection is a beauty standard many of us believe we must meet, however subconsciously, even if we understand its unattainable nature.

This post will not focus on issues with appearance. It will address something much deeper: our obsession with perfection and the time we misuse attempting to achieve such an impossible aim. In the case above, the photographer will spend an absurd amount of hours improving upon the appearance of the woman in the photograph, time that could be spent on more essential matters. But this photograph will do more than negatively impact the photographer’s use of time. It will also affect the manner in which those who view the image use their time. Such a perfectly retouched image will incite others to expect a certain level of physical perfection in themselves and- to a lesser extent- in others. Individuals who want (or feel pressured) to emulate these flawless photographs will spend hundreds of dollars and hours shopping for and learning to apply wrinkle cream, toners, moisturizers, tanning creams, whitening creams, under eye serum, make-up, and so on. Furthermore, in order to have the purchasing power necessary to buy these products, they will often have to work long monotonous hours in stressful jobs that will negatively impact their aging, counteract the benefits of these products, and draw them into a cyclical reliance with these beautifying ointments and creams. And, despite all of this, they will inevitably fail to recreate the perfection of the professionally photoshopped photo they were influenced by.

Our issues with perfection go beyond the time we waste on maintaining youth and beauty. It even goes beyond the time we waste in our attempt to create the best work or the perfect life. Perfectionism squanders time due to the daunting and overwhelming demands it establishes. It makes us meticulous, conscientious, and obsessive over minute details at the expense of grand reasoning. Moreover, it makes us set unreasonable standards, and society both expects and encourages this from us. We must be an exceptional parent. We must be an exceptional partner. We must be an exceptional friend. We must be an exceptional worker. We must be mentally sane. We must be reliable. We must be clean. We must be dutiful. We must be punctual. We must have goals. We must have a purpose that is meaningful not only to ourselves but to others. And, as we struggle to achieve all this (and more) we must also cultivate (and maintain) a zen attitude towards life.

If this seems impossible to you, that’s because it is. There isn’t enough time in a day to devote to excelling in all these areas of life, especially at a young age. The majority of us will find ourselves picking a few areas to work at (career, family, recognition, creative projects, health, beauty) or be average at most of them.[i] And even for the exceptional and lucky, the idea of the perfect life is still unreachable, as the perception of a perfect person, especially in regards to personality, is often inconsistent. In fact, if we listen to what others attempt to push on us, the advice we are told is often contradictory. We should be conventional, but also unique. We should follow guidelines, but also think outside the box. We should be careful, but also daring. We should be compassionate, but also firm. We should pragmatic, but also idealistic. And so on and so forth. If we assume (and many of us do) that this common perception of perfection means being many different things at once, it naturally follows that the majority of us will feel that we have failed; and in this perceived failure we will fell unconfident, unsuccessful, unstable, and- sadly- unworthy of love and affection. And herein lies a root cause of our mental anxiety.

Ironically, the truest form of perfection can only come when one loses their perfectionist perception. Instead of striving to be the best friend, the most desirable lover, the most compassionate, the most reliable, the most successful, the most rational, and so forth, we should strive to be cognizant of both our outer and inner worlds and use this cognizance to act in a fitting manner for ourselves and the environment around us. Then, with experience, we can have a clearer understanding of when convention or innovation, kindness or firmness, prudence or courage, and so on, are befitting, and thus act in an appropriate and satisfactory manner in the majority of our encounters. This malleable way of perceiving perfection (and the world) will allow us to be- and seem- more perfect than if we were to follow such a rigid ideal of perfection (and the world).

[i] When you look at it in this manner, it makes sense that the elderly and/or the perceived average of a population tend to be the most balanced and content.

Don’t let perfection keep you from designing your life.

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